Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Black Orchids: Rex Stout

In addition to the over 30 full length novels in the Nero Wolfe series, Rex Stout wrote 41 novellas about the private detective and his assistant, Archie Goodwin. I believe each novella was published first in a magazine, and all were later released in book format, each book containing two, three or four novellas.

The Bantam Crime Line edition (1992) of Black Orchids has an introduction by Lawrence Block. He has this to say about rereading the Nero Wolfe books, and he is describing me perfectly.
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).

"Black Orchids"

This novella was originally published as “Death Wears an Orchid.” It is one of the stories that takes Wolfe outside of his brownstone, although only briefly to a flower show nearby, and it focuses on one of Wolfe's prime interests in life, orchids.

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.

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Publisher:  Pyramid Books, 1963. Orig. pub. 1942.
Length:     190 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Nero Wolfe, #9
Setting:     New York
Genre:       Mystery
Source:     I purchased my copies.

In addition to being a contribution to the Tuesday Night Bloggers posts for Rex Stout this month, this post is also submitted for the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt in the "Spider or Spiderweb" category. Although I have no idea what connection the illustration of a window with a spiderweb has with these stories.


17 comments:

  1. I like that quote at the beginning - after reading some of the Wolfe books, and also looking at non-series Stout, I think it is most definitely Wolfe and Goodwin who are the draw. What a great pair they are...

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    1. I agree, of course, Moira. Rex Stout did such a good job creating those characters. Some of the introductions to the Bantam Crime Line editions are just wonderful. Jane Haddam's intro on one of the other books made up of novellas (And Four to Go) is also very good.

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  2. Hmm....maybe this year I'll break my duck and you'll have me reading one!

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    1. I love that phrase, Col. I hope that when you do read one, you enjoy at least parts of it.

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  3. Nice choice, Tracy. I think one of the things that I've always liked best about this series is the interplay between Wolfe and Goodwin. The mysteries are usually good. But really, it's that relationship that carries it all off.

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    1. I totally agree, Margot. I have been reading other novellas recently and that is always the part that stands out.

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  4. Tracy, I'm yet again making a note of Rex Stout for reading this year, and I'm going to get there.

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    1. I hope so, Prashant. I will keep reminding you occasionally. I will be rereading a few more of them this year.

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  5. It is the Goodwin/Wolfe relationship, particularly, the repartee that makes Stout's series so entertaining.

    Yes, and I must overlook Wolfe's disdain for women and Goodwin's womanizing leers. I can do it, although some women mystery-reading friends can't ignore the sexism and won't read the books.

    I think because I began reading the books while a teenager, before the women's movement enlightened all of us, that I didn't notice this aspect of the books. So when I began to read more of the series about five years ago, I just laughed at their behavior, although I understand why some women won't read the books.

    Sometimes I grimace, but then I laugh at the next paragraph.

    On the racism in a few books, particularly, "Too Many Cooks," I'm surprised at Goodwin's ugly slurs, but Wolfe doesn't repeat them.

    And when I knew that Lena Horne was a friend of Stout's and wrote the introduction to "Champagne for One," that I realized the writer was more complex and probably was a good guy. I take Lena Horne's word for it here.

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    1. I think it was the same for me, Kathy. I first read the books in my teens at a time when the behavior did not seem that strange. It wasn't until I was in my forties and noticed Archie's complete dismissal of any woman over 40 that I began to get irritated. And that could have just been Archie because in the Alphabet Hicks book there are clearly different attitudes.

      I remember reading an introduction to one of the Wolfe books by Lena Horne and she talked about their friendship.

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  6. I have to admit this isn't one of my favorites in he Wolfe/Goodwin canon, but certainly not the weakest. I think the novella length suits Stout's Wolfe tales better than full novel length.

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    1. I enjoy both of the stories in Black Orchids, Richard, but truthfully, neither is as fun to read as the first time. I have very fond memories of these stories when I first discovered them.

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  7. As Kasper Gutman might have said about the duo, "By gad they are characters!" Be fun to dine with them--so long as Fritz does the cooking, of course.

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    1. It would, Mathew, but I would be there for the food. I am not smart enough to hold an interesting conversation with Wolfe.

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    2. Oh, hell, me neither. Anything I might say would most likely garner a "pfui" from the great man.

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    3. I don't believe you, Mathew, you can write well, which means you can form thoughts well, and you are way better informed than I am.

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    4. Thanks for the kind words, Tracy, but it takes me forever to write anything clearly (even this), and I'm afraid while I was trying to compose my thoughts to utter something aloud, I'd hear either a polite grunt from Mr. Wolfe or, depending perhaps on his digestion at the moment, at outright, unmitigated, mortifying "pfui!"

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