The Book Case

"But in any case, after another crime, we shall know infinitely more. Crime is terribly revealing. Try and vary your methods as you will, your tastes, your habits, your attitude of mind, and your soul is revealed by your actions."
- Hercule Poirot (Agatha Christie's The ABC Murders, 1936) 
Thus far, 2016 has been a reasonably solid year for reading and discovering detective fiction. There were a handful of mystery novels that were uneven in quality, sparsely clued or stumbled in the final chapter, but none of them deserves to be qualified as a complete train wreck – unlike my worst read from last year.

So I was glad that my return to the works of Rex Stout not only continued this positive trend, but also uncovered one of the best stories from the Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin series.

The UK edition of Plot It Yourself
As I've stated in the past, the Nero Wolfe corpus is one of the rare exceptions in which I prefer characters to plot and there's a good excuse to justify such heresy. Stout had an uncanny knack for writing dialogue that gave his cast of regular characters a breath of life and endowed them with a mind of their own, but even more importantly, they're characters you would love to sit down with in real-life – in spite of their personal flaws. Who would not love to share a dinner table with Wolfe or have a front row seat for one of the many head-on collisions between him and the cigar-mangling Inspector Cramer? Or have a verbal exchange with the witty, sharp-tongued Archie or simply a guided tour of the brownstone with its rooftop greenhouse and the kitchen where their live-in chef, Fritz, prepares five-star meals. 

Nevertheless, the fact that Stout's talent manifested itself mainly in writing great lines for characters, who are both larger-than-life and yet very human, does not mean he was hopelessly lost when entering the plotting department. Some of my favorite entries in this series came with the added bonus of a soundly constructed plot: Too Many Cooks (1938), Some Buried Caesar (1939), Not Quite Dead Enough (1944) and And Be a Villain (1948). You can now expand that list with the wonderful Plot It Yourself (1959).

First of all, it should be pointed out that Rex Stout served as president of both the Authors Guild and the Mystery Writers of America, which is probably where he found the ideas and inspiration for Plot It Yourself – which has a clever and fairly original plot. Stout even found a new interpretation for the term "copycat killer," but the most ingenious part of the plot is the plagiarism racket that swindled a small group of authors and publishers out of large chunk of pocket money.

The case begins when a small contingent of people visits the office of Wolfe and Goodwin: Philip Harvey (author), Mortimer Oshin (playwright), Amy Wynn (author), Thomas Dexter (publisher), Reuben Imhoff (publisher) and Gerald Knapp (publisher). They form a Joint Committee on Plagiarism, selected from the ranks of the Book Publishers of America (BPA) and the National Association of Authors and Dramatists (NAAD), who are tasked with looking into a series of accusation of plagiarism that begin to follow a suspicious pattern – there "have been five major charges of plagiarism" so far. All of them seem to follow a similar script.

A book is ascending the bestseller list or a play begins to garner success when a letter arrives, in which the writer claims the plot, characters or even the dialogue were cribbed from a submitted, but unpublished, manuscript – a manuscript nobody remembers ever having seen or read. However, the manuscripts are found in drawers of the authors and archives of the publishers, which forced them to settle for tens of thousands of dollars.

Obviously, they were fake and planted on the victims, but there's a gaping ravine between a feeling of certainty and proof that will stand up in court. So the committee decided to hire the services of the best detectives money could get them and it's problem right up Wolfe’s alley.

Wolfe really hates to do any actual work (i.e. physical action), but he has to rent his remarkable brain in order to indulge in his expensive pastimes: growing orchids and lavish meals, which require the services of a resident orchid nurse and a live-in chef. Not as costly are his well-stocked bookshelves. Wolfe is an avid reader and Archie guesses he reads "two hundred or so books" a year. So it's not entirely surprising to find Wolfe doing some actual detective work in the initial stages of the investigation, instead of parking his one-seventh of a ton in his "oversized made-to-order chair" and synthesize the information brought to him by Archie, which he simply does by reading the fraudulent manuscripts. Hey, it was still work for Wolfe!

