Read Nero Wolfe 16 - Even in the Best Families Online

Authors: Rex Stout

Tags: #Mystery & Detective, #Private Investigators - New York (State) - New York, #New York (N.Y.), #Political, #Fiction, #Mystery Fiction, #Wolfe; Nero (Fictitious Character), #General

Nero Wolfe 16 - Even in the Best Families

BOOK: Nero Wolfe 16 - Even in the Best Families
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Rex Stout

R
EX
S
TOUT
, the creator of Nero Wolfe, was born in Noblesville, Indiana, in 1886, the sixth of nine children of John and Lucetta Todhunter Stout, both Quakers. Shortly after his birth the family moved to Wakarusa, Kansas. He was educated in a country school, but by the age of nine he was recognized throughout the state as a prodigy in arithmetic. Mr. Stout briefly attended the University of Kansas, but he left to enlist in the Navy and spent the next two years as a warrant officer on board President Theodore Roosevelt’s yacht. When he left the Navy in 1908, Rex Stout began to write freelance articles and worked as a sightseeing guide and an itinerant bookkeeper. Later he devised and implemented a school banking system which was installed in four hundred cities and towns throughout the country. In 1927 Mr. Stout retired from the world of finance and, with the proceeds of his banking scheme, left for Paris to write serious fiction. He wrote three novels that received favorable reviews before turning to detective fiction. His first Nero Wolfe novel,
Fer-de-Lance
, appeared in 1934. It was followed by many others, among them.
Too Many Cooks, The Silent Speaker, If Death Ever Slept, The Doorbell Rang
, and
Please Pass the Guilt
, which established Nero Wolfe as a leading character on a par with Erie Stanley Gardner’s famous protagonist, Perry Mason. During World War II Rex Stout waged a personal campaign against Nazism as chairman of the War Writers’ Board, master of ceremonies of the radio program “Speaking of Liberty,” and member of several national committees. After the war he turned his attention to mobilizing public opinion against the wartime use of thermonuclear devices, was an active leader in the Authors’ Guild, and resumed writing his Nero Wolfe novels. Rex Stout died in 1975 at the age of eighty-eight. A month before his death he published his seventy-second Nero Wolfe mystery,
A Family Affair
. Ten years later, a seventy-third Nero Wolfe mystery was discovered and published in
Death Times Three
.

The Rex Stout Library

Fer-de-Lance

The League of Frightened Men

The Rubber Band

The Red Box

Too Many Cooks

Some Buried Caesar

Over My Dead Body

Where There’s a Will

Black Orchids

Not Quite Dead Enough

The Silent Speaker

Too Many Women

And Be a Villain

The Second Confession

Trouble in Triplicate

In the Best Families

Three Doors to Death

Murder by the Book

Curtains for Three

Prisoner’s Base

Triple Jeopardy

The Golden Spiders

The Black Mountain

Three Men Out

Before Midnight

Might As Well Be Dead

Three Witnesses

If Death Ever Slept

Three for the Chair

Champagne for One

And Four to Go

Plot It Yourself

Too Many Clients

Three at Wolfe’s Door

The Final Deduction

Gambit

Homicide Trinity

The Mother Hunt

A Right to Die

Trio for Blunt Instruments

The Doorbell Rang

Death of a Doxy

The Father Hunt

Death of a Dude

Please Pass the Guilt

A Family Affair

Death Times Three

Introduction

I
first met Nero Wolfe in 1954, when I was ten years old.

My father, a Presbyterian pastor with an eclectic taste in literature, was bedridden that long, hot, coastal North Carolina summer and had sent an urgent note to the librarian:
Please let Patti check out books for me
. It was a great honor, and a great responsibility.

Each Friday evening Mother and I made the five-mile trip into Wilmington. While she bought groceries at the local Colonial, I tiptoed from the children’s section to the grown-up shelves and savored titles, trying to pick books that would help my daddy feel better. I don’t know if it was his preference or my own, but I usually wound up with an armful of mysteries.

During the twilit rides home, secluded in my backseat nest of brown-paper bags, I dipped into Daddy’s books, for it was—and still is—constitutionally impossible for me to ride five miles with an unopened book. One evening I discovered an enormous spider of a detective who waited amid his orchids for
cases to come to him. When I was ten, spiders were fascinating. So was Nero Wolfe.

As an adult, I see other reasons why Nero Wolfe tickled my ten-year-old’s fancy. For one thing, he was fat—so fat he overflowed his chair. He drank beer. Nobody in my daddy’s congregation admitted to drinking anything stronger than Pepsi. He sassed (insulted) people and got away with it. He got away with being a picky eater, too, and he never did anything he didn’t want to do. Nero Wolfe was the grown-up this child yearned to be!

All through that stultifying summer, while Mother worried and Daddy dyed white sheets gold with sweat-soaked pajamas, I devoured stories about Nero Wolfe—including
In the Best Families
. I neither noticed nor cared who wrote them; at that age I assumed all authors were dead people.

By autumn Daddy was well, I was sent back to the library’s children’s section, and Nero Wolfe was stored on the mental shelves of my childhood reserved for Forbidden Fruit. I forgot all about him.

During the next thirty-eight years, I discovered dead Englishwomen writers and fell in love with whodunits. I tried a few hard-boiled American books but found them long on violence and profanity, short on conversation, puzzle, and plot. I concluded I didn’t like American mystery authors, especially male ones.

