Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Some Buried Caesar: Rex Stout

I am a biased reader of the Nero Wolfe mysteries by Rex Stout. I love them all, and if there are flaws, I forgive them easily.  I have read each of them several times, thus my experience will never be the same as a first time reader. So I can only tell you what I love about each book.

Just in case you are not familiar with the Nero Wolfe series, I like to start with an overview.

Rex Stout wrote 33 novels and 41 novellas about the private detective Nero Wolfe and his assistant, Archie Goodwin. 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. The series began in 1934 with Fer-de-Lance; the last book in the series, A Family Affair, was published in 1975, shortly before Stout's death. Over the forty plus years this series was published, the protagonists did not age at all, but they were always placed within the context of the time that the book was written.

There are several traits that Nero Wolfe is well known for, and one of them is his extreme distaste of leaving his home. According to The Wolfe Pack site, Wolfe leaves his home in 34 of the 74 Nero Wolfe stories; some of those excursions are brief and he stays within New York City. Some Buried Caesar is one of two novels that I can remember where Wolfe and Archie are away from the brownstone from the beginning to the end of the book. (The other is Too Many Cooks.) Thus while Nero and Archie are away from home, we don't get the interactions with Fritz and Theodore, and he and Archie are on their own, without help from the freelance private eyes they frequently call on. I like that aspect of this book because of the variation from the norm and because it brings Archie and Nero into an environment that they know little about.

Another problem Wolfe has is he is afraid of riding in cars. He doesn't trust any driver other than Archie, and he sits in the back seat and hangs on for dear life even when Archie is driving. This book begins with a car accident while Archie is driving Wolfe to an exposition where Wolfe will display some of his prize orchids. The car has run off the road due to a flat tire at 55 mph, so the results are quite damaging to the car, although both Archie and Wolfe escape shaken but not harmed. The ensuing comments from Wolfe and Archie are quite humorous, and the events that follow lead Wolfe to his next case.

At this point, Archie and Wolfe are stranded on a country road, far from New York City, and still 18 miles from Crowfield, the city hosting the North Atlantic Exposition. They decide to walk to a ranch house nearby, across a fenced-in field that they belatedly discover is holding a bull. Wolfe gets stuck on a boulder to avoid the bull, while Archie goes looking for help. Eventually they arrive at the house of a millionaire, Tom Pratt, who owns a restaurant chain. It turns out that Pratt has purchased the bull, Hickory Caesar Grindon, for $45,000, so that the bull can be barbecued and served to Pratt's guests at a party, as a publicity stunt for his restaurant chain. The members of the National Guernsey League are outraged. There are also strained relations between Pratt's family members and those on a neighboring ranch.

Wolfe volunteers Archie to help guard the bull so that they can stay at Pratt's luxurious home rather than in crowded motel quarters in Crowfield, and there is a murder nearby where Archie is guarding the bull. As usual, Wolfe does not jump in to investigate the murder, but eventually he is dragged into the investigation by circumstances.

I love so many things about Some Buried Caesar. It is the book that introduces Lily Rowan. The other characters and their relationships are developed well.  I love the scenes at the eatery at the exhibition. Archie is arrested and spends a night in the local jail; the scenes there are wonderful.

This sample provides an interaction with Lily Rowan and revolves around food, which plays a big part in almost any Nero Wolfe mystery. Archie is going to meet Lily for lunch at the "Methodist grub-tent":
Believe it or not, she was there, at a table against the canvas wall toward the rear. I pranced across the sawdust, concealing my amazement. Dressed in a light tan jersey thing, with a blue scarf and a little blue hat, among those hearty country folk she looked like an antelope in a herd of Guernseys. I sat down across the table from her and told her so. She yawned and said that what she had seen of antelopes' legs made it seem necessary to return the compliment for repairs, and before I could arrange a comeback we were interrupted by a Methodist lady in white apron who wanted to know what we would have. 
 Lily Rowan said, "Two chicken fricassee with dumplings." 
"Wait a minute," I protested. "It says there they have beef pot roast and veal--"  
"No." Lily was firm. “The fricassee with dumplings is made by a Mrs. Miller whose husband has left her four times on account of her disposition and returned four times on account of her cooking and is still there. So I was told yesterday by Jimmy Pratt.”

Archie later brings Wolfe to the tent to taste the chicken dumplings and they return at least one more time during the exhibition. Lily Rowan and Archie have a long-term relationship with no strings attached, as Lily is a very independent and wealthy woman. For some reason, perhaps because I like Archie's relationship with Lily so much, I thought she featured in many more of the stories than she does. I am on a mission to document which stories she shows up in, even if only briefly.