There were four different claimants, Alice Porter, Simon Jacobs, Jane Ogilvy and Kenneth Rennert, but Wolfe astutely deduces all of their manuscripts that their claims were based on were written by one and the same person – based on "the internal evidence" of diction, syntax and paragraphing. As Wolfe states, "a clever man might successfully disguise every element of his style," but there’s one exception, namely paragraphing, which comes from "the depths of personality."

However, the discovery of a common link between the claimants requires an extensive, all-encompassing and costly "kind of investigation," which falls outside of Wolfe's expertise. Regardless, he offers his clients a short-cut solution for their problem by offering one of the claimants a chunk of money and exemption from legal repercussions in exchange for a name. The name of the person who wrote those manuscript and basically the brains behind the whole scheme, but this person is well-aware of what is being planned and begins to remove all of the loose ends.

Archie is send around to the home of one of the claimants, Simon Jacobs, but is greeted ("not you") by Sgt. Purley Stebbins of Homicide West. Jacobs' body was found that afternoon behind a bush in Van Cortlandt Park, "dragged across the grass from the edge," which means he probably taken there from a car and the cause of death was a stab wound in chest – he would not be the last person to go out of this world with a knife buried in his chest. The body's pile-up in the final half of the book and Wolfe realizes he gave away too much information to the swindler-turned-murderer. It makes him roar "in a language that was probably the one he had used as a boy in Montenegro," but Wolfe redeems himself by trapping a strong-minded, very determined witness in giving away the identity of the murderer in order to wrap up the case to the satisfactory of his clients. And to earn his fee.

My favorite part of Plot It Yourself is the first half, which deals with the fraudulent accusations of plagiarism, because it's cleverly done and challenges Sherlock Holmes' assertion that "it has all been done before" and "there's nothing new under sun." But how it turned into a murder case and the identity of the murderer was also very nicely done. Considering the book was published in the final months of 1959, it's almost as if the book represented that final glance over the shoulder before the door closed on that Golden period in the genre's history.

So, all in all, Plot It Yourself has all the familiar faces and elements that made readers return to that notorious brownstone, on West 35th Street, for many decades and several generations, but the excellent and original plot also makes the book one of those brightly glowing embers in the hearth were once the mighty fire of the Golden Age roared.

Simply put: I very much enjoyed Plot It Yourself.


  1. One of my favorites, too--just a bit behind my all-time favorite, The Doorbell Rang.

    1. I liked The Doorbell Rang, but loved the TV adaptation with Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton even more. One of the rare examples of a TV/movie adaptation improving on the original.

  2. I have never liked the Wolfe books, even though I see they are quite popular. Partly it was because I thought his plots were simplistic, and partly because he insists on inflicting his politics on us. So I have wondered as to the source of their appeal for others.

    There was one thing I noticed that any time someone started to write about Wolfe, they invariably began to write about the set-up at Wolfe's house. (You did it also.) But when I look at Wolfe's personality, it is perfectly plain what he is. He is fat, lazy, greedy, gluttonous and self-indulgent. He only works when he absolutely has to and then only at what he likes. He forces everyone in the case to come to his home because he is too inconsiderate to get his lardbutt out of his custom-made chair. When you attempt to determine the type of person I have described, the answer is that he has the mental development of a two-year old. This is someone with a complete lack of maturity who never got out of the terrible twos.

    The source of his appeal therefore is plain: he appeals to our inner two-year old, that part of us which remains behind as a lost paradise once the world starts kicking us around. I also would like to indulge myself the way Wolfe does, but the world will not let me; unfortunately for the vast majority of us, millionaires rarely come through the front door will open check books to pay many thousands for a little light work. I think it is this fantasy, which is a pretty powerful one, which is main source of the appeal of the books. I can see why people would like to read them. But I would not care to spend any time talking to Wolfe, except as a case study.

    I would also state that I don't think paragraphing is anything in the nature of a constant in writing. I find that the length and format of my paragraphs change depending on what and to whom I am writing.

    1. You're being a bit harsh in your judgment of our "favorite fatty," Anon.

      I agree part of the appeal of this series is a strong sense of wish fulfillment: a roomy and beautiful brownstone as the nerve center of the books, a rooftop greenhouse with an expensive collection of orchids, sumptuous meals and rich clients, homicide detectives and cherchez la femme regularly crossing the threshold.

