I know several men and women who are forever rereading the Nero Wolfe canon. They read other things as well, of course, but every month or two they have another go at one of Stout’s novels. Since there are forty books, it takes them four or five years to get through the cycle, at which time they can start in again at the beginning.
They do this not for the plots, which are serviceable, nor for the suspense, which is a good deal short of hair-trigger even on first reading. Nor, I shouldn’t think, are they hoping for fresh insight into the human condition. No, those of us who reread Rex Stout do so for the pure joy of spending a few hours in the most congenial household in American letters, and in the always engaging company of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.
Black Orchids collects two novellas, "Black Orchids" and "Cordially Invited to Meet Death." Both appeared in The American Magazine before being published in book format. These two stories are longer than most of Stout's novellas. In the Bantam Crime Line edition, "Black Orchids" is 100 pages long, and "Cordially Invited to Meet Death" is 90 pages. Most of the other Stout novellas are 50-60 pages.
In the book format, the two stories have an introduction by Archie Goodwin speculating on the link between the two stories... the black orchids. Although such introductions are rare in the series, it serves to let us know that Archie is chronicling Wolfe's cases, just as George Bagby was chronicling Inspector Schmidt's cases in that series (by George Bagby, who is both the author and the character).
Wolfe is obsessed with a black orchid that has been bred by Lewis Hewitt. He has sent Archie out to a flower show to observe the black orchids on exhibit there, and Archie has amused himself by watching a staged exhibit of various plants around a pond with a beautiful young lady sitting by the pond. Wolfe finally determines he has to see the orchids himself, and while he is there, the other participant in the exhibit is murdered. After having to endure some questioning by the police, Wolfe and Archie are allowed to go home. Later, they endeavor to determine who the culprit is.
I will admit that Archie irritated me in this one with his obsession with Anne Tyler (the lady in the exhibit), just because of her shapely legs and other parts of her anatomy. The other woman in this story, Rose Lasher, is an example of the hard-boiled elements in the Nero Wolfe stories, an immoral woman (judged by the times in which this was written) whose main goal is to hide her behavior from her family.
Even with the outdated (I hope) attitudes toward women, I enjoyed this novella quite a bit and it is one of my favorites. Archie teases Wolfe with his infatuation with Anne. The plot is quite complex for such a short piece. And Inspector Cramer shows up, one of my favorite secondary characters in the series.
"Cordially Invited to Meet Death"
The second story in this book starts out as an investigation into poison pen letters sent to a well-known party planner, Beth Huddleston. Wolfe stays at home while Archie investigates. In the middle of the investigation, the client dies, so the case is dropped. Wolfe does not work when he isn't going to get paid. Of course, eventually Wolfe does get involved in the investigation of Huddleston's death.
This one feels more like one of the full length novels to me. Archie spends a lot of time on the investigation by himself, and we see more of his interaction with various characters. At Huddleston's residence, a large estate up in Riverdale, NY, a chimpanzee and some alligators roam the grounds unguarded. Some of the suspects are offbeat, especially her brother, a chemist who can't keep a job.
A unique aspect here is Wolfe's interaction with one of the female characters who offers to help with the cooking. Wolfe is so eager to find a solution to the mystery of making corn beef hash that he allows her into the kitchen, which antagonizes Archie no end.
"... corned beef hash is one of my specialties. Nothing in there but meat, is there?”
“As you see,” Wolfe grunted.
“It’s ground too fine,” Maryella asserted.
Wolfe scowled at her. I could see he was torn with conflicting emotions. A female in his kitchen was an outrage. A woman criticizing his or Fritz's cooking was an insult. But corned beef hash was one of life's toughest problems, never yet solved by anyone. To tone down the corned flavor and yet preserve its unique quality, to remove the curse of its dryness without making it greasy—the theories and experiments had gone on for years. He scowled at her but he didn't order her out.Wolfe is very interested in food and cooking. The tidbits about cooking in these stories are fascinating.
Publisher: Pyramid Books, 1963. Orig. pub. 1942.
Length: 190 pages
Series: Nero Wolfe, #9
Setting: New York
Source: I purchased my copies.