Then, in the strange workings of Providence, which sometimes decrees that we shall become what we profess to eschew, in 1988 I myself became an American mystery author. In 1992 I was confined to bed with hepatitis, reduced to reading whatever other people brought me. Among one stack of offerings were three books by an unfamiliar author, Rex Stout.

Only when I had read everything else within reach did I finally open
The Mother Hunt
. There, in paragraph two, with that keen joy reserved for the recovery of dear things we’ve forgotten we’ve lost, I found my old friend Nero Wolfe!

He was just as fat, just as sassy, just as picky, just as adamantly immobile, and just as delightful as he’d been nearly forty years before.

In his creator, however, I found something astonishing and far more subtle: the standards by which I still judge all mystery writing and toward which I strive in my own.

In the Best Families
illustrates where I learned to prefer detectives who are intelligent, cultured, nonviolent, and shrewd rather than those who lead with their fists or their gonads. Thugs and master criminals may use firearms and explosives. Archie Goodwin may feel more comfortable with a gun under his armpit. Nero Wolfe, however, invariably acts—as he instructs Goodwin in this case—“in the light of experience as guided by intelligence.”

Stout presumes intelligent readers as well. A random opening of this novel turns up words like
shamus, scrutinized
, and
echelons
, and a master criminal who explains to Archie Goodwin that “a basic requirement for continued success in illicit enterprises is a sympathetic understanding of the limitation of the human nervous system.” No wonder my vocabulary increased dramatically the summer I met Nero Wolfe!

No wonder, too, that I subsequently found hard-boiled detectives immature and boring. No one taught by Stout to appreciate urbane maturity would ever confuse “adult” with mere prurience or repetitive profanity. I believe it was by Stout that I was
first convinced, as one of my own characters would later say, that a writer who depends on frequent profanity needs a larger vocabulary.

In the Best Families
also shows why I have always thought mysteries ought to be funny. Not slapstick, add-it-to-the-plot funny, but intrinsic-to-the-character funny. Stout taught me irony by creating a famous detective who, at the end of a case, calls his chef before he calls the police. And while, as a child, I scarcely noticed Archie Goodwin, I absorbed the bite and personality behind lines like “I solemnly assured her that we rarely notified the press when someone requested an appointment on business” and “[His] eyes were the result of an error on the assembly line. They had been intended for a shark and someone got careless.”

Finally, Rex Stout’s books explain why I continue to believe that no matter how well drawn the characters, they cannot carry a mystery without a clever, well-contrived plot.
In the Best Families
twists and turns as Wolfe’s new client immediately gets murdered, Wolfe’s kitchen is bombed, and Wolfe decamps, leaving Archie to deal with a master criminal. Then Archie himself is embroiled in the criminal organization by a seamy Californian, and—No, read it yourself! See if you, like me, find it fascinating, clever, and wholly satisfying.


Patricia Sprinkle

Chapter 1

I
t was nothing out of the ordinary that Mrs. Barry Rackham had made the appointment with her finger pressed to her lips. That is by no means an unusual gesture for people who find themselves in a situation where the best they can think of is to make arrangements to see Nero Wolfe.

With Mrs. Barry Rackham the shushing finger was only figurative, since she made the date speaking to me on the phone. It was in her voice, low and jerky, and also in the way she kept telling me how confidential it was, even after I solemnly assured her that we rarely notified the press when someone requested an appointment on business. At the end she told me once more that she would have preferred to speak to Mr. Wolfe himself, and I hung up and decided it rated a discreet routine check on a prospective client, starting with Mr. Mitchell at the bank and Lon Cohen at the
Gazette
. On the main point of interest; could she and did she pay her bills, the news was favorable: she was worth a good four million and maybe five. Calling it four, and assuming that Wolfe’s bill for services rendered would come to only half of it, that would be enough to pay my current salary—
as Wolfe’s secretary, trusted assistant, and official gnat—for a hundred and sixty-seven years; and in addition to that, living as I did there in Wolfe’s house, I also got food and shelter. So I was fixed for life if it turned out that she needed two million bucks’ worth of detective work.

She might have at that, judging from the way she looked and acted at 11:05 the next morning, Friday, when the doorbell rang and I went to let her in. There was a man on the stoop with her, and after glancing quickly east and then west she brushed past him and darted inside, grabbed my sleeve, and told me in a loud whisper, “You’re not Nero Wolfe!”

Instantly she released me, seized the elbow of her companion to hurry him across the sill, and whispered at him explosively, “Come in and shut the door!” You might have thought she was a duchess diving into a hock shop.

Not that she was my idea of a duchess physically. As I attended to the door and got the man’s hat and topcoat hung on the rack, I took them in. She was a paradox—bony from the neck up and ample from the neck down. On her chin and jawbone and cheekbone the skin was stretched tight, but alongside her mouth and nose were tangles of wrinkles.

As I helped her off with her fur coat I told her, “Look, Mrs. Rackham. You came to consult Nero Wolfe, huh?”

“Yes,” she whispered. She nodded and said right out loud, “Of course.”

“Then you ought to stop trembling if you can. It makes Mr. Wolfe uneasy when a woman trembles because he thinks she’s going to be hysterical, and he might not listen to you. Take a deep breath and try to stop.”

“You were trembling all the way down here in the car,” the man said in a mild baritone.

“I was not!” she snapped. That settled, she turned to me. “This is my cousin, Calvin Leeds. He didn’t want me to come here, but I brought him along anyhow. Where’s Mr. Wolfe?”

BOOK: Nero Wolfe 16 - Even in the Best Families
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