Wednesday, November 28, 2018

And Be a Villain: Rex Stout

This book, the 13th in the Nero Wolfe series, is the first in a trilogy that features Wolfe's archnemesis, Arnold Zeck. This is a re-read for me, of course. In this story, the characters include a radio talk show host, Madeline Fraser, and her entourage. A guest on the show dies from poisoning, and Wolfe investigates. An enjoyable read, as always.

From the dust jacket...
Motivated by money alone, Nero involves himself in a crime which has been broadcast over a great national network. A leading lady of the microphone interviews a racetrack tout and a professor of mathematics. In the course of the interview, as a plug for one of the sponsors, a noted soft-drink manufacturer, each guest is served a bottle of the beverage. To the astonishment of the radio public, the embarrassment of the soft-drink manufacturer, and the annoyance of the New York Police Department, the racetrack oracle instantly drops dead of cyanide poisoning. How did cyanide get into the drink? And how could anyone be sure that the tout would receive the fatal bottle? Or, for that matter, was the poisoned bottle intended for him at all? 

Nero Wolfe's usual approach to detecting is to work only when he needs money. He often charges so much to work on a case that he can pick and choose when he wants to work. Occasionally he will be motivated by friendship or a feeling of responsibility to investigate, but this is one of those times that he has run out of money and wants to persuade the central figures in the case to hire him. In And Be a Villain, he has multiple clients: the radio personality, and the many sponsors of her show, all of whom want this incident far behind them.

And this is one case where Wolfe really has to work for his money. There are no easy answers, and the perpetrator is very, very clever. The investigation involves a lot of leg work, which Wolfe never does and is even more than Archie can handle. Wolfe tries (somewhat successfully) to use the police to follow up on clues he has found.

As mentioned above, this book is part of the Arnold Zeck trilogy. The two other books that feature that villain are The Second Confession (1949) and In the Best Families (1950). In this book, Wolfe only encounters Zeck at the very end, more like a cameo to whet our interest. The next two novels in the series include more involvement with Zeck. All three were published together in an omnibus, Triple Zeck.

Many fans of this series consider these three books to be some of the best in the series. I do like this one a lot. Usually it is Nero Wolfe's "family" (Archie, his legman; Fritz the cook and Theodore, the gardener; and the stable of freelance investigators) that I enjoy reading about. This time, Madeline Fraser and her employees, sponsors, and devoted fans provide the entertainment, until the deaths continue to mount up. Stout often likes to poke fun at big businesses like the marketing and advertising industries, and he gets a lot of opportunities here.

An interesting tidbit that I had not noticed before:

In the Book Club Edition I read this time, the beverage in question was called Starlite. In later editions, it was called Hi-Spot and that is the name that I remember. I actually did not notice the difference at all until it was pointed out in a review on Goodreads. That review is very good and has lot of insights, other than the issue of the drink name, but it does get into detail about the story, so keep that in mind if you read it.

I found this Wikipedia page that discusses the issues with the different wording for the drink and it appears that the title of the drink went back and forth over various editions:
1948 Viking FE – Hi-Spot;
1948 Viking BCE – Starlite;
1949 Wm. Collins, Crime Club (Great Britain) – Starlite;
1950 Bantam Paperback – Hi-Spot;
1950 Viking BCE/Full House Omnibus – Starlite;
1974 Viking FE/Zeck Trilogy – Hi-Spot;
1975 Severn House (Great Britain) – Starlite;
1994 Bantam Paperback – Hi-Spot

The two different sources give different reasons for the name changes but either way, it was interesting.

See other reviews at:
Bill Crider's Pulp Culture Magazine
Clothes in Books
Noah's Archives
The Passing Tramp
In So Many Words...    (covers all three Arnold Zeck books)


Publisher: Viking Press, 1948 (book club ed.)
Length:    216 pages
Format:    Hardcover
Series:     Nero Wolfe
Setting:    New York City
Genre:     Mystery


Anonymous said...

Like you, Tracy, I like Wolfe's usual 'family.' Part of the enjoyment I get from reading the stories is that set of characters. But Stout did create other interesting characters, and I'm glad you've reminded us of that. And the Zeck trilogy is a classic...

TracyK said...

I look forward to reading the other two in the trilogy, Margot, it has been a while.

Clothes In Books said...

I really enjoyed this one, very much enjoyed reading about the radio show, loved the details of the industry back then.

TracyK said...

That is my favorite part of this book, too, Moira.

Mathew Paust said...

The Zeck trilogy is a surprising departure from the usual Wolfe plots, and I found them huge fun. Thanks for refreshing my memory, Tracy!

col2910 said...

Ok, I'll try and read a Wolfe in 2019

Anonymous said...

I own my share of Rex Stout books thanks to your excellent reviews. I know you are a big fan of this character. Will need to make it a priority soon. I am still reading Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. Just at the half-way mark *g* Anyway, good to know that this title ,And Be A Villain, is considered one of his best works.---Keishon

TracyK said...

Now I am looking even more forward to the 2nd in the series, Matt. And each of the three is different from the others.

TracyK said...

That sounds great, Col. Nero Wolfe may not be your thing but it can't hurt to try just one.

TracyK said...

I do hope you enjoy the Rex Stout books that you read, Keishon. I often wonder if I would like them so well if I tried them now, maybe not. But they are nostalgic and comfort reading to me now.

I am about 66% through Les Miserables. Still liking it. I hope to finish by end of December but will not push myself too hard.

Anonymous said...

You are further ahead than me re Les Miserables. I did change to the Norman Denny version. I like it so far as well. Hugo does like to veer off course every once and awhile. I'm at the part where he is talking about Marius Pontmercy. His characterizations are one of the best parts in reading this novel --Keishon

TracyK said...

I did like the part of Les Miserables that focused on Marius, Keishon, although it went on for a while. Sometimes the pace picks up a lot.