Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Three Witnesses by Rex Stout

Three Witnesses by Rex Stout, 1956

I crossed to the switch and used my knuckle again, got out my handkerchief to open the door and pull it shut after me, took an elevator down to the lobby floor, found a phone booth and dialed a number. The voice that answered belonged to Fritz. I told him I wanted Wolfe.

He was shocked. "But Archie, he's at dinner!"

"Yeah, I know. Tell him I've been trapped by cannibals and they're slicing me, and step on it."

It was a full two minutes before Wolfe's outraged voice came. "Well, Archie?"

"No, sir. Not well. I'm calling from a booth in the Churchill lobby. I left the clients in the bar, went up to Karnow's room, found the door unlocked, and entered. Karnow was on the floor, dead, shot with an army gun. The gun's there, but it wasn't suicide, the gun was muffled with a wad of towels. How do I earn that five grand now?"

"Confound it, in the middle of a meal."

If you think that was put on, you're wrong. I know that damn fat genius. That was how he felt, and he said it, that's all.
--- (pages 86-87)

The Nero Wolfe series is one of the most delightfully structured universes in mystery fiction. Wolfe's scheduled life is as predictable as his quirky passions, which consist of beer, orchids, food, solitude and crime. The colorful cast of supporting characters revolve around Wolfe and life in the brownstone like planets circling the sun. Stout's formula may be cast in stone, but it's a formula that's absolutely perfect for a mystery series. Into the orderly world of Wolfe's New York, a crime and a group of suspects is introduced. Archie will interview those involved, do some legwork, take--and give--a few punches; Wolfe will sit at home, like a fat spider at the center of a web, and eventually solve the baffling case to the astonishment of the NYPD, as personified by the cigar-chomping Inspector Cramer, the Lestrade to Wolfe's Holmes. Though there are plenty of mysteries that are smarter, darker and richer than Rex Stout's, very few are as totally enjoyable and satisfying.

The novella is the format that best suits the series; the novels tend to get overly complicated, but the plots are not quite straightforward enough to make a good short story. Three Witnesses, like many of the Wolfe books, contains three novellas, all of them excellent examples of what makes the series so appealing.

"The Next Witness," the first novella and my personal favorite of the three, is the most atypical in the collection. Wolfe never sets his foot in the brownstone and he spends most of the novella on the run from the law with Archie. This is enough to make "Witness" a pretty big departure from the usual formula, but it also has a more complex plot than the typical Wolfe whodunit. Suffice it to say that finding the actual murderer is not the main goal here; it's unraveling an ingenious little conspiracy. It's a puzzle that's more like Doyle than Christie, whose influence with Stout is usually stronger. The gambit that Wolfe uses to unmask the conspirators is masterful, a terrific venue for Wolfe's smugness and superiority to shine through. To top it off, the story revolves around old-timey telephone operators, a career with which I have always had a really weird fascination--I think it's a job I would personally excel at, in the unlikely event that I ever time-travel back to the 40s (yeah, I know, I'm strange).

"When a Man Murders. . ." is a more typical Wolfe mystery: limited number of suspects, a universal motive, Wolfe as the armchair detective. I appreciated the fact that the story unfolded at a pretty leisurely pace: the case at first appears to be nothing more than an odd three-way marriage (a device that would only work in Stout's New York, since a simple divorce and remarriage would solve the whole problem in today's day and age). Ultimately, the love triangle storyline is shunted offstage in favor of a less interesting murder mystery plot, which has some nice characterizations, a fine bit of authorial misdirection and a reasonably satisfying conclusion. There's nothing here that isn't done better elsewhere in the canon, although the telephone conversation between Archie and Wolfe, quoted above, is pretty much solid gold.

The last novella, "Die Like a Dog," has the best opening, but like its immediate predecessor, quickly devolves into a fairly simple whodunit with a small cast of suspects. The bizarre little comedy of the abandoned dog is priceless. The awkward way both Archie and Wolfe desperately try to keep the dog while trying to remain casual and indifferent is one of my favorite moments in the series so far. I just love that Wolfe, a man with no patience for frivolity, mess or affection, is so completely taken with an eager-to-please black Lab that he'll solve a murder just to be able to keep him. The murder plot isn't as much fun as the dog-related interludes; it relies on the tired device of a small group of possible murderers and the coat-switching deus ex machina that allows Wolfe to crack the case is too far-fetched, even for Stout. It doesn't help that the unravelling is virtually identical to the one at the end of "When a Man Murders. . .," right down to the crucial misdirect and Inspector Cramer and Purley Stebbins looking on in astonishment. The dog subplot definitely stands out more than the main storyline.

Three Witnesses, like most entries in the Nero Wolfe series, doesn't shake up the accepted formula much, and that's fine by me. I've only read a relatively small segment of the series (there are seventy-three books, after all) and the books' dependability is one of their charms. I hope that at some point Stout puts his considerable talent into doing something mind-blowing, but you know what? Sometimes I don't need my mind blown. The Wolfe novels are really well-written comfort food, and even though Stout's rhythm is offbeat, it's easy to drop back into once you're used to it. Despite a certain lack of originality, Stout can spin a very fine story, and, like Doyle, he's created a pair of characters whose strange partnership is endlessly entertaining.

NEXT UP: The conclusion to the Inheritance Cycle, the aptly titled Inheritance .

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