Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Trouble in Triplicate: Rex Stout

Trouble in Triplicate (1949) collected three of Rex Stout's novellas featuring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. This book is my submission for Past Offences' monthly Crimes of the Century.

Although some readers find the novellas lacking compared to the full-length novels, I thought all three of these novellas were strong in plot and full of interesting characters. Each has some relationship to World War II, although only one of them takes place before the war ends. They were first published in The American Magazine: "Help Wanted, Male" in the August 1945 issue;  "Instead of Evidence" in the May 1946 issue, as "Murder on Tuesday"; and "Before I Die" was published in the April 1947 issue.

"Help Wanted, Male" is set in 1944; Archie is a Major in the Army but is in Military Intelligence, working with Wolfe, out of uniform. This is a sequel of sorts to an earlier novella, "Booby Trap," in which industrial secrets are being stolen. A participant in the earlier story, Ben Jensen, has received a threatening note and wants to hire Wolfe's brains, not his brawn, to protect him. I enjoyed this story, but overall the plot is implausible. Still it has so many bits I love, including Archie going to Washington to try to talk a general into sending him overseas to get directly involved in the war.

"Before I Die" deals obliquely with the meat shortage in the US after the war. At this point, with the war over, Wolfe is getting very fed up with the lack of meat. He is so desperate he agrees to do a job for a gangster who has links to the black market.  The gangster has a daughter he wants to protect from his enemies, and has hired another woman to pretend to be his daughter. The fake daughter is blackmailing him for huge sums. The plot is complicated but the characters are (mostly) charming.

Of the three novellas, "Instead of Evidence" is my least favorite. The story involves a couple who visit Wolfe. The husband, Eugene Poor, is sure that his business partner, Conroy Blaney, is going to murder him and gives Wolfe $5000 to prove that Blaney is guilty when Poor dies. The wife protests, and Wolfe agrees that it is a silly proposition. Naturally the man does die and Wolfe has to work to earn the money.

The resolution is clever although seasoned readers of crime fiction would suspect the truth early on. The story is known for Wolfe's use of the word "abditory" which means a hiding place. The business that the two partners own produces novelties and inventions are secreted all over the office in numerous abditories.

Rex Stout wrote 33 novels and 41 novellas about the private detective Nero Wolfe and his assistant, Archie Goodwin. The novellas are published in 14 books; each book has two, three or four novellas. Trouble in Triplicate was the third book to collect novellas. Many of the books that had collected novellas had three novellas and "three" in the title, e.g., Three Doors to Death and Curtains for Three.


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Publisher: Bantam, 1993 (first published January 1, 1949).
Length:    223 pages
Format:    Paperback
Series:     Nero Wolfe
Setting:    New York City
Genre:      Mystery

20 comments:

  1. Glad you enjoyed it Tracy. When I do get to Stout/Wolfe it probably won't be this one....unless the first one hooks me totally!

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    1. I doubt if a Nero Wolfe book will ever hook you totally, Col, but you may find them enjoyable now and then.

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  2. I think Stout made such effective use of the novella format, Tracy. Some of his are, in my opinion, quite excellent. Glad you liked this set.

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    1. I am finding the novellas more enjoyable than I remember from my earlier readings, Margot. This set has some of my favorites.

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  3. What Col says! I am going to start looking into Nero Wolfe sometime, honest....

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    1. I will be interested in what you think of the Nero Wolfe books, Moira. They could be your cup of tea or not. And it may depend on what time period you start from. Although Nero and Archie did not age, the books move along with the times, up to 1976, so reflect different social behaviors, etc.

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  4. Love these novella collections - time to dip in again - thanks TracyK.

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    1. I have reminded myself how enjoyable these are, Sergio. And such easy reads. Going to be including more of them.

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  5. The novellas definitely varied in quality.

    My favorite of the full-length novels (and favorite Wolfe story, period) is IN THE BEST FAMILIES, but it's absolutely *not* the one to read if you haven't read previous entries in the series because it entails a radical departure on Wolfe's part, about which I'll say no more. (It's also the third in what amounts to a trilogy of sorts, following AND BE A VILLAIN and THE SECOND CONFESSION.)

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    1. I guess I have been lucky in my latest novella reads, Barry. And, of course, it matters what you are looking for in a story. The Zeck trilogy is one of my favorite parts of the Nero Wolfe series. I do like IN THE BEST FAMILIES a lot, and it is a lot different from any of the other books.

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  6. I liked these three novellas, Tracy - but I didn't love them. Still, any Wolfe and Archie is better than no Wolfe and Archie.

    My favorite Wolfe book (novel) is MIGHT AS WELL BE DEAD. I never seem to get tired of re-reading that one. Though I do an awful lot of Wolfe rereading on the whole.

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    1. Yvette, I had to go remind myself which one that was, and it is a very good one. FER DE LANCE is top of my list, but THE SILENT SPEAKER is a close runner up.

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  7. I can only say that Rex Stout is on my list! I know he's a big favorite for you.

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    1. I do hope you try him some day, Keishon, just for the experience. He is a big favorite here, comfort reading for me.

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  8. If you'll pardon the pun, I "wolfed" these down as a youngster - went through a Nero Wolfe phase for a bit and read every one our small local public library had. I think novella-length fiction is definitely making a comeback, something Stout would approve, no doubt.

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    1. BV, I think I first read Stout in my early teens (or preteens) and then I remember my grandmother giving me a bunch of Nero Wolfe paperbacks when I was around twenty. Then I had a project to read (and have my own copies of) all the Nero Wolfe mysteries in order in my thirties or forties.

      You are right, I have noticed novella length works coming back and I need to try some of them.

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  9. TracyK: I have tried to figure out why I enjoy the Wolfe novellas when I am not usually fond of them. I think it is because Stout wrote mysteries of a length that were suited to the plot. He did not force a short story or a novella into a book. Might write a post on the subject some day.

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    1. I would enjoy a post on that subject, Bill, so I hope you do that. In some of the novellas, I find that the relationship between Archie and Wolfe is highlighted, and I enjoy that.

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  10. I've always enjoyed Wolfe in whatever form he's come--including the novellas. I haven't had a chance to read any of these yet

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    1. Even though I have read all of the books about Wolfe multiple times, I think I have returned to the novellas less frequently, so they feel newer when I read them.

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