This is one of my favorite Nero Wolfe stories, and is highly regarded by many other readers also, but it is not a typical Nero Wolfe mystery. Wolfe and Archie are out of their element in the rural setting and mingling with ranchers and cattle breeders.

See other thoughts on this book at Dear Author, Vintage Pop Fictions, My Reader's Block, and A Hot Cup of Pleasure.

Source: I have six paperback editions but this is the one I read this time:

Publisher: Pyramid, 1963 (orig. publ. 1939)
Length:    190 pages
Format:    Paperback
Series:     Nero Wolfe #6
Setting:    Rural New York
Genre:     Mystery


Anonymous said...

Oh, I think you picked a great book to highlight, Tracy. I agree that this one is definitely one of Stout's better ones. I do like Lily Rowan; and, although I love the 'brownstone' mysteries, I like it, too, when Wolfe has to deal with being away from home...

Jay said...

Rex Stout was born in Indiana, just about 15 minutes away from where I'm typing this comment right now. :-)

This particular book is actually the only Nero Wolfe that I've read. I didn't know there were so many and appreciate the background information you began the post with. I have fond memories of reading this for a book club about six years ago, so I'm not sure why I didn't seek out others in the "series" - what would you suggest for the second one I read?

I think it was also an Indianapolis "One City, One Book" selection in the past few years.

Nan said...

I am also a big fan of Wolfe and Archie. I love the interior scenes of that brownstone, I love their relationship, and like you, I can also forgive any flaws. When I first read them, I listened. Back in the days of books on tape. It was a great pleasure and I can still hear the voices in my head. Wonderful, wonderful review of a great book in a great series. By the way, though you probably know this, there is a cookbook. I love looking through it, and have made a couple recipes, and this is my favorite -

Yvette said...

Another major fan here, Tracy. I love Wolfe and Archie and I'll be talking about one of my favorite Wolfe books on FFB tomorrow. Thanks for the overview too. Believe it or not, there ARE people out there who haven't discovered Wolfe yet. :)

TracyK said...

I love Lily Rowan's character, Margot, and I get jealous whenever Archie get interested in anyone else. And I like the books when Wolfe stays home but it is good to have Archie get out and about.

TracyK said...

Hi, Jay, I had forgotten that Rex Stout was born in Indiana, although I did know that he had come from that area of the country. My husband was originally from Ohio and had cousins in Indiana. Rex Stout was such an amazing man, even aside from all the books he wrote.

It is so hard to suggest a good Nero Wolfe book to read, because I love them all, and not everyone else does. My favorite is his first book, Fer-de-Lance. Even though the Nero Wolfe books are clearly mysteries, I just love all the characters in the books, the regular cast and the secondary players. A lot of his stories, although close to novella length, are gathered in books of of three stories each and you might like those also.

TracyK said...

Nan, I did know there was a cookbook and I probably had a copy at one time. Nero Wolfe also has a special way of cooking scrambled eggs (very slowly in a double boiler) and I love my eggs cooked slowly like that, although it never takes that long. I think my home ec teacher in grammar school taught us to cook them the same way (1960's). The corn sounds delicious. I do know that story but haven't cooked my corn that way.

TracyK said...

I do believe it, Yvette, and I hope to convert them. Although I know he isn't to everyone's taste.

I do know you are a big fan too, and I looked to see if you had reviewed this one, but I did not find a post. I saw you did have it on your list of 100 Favorite Mysteries of the 20th Century.

Just going to check out your post now.

Rick Robinson said...

Excellent choice, a favorite of mine too. Though, truthfully, so many are very good, aren't they?

TracyK said...

I know what you mean, Richard. I always say, this is a favorite and then I realize that it seems that all of them are favorites. I am sure there must be some I would rate lower... but none come to mind.

Mathew Paust said...

Thanks for the tip on The Wolfe Pack site, Tracy. Gotta check that out!

TracyK said...

The Wolfe Pack is a great site, Mathew. Lots of little tidbits. And overwhelming sometimes.

pattinase (abbott) said...

What a great overview. Better than the ones I found online! Thanks so much.

TracyK said...

Thanks, Patti. A labor of love, since I love this author's works so much.

Ryan said...

I have never read a single one these, though I own more than a few. I guess I'm missing out.

Clothes In Books said...

This sounds great, I always wanted to know more about Lily Rowan, I should make this my next Wolfe.

