Sunday, July 1, 2012
And Four to Go: Review
And Four to Go by Rex Stout showcases Stout's ability to master that difficulty medium, the mystery short story. Even the best writers sometimes have difficulty creating a successful whodunit in the shortened form. It's a challenge to give enough character development and plot detail to set up the mystery, and it's especially difficult if the author is going to try to play fair with the clues. These four stories show that not only could Stout give the reader brilliant novel-length mysteries, he could do just as well in just a thousand words. Three of the stories revolve around holiday themes....and the fourth could be considered an early, yet deadly April Fool.
"Christmas Party," the first of the collection, was the only story I was familiar with. But it had been long enough since I first read it that Stout was still able to pull the wool over my eyes. Nero Wolfe has a problem...well, several. He hates to leave the comfort of his brownstone, but if he must then he wants Archie at the wheel to take him where he needs to go. And he needs to go see a man about some orchids--one of the few things that will move him from his routine. But--Archie informs him that it's his day off and he already has plans. Firm plans. Wolfe isn't used to taking no for an answer and forces the issue...which causes Archie to play his trump card: a marriage license made out in the name of Archie and his current lady-friend. You see, Archie's getting married and the plans involve an announcement of the happy event at a Christmas Party. Wolfe must let Archie go and heads off to see his orchid man with an "untrustworthy" chauffeur at the wheel. Archie heads to the party where a man will die and it looks like Santa Claus is the culprit.
"Easter Parade": Wolfe and his passion for orchids again take center stage. This time the great detective is lusting after a perfectly pink Vanda orchid. It is rumored that Millard Bynoe has managed what Wolfe has been unable to do despite years of hybrid attempts. Bynoe refuses to admit that he has such an orchid, although the rumors say he will be displaying it at the next year's International Flower Show. Wolfe has to be sure about the plant and doesn't want to wait that long. The rumor mill has also said that Bynoe's wife will be wearing a spray from the Vanda on Easter. So, he gets Archie to hire a thief to steal the pink petals and sends Archie along with a camera to capture the orchid on film in case the attempt fails. All is going well--Archie is snapping away and Tabby, his pet thief, is moving in for the snatch when Mrs. Bynoe suddenly collapses at the Easter Parade. Tabby, who doesn't want to give up a hundred dollars, rushes in, grabs the flowers, and he and Archie taxi back to the brownstone. When reports come through that Mrs. Bynoe has died, Wolfe must solve the murder before the police get too interested in the thievery.
"Fourth of July Picnic" once again sees Wolfe venturing out from the brownstone's safe haven. This time he has been flattered and bargained into giving a speech at the United Restaurant Workers of America's annual 4th of July Picnic. Philip Holt, the director, has promised to stop trying to steal Fritz from Wolfe's kitchen if the detective will do the speech. While Wolfe and Archie wait for the detective's moment of glory on stage, someone takes advantage of Holt's sudden bout of illness to stab the man while he rests in a tent. No wonder Wolfe thinks it's unsafe to leave home.
"Murder Is No Joke": Although it's fall in New York, it seems like it must be April Fool's Day when a murderer tries to pull a joke on Nero Wolfe. It starts with Flora Gallant, sister of the fashion designer, Alec Gallant, who wants to hire Wolfe to stop a blackmailer. She's convinced that an unsavory woman has some sort of hold on her brother and she wants Wolfe to find a way to put a stop to it. Before Wolfe can even begin to put his intellect to work on the problem, the alleged blackmailer has been killed--apparently while on the phone with Wolfe and Archie! The detective isn't interested in the murder until a few events make him suspect that a killer is trying on a deadly joke at Wolfe's expense. And we'll have none of that.
All of these short stories are very good and quite enjoyable. I particularly like the way the last two use a bit of the Ellery Queen method of interaction with the reader. There are points in each of them where Archie turns to the reader and says, "There you go...you've got the clues. Can you figure it out?" Just like the challenge to the reader in the older EQ stories. I love that moment....not that I usually can do it, but I think it's a nifty little hook. Four stars for a nice collection.
To drink champagne with a blonde at one elbow and a brunette at the other gives a man a sense of well-being... ("Christmas Party" p. 10)
It's amazing what lengths a man will go to for envy. ("Easter Parade" p. 74)
No orchid ever called a genius a slimy little ego in a big gob of fat. I remarked on that too, but to myself. ("Murder Is No Joke" p. 181)