Sunday, June 3, 2012

Crime Fiction Alphabet: Letter C



I have signed up for a second year of The Alphabet in Crime Fiction, a community meme sponsored by Mysteries in Paradise. Each week she'll be expecting participants to produce a post featuring a mystery/crime novel or novelist related to that week's letter. Moving right along in our alphabet journey--we're reading for the letter C.
C is for Champagne for One by Rex Stout. It 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 sleight-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.

9 comments:

Becky said...

I recently read and enjoyed this one! I love Archie, I do!!!

Margot Kinberg said...

Bev - What a great choice for the letter C! I really do like the Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin mysteries and this one is such a deliciously "impossible" one. And I really do like the very human Archie who stands in for Byrne - I just love that setup. Thanks for reminding me of this.

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Great choice Bev - definitely one of Stout's most substantial novels in terms of plotting (never his strong suit). I love the Nero Wolfe books - did you ever see the TV series starring Timothy Hutton as Archie? I really liked it and they produced a pretty faithful adaptation of this book too actually.

Sergio

Bev Hankins said...

Sergio: Yes, I really like the TV series. I'm not sure I've seen all of them, but I've seen most of them.

Peggy Ann said...

Well you've got me interested in this one! Have to find the answer to all your questions.

Clarissa Draper said...

I think I have read this book in the past but it's time I gave it another go.

Yvette said...

This is such a terrific book! I always forget who the killer actually is. A great choice for Letter C.

TracyK said...

This is one of my favorite Nero Wolfe novels. I have got to read a couple of Rex Stout novels for the Vintage Challenge (although it will be for the umpteenth time). Great review.

srivalli said...

Never read anything By Rex. This sounds interesting adding it to my TBR