Don't Look a Gift Corpse in the Mouth

"You give me nothing during your life, but you promise to provide for me at your death. If you are not a fool, you know what I wish for!"
- Marcus Valerius Martial
This is the first entry that is entirely dedicated to one of Rex Stout's novels, but ever since the inauguration of this blog I have occasionally peppered reviews with references to Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin – who are the protagonists of one of only two detective series in which I favor the characters over the plot. It's not that Rex Stout didn't know how to plot, it's just that his forte was dialogue and he mastered this aspect of his writing so well that it brought forth a set of characters as enduring and memorable as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Admittedly, this turned the series over time into stories about two detectives rather than actual detective stories.

Where There's a Will (1940) is often maligned as the worst volume in the Wolfe corpus, but plot-wise it's just as bad as some of the later entries – except for the fact that this story followed in the wake of a slew of very good stories. Too Many Cooks (1938) and Some Buried Caesar (1938) are admitted masterpieces and Over My Dead Body (1940) deserves its fair share of praise as well. The status of the book wasn't exactly elevated, either, with such follow-ups as Black Orchids (1942) and Note Quite Dead Enough (1944; a personal favorite of mine). This is merely a mediocre fare from a vintage period and therefore egged as the worst course in the corpus, but I have a slight problem with that general accepted consensus as this story, at least, showed fragments of creativity – which is not something that can be said in favor of the forgettable The Father Hunt (1968) or the unimaginative Please, Pass the Guilt (1973).

The millionaire Noel Hawthorne, who was killed during a tragic hunting accident, is the author of one of the most unconventional wills ever drawn up by an attorney, in which he bequeathed his three sisters, named April, May and June, respectively a peach, an apple and a pear and his widow a measly five hundred thousand grand – while the residue of his estate, estimated at a whopping seven million dollars, is bestowed upon his mistress. Needless to say, the family is not amused and they want to engage the services of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin to convince this woman to relinquish a considerable part of her inheritance back to the Hawthorne family.

The hefty, chair-bound gumshoe thoroughly despises quarrels over a dead man's earthly possessions, but is strapped for cash and has to accept the job to rejuvenate the bank account. But he's soon back on familiar turf, when Inspector Cramer and DA Skinner burst into his office with the announcement that the routine inquiry into Noel Hawthorne's accidental demise yielded new evidence and has now officially turned into a homicide investigation.

I know this summary synopsis will probably solicit a response along the lines of "how could anyone mess up such an intriguing premise," but if you're familiar with Rex Stout's weaknesses as a plotter you know that sparse, uninspired clueing and a more or less random solution ruined better detective stories than this one – and evinces that these tales are best read without your thinking cap on. I constructed a clever, but simplistic, solution around the basic facts that half of Hawthorne's face was blown away by a shotgun blast – which bore a striking resemblance to an archery accident in which a rogue arrow horribly mutilated his wife's face.

But, as I said at the beginning of this review, I don't read these books in the hope of finding an ingeniously, multi-layered constructed plot or a rug-puller of a surprise solution. If I want plot complexity, I'll pick up a novel by John Dickson Carr or Ellery Queen. No, I read these books, and many with me, because I feel at home in that comfy brownstone on West 35th Street – where you can't help but smirk at the bickering emanating from the office and goggle at the kingly meals that are prepared and served by their live-in gourmet-chef. We read them because we enjoy the company of the curmudgeonly, but often misunderstood, Nero Wolfe, the wisecracking Archie Goodwin (whose narrative voice makes up for nearly every flaw you can uncover in the plots), their gourmet-chef and head of the household, Fritz Brenner, the consistently fuming Inspector Cramer, the regular troupe of private ops, Saul Penzer, Orrie Cather and Fred Durkin, who are hired as legmen to assist Archie in his investigations, the lovely Lily Rowan and all the other regulars who inhabit this vibrant universe brought to life by Stout's sparkling dialogue.

I'm aware this constitutes as a roughshod, unprovoked onrush on the gag reflexes of some of you, but I have to say that these stories are best described as cozies with an attitude, and I, for one, can't get enough of them. 

Overall, this is a nice compilation of Stout's strength and weaknesses, in which the familiar scenes of Archie mercilessly needling Wolfe with his sarcastic, teasing remarks are more interesting and fun than the actual plot itself – but devoted fans won't mind for the reasons stated above. If you're new to the series, however, skip this one until you've familiarized yourself with the characters in such books as Too Many Cooks (1938), Some Buried Caesar (1938), Not Quite Dead Enough (1944), And Be a Villain (1948), The Golden Spiders (1953) and Champagne for One (1958).


  1. Archie Goodwin is the greatest thing to happen to the world since the invention of sliced bread. Seriously, his narrative is most of the reason I read the books. His voice is just brilliant. The humour is wonderful and the characters are captivating, and the banter between Wolfe and Archie always makes me smile. I particularly loved that moment where Archie threatens to marry Wolfe's daughter and attend father/son golf tournaments with him... :D

  2. Yes! That scene is one of my favorites and played to perfection by Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton in the television adaptation. And who cares about plot when Archie's telling a story. It becomes even less than a secondary importance and turns a defect into a virtue, as even the worst plotted books are still highly readable – from the very first novel to the final one, which isn't something that every writer can boost about.

    There's a reason why Rex Stout is one of the few male GAD authors who maintained a steady fan base and a decent print run.

  3. There is a very homely quality to the Wolfe books. So much of the pleasure in the stories comes from the descriptions of life in that brownstone; the meals, Wolfe sitting in his armchair and drinking his beers whilst reading a good book, the orchids. I expect that a lot of male GAD authors wouldn't consider this sort of domestic detail important. I can remember how upsetting it seemed when that home seemed about to be broken up in IN THE BEST FAMILIES.

  4. My take on Stout's work very much echoes what TomCat (and his commentators) have said here, and in my own scattered reviews of books in the Wolfe saga, I usually emphasize how matters of character, dialogue, and setting must compensate for--and do compensate for--weakness of plotting. I recall reading one of the Wolfe novels when I was a teenager, back when I was in the initial throes of my love affair with puzzle plotting, and I felt profound disappointment when I reached the end of the book and thought: Is that all there is? Much older now, I warm to the way that Stout so effectively handles the storytelling basics (character, pacing, etc.), and let myself be pleasantly surprised if he throws in a neat plot twist as well. It's classic comfort reading, the literary equivalent of pizza and beer (although Wolfe, of course, would disagree with my gastronomic choice).

  5. I think Rex Stout proved that it's okay to be a one trick pony, if you've got a really good trick.

    As for the cozy remark, I've always thought of them as a cozy crossed with hardboiled, with Archie and the various operatives contributing to the latter quality.