Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Over My Dead Body: Rex Stout

Over My Dead Body is the 7th book in the Nero Wolfe series, published in 1940 in book format. Nero Wolfe is a genius, a lover of orchids and fine food, who supports himself (and his household) as a private detective. Archie Goodwin, the narrator of the stories, is both his assistant and a private investigator, and he does most of the legwork. They live in a New York brownstone and share the house with Theodore, the plant expert, and Felix, Wolfe's cook.

Many (but not all) of the Nero Wolfe mysteries follow a formula, although the outcome is never predictable. The formula is this (in very simple terms): there is a new case which often starts with a lesser crime or problem: theft, or a missing person, or just a search for some information. A murder occurs. The case gets more complicated, Archie detects under the direction of Wolfe. Often the police get involved and resent Wolfe's interference. In the end, they are all called together in Wolfe's office and the culprit is revealed.

Over My Dead Body is unusual in the Nero Wolfe series because it centers on a woman who claims to be Nero Wolfe's long-lost adopted daughter. The story was published after the war in Europe had started but the U.S. was not yet involved and it involves international intrigue. And in this book we get a peek at some of Wolfe's background and his activities in Montenegro when he was a young man.

A young woman from Montenegro, Carla Lovchen, comes to Wolfe's house asking for his help. She and a friend are living in the US and work in a studio teaching fencing and dancing. Recently the friend has been accused of stealing diamonds from one of the clients. Wolfe refuses to take the case and Carla leaves, but Archie and Wolfe get another visit later that morning from an FBI agent, who asks if Wolfe is an agent for foreign nationals. Carla returns in the afternoon, announces that the friend accused of theft, Neya Tormic, is Wolfe's adopted daughter, and insists that Wolfe represent her in the matter of the theft. Wolfe sends Archie to the dance / fencing studio to check the situation out. There is a murder at the studio while he is there and it is possible that Neya could have committed the crime.

Wolfe is not convinced that the young woman is actually his adopted daughter. Yet he feels a responsibility to come to her aid until he can resolve the truth of her claims.

This is just the basis for the story, and it gets more complex as it goes along. It is most interesting for the puzzle of whether Wolfe's adopted daughter is still alive and if this woman is actually who she claims to be. What is the international intrigue that is actually going on?

When I come back to each Nero Wolfe story for a re-read, it is not the overall story that I remember but special set pieces in the book that stood out for me. In this case, there are at least two scenes that I remember very fondly.  One is a very brief scene where Archie escapes from the dance studio by going through a couple of courtyards, over a tall fence, and through a restaurant, ostensibly looking for his missing cat. Later, there is a clever ploy where Archie has Carla masquerade as a bellboy to escape the police who are looking for her... so that his boss can talk with her first.

This is not one of the top mysteries in the Nero Wolfe series, in my opinion, but I found many things to like about it. As usual.

I love the Avon paperback cover with the lovely unclothed lady, but I don't know exactly how the illustration fits into the story. And I am glad I had another edition to read, because the print was tiny and faded.


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Publisher:  Pyramid Books, 1964. Orig. pub. 1940.
Length:     191 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Nero Wolfe, #7
Setting:     New York City
Genre:       Mystery
Source:     I purchased my copies.


19 comments:

  1. I find it interesting to learn things (or get hints, at any rate) about Wolfe's background, Tracy. I'm glad this book explores this, even if it's not Stout's very best.

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    1. I agree, Margot. Wolfe's background is interesting, although I think there are conflicts between books. Over 40 plus books, that is to be expected, I guess.

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  2. You know, I have this in an Italian edition from back int he 80s but not sure I've actually read it - just the idea of an (as yet) unread Stout still lying around the house makes me smile, even if not top notch ...

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    1. I am envious of you, Sergio, if you have any unread Nero Wolfe books. I wish I could remember exactly what I thought about each one as I read it for the first time. This one is a fine book, just not in my list of top favorites.

