"Nero Wolfe would never start tramping through the woods in twilight"
"No," Benedetti conceded. "He would remain home in comfort reading a book while his assistant went tramping through the woods at twilight. At least you have me here to complain to."
In a previous review, I briefly told the story of how William DeAndrea had softened my pessimistic, anti-modernist attitude towards everything published after the 1940s – and his novels starring Niccolo Benedetti and Ronald Gentry were instrumental in converting me. The HOG Murders (1979) and The Werewolf Murders (1992) are elaborately plotted intrigues, with well-drawn and eccentric characters, that assure the reader that the larger-than-life detectives, from the grand old era, never really strayed that far away from the printed page.
Niccolo Benedetti is a world-renowned professor of criminology, who prefers to be perceived as a philosopher in pursuit of truth behind human evil, and poring over my notes he struck me on his first appearance as a benign and hand-tame Hannibal Lecter – and his character is loaded with eccentricities. To begin with, he's a prodigy artist whose paintings reflect the state of the investigation: at the start of his hunt they are almost hyper-realistic and gradually become more abstract as he closes in on the truth. He also loves to flirt and hates spending money, always fobbing off the bill on someone else, in spite of receiving astronomical fees. There is a delightful scene in The Werewolf Murders, in which he shows how to collect an enormous fee and still come across as the embodiment of generosity and patriotism. Nero Wolfe could learn a thing or two from him!
The Archie Goodwin to his Nero Wolfe is the private investigator Ronald Gentry, who was personally trained by the professor, and the team is rounded out by Ronald's wife, Janet – a psychoanalyst who provides her insight into the human psyche to their investigations. Yeah, this is not exactly like Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, to which this series is often compared, but the nucleus of their partnership is essentially the same: Niccolo Benedetti is the brilliant European detective and Ronald Gentry is the smart-mouthed American gumshoe.
The Manx Murders (1994) is their last recorded case and it's very dissimilar to the prior books in this series, in which they were close on the heels of serial killer who either threw an entire town into a frenzy or stalked a sumptuous mountain resort packed with international scientists – and compared with that this is a rather domestic affair that involves a rivalry between elderly twin millionaires.
Clyde Pembroke, a bird-lover, and his twin-brother Henry Pembroke, who breeds Manx's, have been at odds for years, but now their feud seems to prevent the production of an important air filter – and the government implores the eminent criminologist to act as an intermediary between the quarreling brothers. He's not very keen on accepting this assignment, but when all the birds disappear from their private nature preserve he recognizes a glimpse of evil and heads down to their estate, consisting of a lap of ground and two Victorian mansions, Alpha House and Omega House, with his assistants, Ronald and Janet, in tow. Regrettably, the tantalizing semi-impossible situation of the vanishing birds is shoved to the background, and the book needs half a dozen warm-up chapters before it starts picking up steam.
The unfathomable incident of the birds could've been a merely malicious prank, but when a stray cat is brutally killed and basically dumped on their doorstep, everyone becomes aware of the malevolent presence whose ominous shadow looms over the estate – and nobody can ignore this being when one of the twins is kidnapped and a ransom of $1.000.000 is demanded for his safe return. But when the ransom money is delivered, completely according to the given instruction, they are lead back to an abandoned barn where they discover the murdered and still warm remains of the abductee!
Basically, the plot has enough clever bits and pieces to satisfy its readers, however, it's not as intricately constructed as the previous stories and the shallow, almost dried-up, pool of suspects makes it more suited for a short story or novella than a full-length novel. You could easily trim a hundred pages from the book and it would only strengthen the plot, because the main trick of the easily identified murderer, which, admittedly, is very canny and retrospectively somewhat of an impossible crime, just came up short to justify all of its two hundred and some pages.
However, all things considered, The Manx Murders is still a pretty good read, despite some of its shortcomings, and a solid enough effort from an author who was usually in the habit of turning out brilliant stuff – and pass experiences shouldn't take anything away from this book that, alas, doesn't quite reach the heights of its predecessors. But hey, if this is the type of stuff you produce on an off day, then wow, you're something else!