Tuesday, March 6, 2012
Champagne for One: Review
Rex Stout's Champagne for One comes garnished with an unhealthy dose of cyanide.
This outing for Nero Wolfe and his leg man Archie Goodwin doesn't begin with a client. No. It begins when Archie does one of his good deeds and acts as a stand-in dinner guest for an acquaintance, "Dinky" Austin Byne. Byne claims to have a cold and wants Archie to attend a black tie function at his aunt's house in his stead. Archie knows full well that Byne's cold is non-existent, but is curious enough about the dinner to agree--as long as auntie is willing to invite him. You see, Wolfe & Goodwin had been hired by Mrs. Robilotti in the past to recover some missing jewelry and she had taken exception to some of Archie's remarks. He just wants to be sure that she'll let bygones be bygones.
Apparently she will. She calls and invites Archie to attend the affair--an anniversary dinner held in honor of her deceased husband and featuring an night out for "lucky" young women from the husband's pet charity: Grantham House, a shelter and place of "improvement" for unwed mothers. The idea is to give the women suitable male companionship and entertainment (conversation, dinner, and dancing) for an evening. Oooh. Lucky ladies.
All goes well until Mrs. Robilotti breaks out the champagne. Faith Usher, one of the women, has advertised that she keeps a vial of cyanide in her purse--just in case she should decide to end it all. She accepts her champagne from Mrs. Robilotti's son, takes a drink, and promptly dies...an apparent suicide. Everyone there agrees that she must have decided that now was the time. The police think that suicide would be a nice tidy solution to the case. There's just one problem. When Goodwin was informed by another of the women of the cyanide-toting habits of Faith, he spent the rest of his evening watching Faith and her purse. And he's willing to swear that she absolutely did not dump anything into her drink before partaking of it. Inspector Cramer can't shake him. The Assistant Commissioner can't either. He saw what he saw...and he didn't see what he needed to have seen for it to be suicide.
Of course, calling it murder isn't an easy solution either. Because from all appearances, there's no way anyone could have put the poison in that particular glass and have been sure that Faith would have gotten it. So, was Faith the target? Did the murderer not care who died? Did Faith really manage to perform a sleight of hand trick that fooled even Archie? Or is everybody, including Archie, missing something?
This is Rex Stout at his best. Talk about sleigh-of-hand...nothing up my sleeve and hey, presto, here's a clue you missed! Goodwin is at his wise-cracking best. Wolfe is his grumpy, genius self. Cramer huffs and puffs and blows nobody's house down. The interviews are spectacular and I thoroughly enjoyed the play between Archie and Saul Panzer late in the book. Four stars.
If your ego is in good shape you will pretend you're surprised if a National Chairman calls you to tell you his party wants to nominate you for President of the United States, but you're not really surprised. (p. 3)
...if he had married Mrs. Albert Grantham for her money I freely admit that no man marries without a reason and with her it would have been next to impossible to think up another one.... (p. 14)
You can't dance cheerfully. Dancing is too important. It can be wild or solemn or gay or lewd or art for art's sake, but it can't be cheerful. (p. 21)
Yeah. I'm the fly in the soup. I don't like it any better than you do. Flies don't like being swamped in soup, especially when it's hot. (Archie Goodwin, p. 35)
In a world that operates largely at random, coincidences are to be expected, but any one of them must always be mistrusted. (Wolfe, p. 53)
It is always a temptation to monkey with locks, and one of the best ways to test your ears is to enter someone's castle uninvited and, while you are looking here and there for something interesting, listen for footsteps on the stairs or the sound of an elevator. If you don't hear them in time your hearing is defective, and you should try some other line of work when you are out and around again. (p. 116)
Do you know what a genius is? A genius is a guy who makes things happen without any idea that they are going to happen. It's quite a trick. (Goodwin, p. 120)