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  3. I did read this book and enjoyed and also watched the TV episode of this story. It was fun to watch it play out on TV, a lot of action and craziness at the studio. Nero Wolfe gets all wound-up, a normal occurrence.

    I have to read more of these, so relaxing and diverting. One can escape into the West 35th Street brownstone and (almost) ignore what's going on in Washington. I need more of these books.

    About that cover, I remember when I was in high school that every single paperback mystery that I saw, and even those of mystery magazines, had women draped, half-dressed or bloodied on the floor or just dead.

    It was a reason that I couldn't read paperback mysteries and I stay away from books with those covers.

    The Mickey Spillane covers were pretty bad so I stayed away from those and am glad I did.

    But I remember even Perry Mason's books' covers had women in various poses or else dead.

    I'm glad book covers changed (mostly).

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    1. Kathy, I wanted to re-watch the TV episodes based on this book before I wrote the post but I could not fit it in. I am going to do that soon, I hope.

      Yes, I do love relaxing with the Nero Wolfe stories, and that is why I keep rereading them.

      I don't mind the lurid covers on old paperbacks but it is true that for many of the books at that time, they did not reflect the content.

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  4. I love the Nero Wolfe books and have read them all, some more than once. I'm never disappointed.

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    1. Same for me, Bill. I cannot remember any of the novels that I did not like. Possibly a couple of the novellas but as far as I remember, those are all wonderful too.

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  5. I'm very fond of this one as well, Tracy. I love those two scenes you mentioned. :) I also loved the whole fencing and dancing thing at that brownstone. It seemed like the sort of place that might have been a continuing setting for more mysteries down the road. Liked all the characters, especially the overweight guy who initially accuses one of the women of stealing. As usual, Rex Stout gives us such interesting passing characters. AND OF COURSE I LOVE THE ENDING. :) Wolfe can move when he wants to. And it occurs to me that Stout used the same 'hiding in plain sight' ploy in another of his books, THE SILENT SCREAM.

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    1. This is a good one, Yvette, but they all are in my estimation. I always remember Carla dressing up as a bellboy but I had forgotten about the escape through the restaurant. Sounds like a scene out of a movie. I liked the combination fencing and dancing instruction in this book, which I guess makes sense. And I like that same guy you mentioned, although I can't remember his name off the top of my head. Great ending.

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  6. I enjoyed this one, too, Tracy, altho evidently not as much as Yvette did, as I have not urge to double my comment. ;)

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    1. I forgot that you had read this one, Mathew ... around the same time you reviewed The Doorbell Rang. That one is the favorite Nero Wolfe novel for a lot of people, but I would not put it up that high. But any Nero Wolfe story is a good one.

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  7. Probably not one I'll be seeking out, but I do intend to read at least one from the series sometime, not necessarily soon. Glad you still enjoy them on re-reading.

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    1. I thought this one was in your buckets, Col, but I agree, probably not the best one for you. I have tried to think of a good one for you but nothing specific yet. Someday I will.

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    2. Wow - memory lady or what? I haven't been browsing the tubs for a while and you're right this is the one Stout that I have! I'll be reading this one then someday, and finishing the tub project, I hope!

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    3. Well, I did once have a very good memory, Col. Now as I get older, not so much. But my mind does retain facts about Rex Stout more easily.

      Except for the international intrigue element, this one is fairly typical of the earlier books. Possibly you would like some of the later books (60's or 70's) better. I haven't read or reviewed any of the later ones in years.

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  8. You mentioned this one earlier didn't you, because I remember being intrigued by the idea of his having a daughter. I am skipping around in this series, reading them randomly, and this sounds like one I would enjoy very much.

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    1. ... also, isn't it great that having a blog means there are now records? I was always forgetting what I had read and what I thought of them, and got series books mixed up: having the blog is the perfect record.

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    2. I do like having the blog as a record, Moira, although I am getting so far behind I have finally accepted that maybe I cannot write about each one. The story about the daughter is interesting, although she obviously doesn't show up much in the series.

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