Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Tuesday Night Bloggers: The Nero Wolfe Novellas

The Tuesday Night Bloggers is a group of crime fiction fans who choose an author every month to blog about. This month the author is Rex Stout. I am participating because I am a big fan of Rex Stout, especially his Nero Wolfe series. In this post, I continue to focus on the novellas in the Nero Wolfe series, in general and specifically. Until I started rereading the books consisting of Nero Wolfe novellas recently, I was of the opinion that Stout's novellas were inferior to the novels. Yet, as I reread them, I have found that they have their own unique characteristics that I like.

A Nero Wolfe novel has the advantage of more time to work through a plot and more time to spend with Wolfe and Archie. But sometimes the investigations bog down in the middle in the novels. Wolfe gets frustrated or disgusted with his clients and just stops working for a while, which in turn irritates Archie to no end. For one thing, he has to deal with the criticisms and hostility from his clients or the police.

The novellas are more like a short story with extra time for the interplay between Archie and Wolfe. There is often one focus in the story and a specific element of the pair's relationship is developed. As in "Christmas Party" (which I reviewed here), where Wolfe is fearful that Archie is going to get married and (a) leave his employee or (b) move a woman into their household.

For this post, I reread Three Doors to Death, published in 1950. That book contains three novellas: "Man Alive" (1947, 70 pages); "Omit Flowers" (1948, 70 pages); and "Door to Death" (1949, 55 pages). I remember all of them fondly, but in all cases I did not remember who did it, so they were especially fun reads.

The very first page in the paperback edition I read (Bantam, 1970) had this description:
THE FIRST DOOR led into a greenhouse teeming with exotic flowers.  
THE SECOND DOOR opened into the chic world of models and high fashion.  
THE THIRD DOOR led into the plush, gilt recesses of a staid New York mansion.  
BUT ALL THREE DOORS LED TO DEATH!
"Man Alive" 

Cynthia Nieder of Daumery and Nieder (clothing designer and manufacturer) approaches Wolfe to find her uncle. It was believed that he had committed suicide by jumping into a geyser at Yellowstone Park, but there were no witnesses. Then she sees him in disguise at a fashion show.

This one was fun because it was set in the fashion world and we get a peek at the egos and obsessions of those involved in that business. There are numerous wonderful quotes, but my favorite is Archie's comments on the new car Wolfe has just purchased. Not only does it tell us about Wolfe's antipathy to leaving his home, but it describes the functions of some of the denizens of the brownstone.
I felt like indulging him because he had just bought a new Cadillac sedan, which meant that I, Archie Goodwin, had a new car, because, of the four men who lived in Nero Wolfe's house, an old brownstone on West 35th Street not far from the river, I was the only one who drove. Wolfe himself, who suspected all machinery with moving parts of being in a plot to get him, rarely left the house for any reason whatever, and never - well, hardly ever - on business. He stayed in his office, on the ground floor of the house, and used his brain if and when I could pester him into it. Fritz Brenner, chef and supervisor of household comforts, knew how to drive but pretended he didn't, and had no license. Theodore Horstmann, curator of the orchids in the plant rooms on the roof, thought walking was good for people and was still, at his age, trying to prove it. 
That left me. In addition to being chief assistant detective, bookkeeper and stenographer, the flea in the elephant's ear, and balance wheel, I was also chauffeur and errand boy. Therefore the new car was, in effect, mine, and I thought I ought to show my appreciation by letting him call me a tomcat at least once.

"Omit Flowers"

This story is memorable for its portrayal of the friendship of Marko Vukcic and Wolfe. Marko is first introduced in Too Many Cooks and he and Wolfe have a long history together.  Also, I like the focus on food and cooking, which are both very important to Wolfe. Archie introduces the story this way:
      He might or might not have taken it on merely as a favor to his old friend Marko Vukcic, who was one of the only three people who called him by his first name, but there were other factors. Rusterman’s Restaurant was the one place besides home where Wolfe really enjoyed eating, and Marko owned it and ran it, and he put the bee on Wolfe in one of the small private rooms at Rusterman’s as the cheese cart was being wheeled in to us at the end of a specially designed dinner. Furthermore, the man in trouble had at one time been a cook. 
      “I admit,” Marko said, reaching to give me another hunk of Cremona Gorgonzola, “that he forfeited all claim to professional respect many years ago. But in my youth I worked under him at Mondor’s in Paris, and at the age of thirty he was the best sauce man in France. He had genius, and he had a generous heart. I owe him much. I would choke on this cheese if I sat on my hands while he gets convicted of a murder he did not commit.” 
The person who is accused of murder is Virgil Pompa, who has "forfeited all claim to professional respect" by working for a chain of restaurants instead of staying in the field of high cuisine. The story is very clever although I think the culprit is evident early on.