TracyK said...

Ryan, if you do have some Nero Wolfe books by Stout already, you should definitely try them. Not everyone likes the style that the books are written in, or the characters, but if you do, there are a lot of them to read.

TracyK said...

Moira, this is definitely a good one to read if you are interesting in Lily. And a good one overall, anyway. The only thing it is missing is the brownstone ambiance.

col2910 said...

Probably not one for me, but I'm glad you enjoyed yourself again!

TracyK said...

Probably not, Col, but you need to read at least one Rex Stout book, some day.

Derotha Recommends said...

Hi, Tracy, I just stumbled across your blog, who knows how. I started a Nero Wolfe blog site around the beginning of the year, and I started to read them all again, starting with Fer-de-Lance, and write a blog on each book just after I read it. Like many people, I had read most of them at least once, and many of them several times. I usually forgot who did it anyway, so the mystery was always there. I meant well, but got distracted in my writing by the process of assembling all the books.

And also I was distracted by the extraordinary experience of reading them in order. Wow. I just kept reading right on through, and then I had a lot of loose ends in my life to keep tied up, and I'm just getting back to the project of writing the blogs. So it goes.

It really is quite a saga. I've started selling complete sets on e-bay. I've designed a way to give the paperbacks dust-covers, and now I'm starting to make designs for each book as well. Its turning into a cottage industry in itself, although I have yet to break even.

Anyway, I agree with you about everything. It seems that Lily is always around because sometimes Archie just hints at her as a "friend" without mentioning her name, but after awhile, we know who he means. Or she will appear in just one sentence, like Archie saying that he wanted to spend some time getting to know Lily Rowan, because he had only known her for seven years. There are only a few stories where she actually appears as an active character, however. One of the most important ones is "Not Quite Dead Enough," where he is in danger of losing her because he thinks her capable of murder. After that, he takes a closer look at her, and starts to think of her quite differently. The first time we see her, we are introduced to her by a woman that doesn't like her, so we have a distorted picture, and so does Archie. And of course Wolfe pretends to dislike her, but I think that is protesting too much on his part. He likes her fine. He lies all the time anyway.

If I remember correctly, Archie doesn't dance until he meets Lily. (Did she teach him? Who knows) Archie relies on her to increase his knowledge of English and the arts so that he can keep up with Wolfe, which is very important to him. When Goldsborough writes about Archie, he paints him as resenting Lily's interest in art and poetry, but that isn't true. Archie resents being invited when there are people present that he doesn't like, but I think he gets over it.

I think the truth about Lily Rowan is that she fell in love with Archie the first time she met him, just like many of us did. Many of the men who write Nero Wolfe stories don't get that part, and try to make her into something mysterious. And Archie takes 41 years to do it, but he falls in love with her, too. Of course, it isn't 41 years in Archie-time, but by the time "A Family Affair" is over, let's face it, he is ready to move into the penthouse. And the way it proceeds, it seems that Rex Stout planned it that way from the beginning, and that IS 41 years in Rex Stout time. All of the development of the saga is like that. Sometimes he will change something in mid-stream, like the house has four stories instead of three, but he doesn't worry about it. Cramer smokes quite a few cigars in the early books, but Archie claims that he never has lit up in Wolfe's office in the later books. It doesn't matter. The concluding story, "A Family Affair," gives up much more detail on each character, and increases the tension for Wolfe to the point of a nervous breakdown. His response to Cramer's offers of assistance suggest that he is serious about retiring. The revival of his work by other authors is interesting, but not relevant to the Stout saga.

TracyK said...

Derotha, thanks for all these thoughts on Archie and Lily. I first read the Nero Wolfe books out of order. I was young and the only access was what I ran into at the library. Sometime in my thirties I read them all from beginning to end, and I have read them all more than once, most of them 4 or 5 times. It has been a long time since I read A Family Affair and it is one of my favorites.

n@ncy said...

I'm starting this vintage CF today!
I will read you extensive review and comments....thereafter!
It is a great book for a grey, rainy Saturday!
What's your Saturday book?...and what is your husband (Books&Co) reading?

TracyK said...

I hope you enjoy the book, Nancy. I love gray, rainy days. But if I don't have rain, just overcast skies will do.

I am reading (just finishing up, I hope) City of Dragons, by Kelli Stanley. Set in Chinatown in San Francisco, 1940ish. Glen is currently reading ghost stories and Book Thieves, a non-fiction book about Nazi looting of Europe's libraries.