      Who would not want to live a life of luxury without the drudgery? So that part is definitely wish fulfillment. However, I've to disagree with your assessment of Wolfe. Fat, glutinous and overly self-indulgent? Absolutely! But not lazy or greedy.

      Wolfe has often returned a retainer on the assumption that he was unable to fulfill his part of the deal, because, as he commented I think The Golden Spiders, that you should earn your fees and never take a penny more than you’ve earned. I even remember Archie making fun of him, because having scruples lowered their potential yearly income.

      Yes. Wolfe has Archie for the legwork and farms out the routine parts of the investigation to operatives, like Saul Panzer, but this does not always kept the world from kicking Wolfe around.

      Not Quite Dead Enough has him saying goodbye to that overly indulgent lifestyle in order to lose weight, get fit and enlist in the army to serve his country during World War II. Even in the Best of Families has Wolfe abandon the comfy brownstone completely as he tries to find a way to stop a notorious and dangerous criminal. The Black Mountain is still on my TBR-pile, but it's reference throughout the series as the book in which he travels down to Montenegro to track down the murderer of an old friends. It's reputedly a very atypical novel in the series, because it follows a very active and vengeful Nero Wolfe.

      Not exactly the characteristics and actions of a fat, lazy and greedy person, which is what actually makes Wolfe an interesting character. You might initially be repelled by Wolfe's demeanor, but beneath that insulated layer of fat there's actually a straight-up, honorable guy – whose word is worth his weight in gold.

      That being said, I understand that not everyone may find those glimpses of a better, nobler character to outweigh his grumpy, often unlikable day-to-day attitude, which is probably why even fans of the series prefer Goodwin to Wolfe. I'm just saying there more beneath that lazy demeanor and unhealthy amount of fat than mere greed.

  3. Four comments:
    1. What I have been discussing is not so much Wolfe himself, but rather the appeal of the books to the public. Obviously there is an appeal because Stout has achieved the hardest thing an author can do: his books continue to sell after his death. The main attraction of the books seems to me to be Wolfe's lifestyle. I can't recall any other character who published his own cookbook.
    2. Do you really think that he charges a fair hourly fee for his services? I would rather hire Philip Marlowe. The result is the same but the charge will not bankrupt you. I also remember what Marlowe did with his $5,000 fee in The Long Goodbye, and he has a good deal less money than Wolfe.
    3. On rare occasions Wolfe slims down; but he only does it when he wants to - and when the author thinks it would be a good story idea.
    4. I realize the books are just a harmless fantasy, and not to be taken seriously, but does it really present a healthy fantasy? Marlowe is also a fantasy, but I think he also inspires us with a healthier fantasy, as he walks down the mean streets, than Wolfe's unlimited gluttony. (Think about how much beer he drinks!)

    1. I'm not saying the rates he charges are particular fair, but it's the price-tag he attaches to his service and there are people who are willing to dole out the dough for it. And his fees are paid willingly as part of a business deal. Personally, I would try to procure an invitation to one of the monthly's dinners of the Black Widowers and have Henry provide me with an explanation at the end of the evening for free. That's being cost-effective right there.

      I don't entirely get your third point. You first said he was too lazy to lift his ass from his custom-made chair, but now you admit he occasionally slims down when he wants to. How else would he achieve that? Stout gave some background on Wolfe in Over My Dead Body and he was a bit of an idealist before he came to America. Every time he sprang into action was because something rekindled that youthful fire and there was no amount of money, food or beer that could keep him bound to a chair in those mood. So it actually seems to mean something when he breaks his habits and mobilizes that massive physique for something more important than a fee.

      One again, you're not the only one who dislikes Wolfe. There's a majority of fans who prefer Goodwin and even sympathizes with Inspector Cramer, but I'm just saying there's more than Wolfe than a lazy heap of body mass.

      What is a healthy fantasy? As long as you don't gorge on food and beer to look like Wolfe there's nothing particular harmful about them.