"Door to Death"

This one was published separately not only in American Magazine but in a Dell Ten Cent book, with a lovely cover illustration of Wolfe tramping in the snow with Archie following behind. The cover artist is Robert C. Stanley. Per Wikipedia:
As a realist artist, together with Gerald Gregg, he was one of the most two prolific paperback book cover artists employed by the Dell Publishing Company for whom Stanley worked from 1950 to 1959.
This is one of the stories in which Wolfe leaves his home and in this case, he ends up tramping through the snowy grounds of a large estate to pursue a temporary replacement for Theodore Horstmann, who tends Wolfe's orchids, another of Wolfe's special interests. When Wolfe arrives, he finds that the horticulturist he is pursuing, Andy Krasicki, had already decided to take the job, so his trip away from home was unnecessary.

Andy takes Wolfe through the greenhouse to show him a plant:
     It was quite a show, no question about that, but I was so used to Wolfe’s arrangement, practically all orchids, that it seemed pretty messy. When we proceeded to the warm room there was a sight I really enjoyed: Wolfe’s face as he gazed at the P. Aphrodite sanderiana with its nineteen sprays. The admiration and the envy together made his eyes gleam as I had seldom seen them. As for the flower, it was new to me, and it was something special — rose, brown, purple, and yellow. The rose suffused the petals, and the brown, purple, and yellow were on the labellum.
But shortly a body is discovered in the greenhouse, and soon Andy has been charged with murder. Wolfe has to prove him innocent so that he doesn't have to go home and do all the hard work of caring for the orchids himself.

From Eric W.'s review of Three Doors to Death at Goodreads, which is also included on the Wolfe Pack page for the book:
I suppose I could spend some time detailing the plots of these three novellas, but when it comes right down to it they are formulaic, but my, what a formula. I love Rex Stout, although the early novels are probably better than those toward the end of his life. Nevertheless, if you have never read any Nero Wolfe stories, you must. The characters are classic and the word interplay between them is wonderful. 
Stephen Harkleroad at Crank Crank Revolution noticed an interesting item that I did not catch when I was rereading these stories. All three of these stories at one point or another involve evidence manufactured by Wolfe. As he rightly points out, there is nothing wrong with this as a ploy, but repeated in three stories published together, it becomes trite. Except of course, that I did not notice it, but probably because I was reading not for the puzzle but the overall story and experience.

 -----------------------------

Publisher:  Bantam, 1970. Orig. pub. 1950.
Length:     181 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Nero Wolfe, #17
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 "Two People" category.


12 comments:

  1. I'm glad you highlighted the novellas, Tracy. It's not easy to write an effective novella, I think. There has to be a balance between the 'punch' of a short story and the buildup of suspense and character layers that you get in a novel. But Stout did novellas very, very well, in my opinion.

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    1. I agree, Margot. I am hoping to seek out novellas by other authors and try them out too.

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  2. You mentioned there was a fashion one, and that's definitely of interest to me. That cover illo for the 3rd one is startling. They look like Good King Wenceslas and his page...

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    1. The fashion story is fun, Moira, especially because of setting it in the world of fashion. As far as the covers, the cover you mention fits the story very well, which is often not the case for vintage covers. Even the top one fits an occurrence in another of the novellas. I didn't believe it but on rereading I found the scene where a young lady in a "blue summer negligee" is at the foot of Archie's bed.

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  3. Your enthusiasm is infectious.....almost!

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    1. Col... You might like any Archie / Wolfe story as a brief respite from your normal dark and gritty reading, but certainly not as a steady diet. And it would be vice versa for me.

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  4. I'm a big fan of the novellas - I think they contain mych of Stout's best work in fact. Great review Tracy (and belatedly, happy new year).

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    1. Happy new year to you, Sergio. The month of January is almost over, I cannot believe the time has gone by so fast.

      I am changing over to that opinion about the novellas, also.

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  5. As I mentioned to Richard a moment ago, Tracy, it's high time I revisited Wolfe and Archie. Miss those guys.

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    1. I agree, Mathew, revisiting the Wolfe books is a good idea. I have been reading and rereading them all my life and they feel like old friends.

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  6. Tracy, I thrive on short fiction, so a Rex Stout novella or two sounds like a good idea to me. I liked the Dell covers.

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    1. You are right, Prashant, the novellas are a perfect length for trying out Rex Stout. None of the Nero Wolfe books are long, but the novellas are like a longish short stories. In fact, in various places, people call the novelettes or short stories.

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