Monday, October 18, 2010

The Nero Wolfe Reviews: Some Buried Caesar (1939)

Rex Stout is probably one of the few writers who could combine comedy farce with tragedy in such an effortless blend as this...

The Plot: When Wolfe leave the brownstone it's just one problem after another... On their way to the mid-Atlantic exhibition in upstate New York a blowout causes Archie and Wolfe to become guests of Mr. Pratt -- a roadside diner mogul. Pratt has purchased a champion bull -- Hickory Caesar Grindon -- in order to butcher and barbecue it as a publicity stunt. This puts Pratt on the hate list of local stockmen.

If that were not enough, Pratt also has a feud with the neighboring Osgood family. Upon finding out about the stunt Clyde, the Osgood scion, makes a reckless bet that Pratt will not barbecue Caesar that week.

It is not Pratt who winds up dead, however, but Clyde; found in Caesar's pasture apparently killed by the bull while trying to steal it to win the bet. At least that's what the authorities think. Clyde's father thinks differently and Wolfe backs him up and declares it to be murder. Osgood hires Wolfe to prove it so and find the killer and Wolfe accepts the case. This time, though, the great detective is up against an unexpectedly wily and fast moving killer. Can Wolfe prove the murder before all the evidence vanishes?

My Take: The opening sequence from the car accident to the bull chase is quite one of the funniest things I've read in a long time. If you can read that without laughing or at least cracking a smile then you should probably see a doctor because you funnybone may be broken.

From there the story is light, breezy and funny -- almost like one of the screwball comedies of the 1930's, which makes the sudden death hit with the force of a sledgehammer. One would expect the humor to quickly evaporate after that but this is Stout we're talking about here. He somehow manages to move from scenes of comedy to scene of pathos with lightning speed. The readers' emotions and sympathies are put in a bumper car with a target painted on it and yet it never makes the reader feel strained or whiplashed.

Stout also returns to his theme of romance as well. Here he places a definite call back to Romeo and Juliet in the form of the feuding families and young lovers but that aspect of the story never really ends up on the front burner. In fact, out of all of these early books Some Buried Caesar is one of the few where, once the "young lovers" subplot is introduces it fades away almost completely.

That's okay, though, because a different sort of relationship begins here. Meet Lily Rowan. She is independent, smart, wealthy, used to getting her own way, and keenly self-aware. She would actually be a very easy character to dislike but Stout injects her with so much charm, verve and life that she becomes one of his best characters. She comes across as a very modern woman -- one who would be as comfortable in 2010 as she was in 1939. And if you think Archie and Wolfe's dialogue is sharp wait till you read Archie and Lily. Their exchanges have the wit, punch and sexual tension of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and Archie and Lily actually predate the first pairing of those actors on screen!

Readers also get a look at a slightly new side to Wolfe as well. He's a bit of a greedy jerk here. We've seen him be eccentric, egotistical, arrogant and manipulative but this is something more than that. He's selfish. Here he is certain Clyde's death was murder and without being hired the death would have been labled an accident and a killer would have gone free and a death gone unavenged. Despite Wolfe's defense of his actions it still places him in an unflattering light.

As for the mystery, again, this was a story which I had at least part of figured out early on. The relative thinness of the mystery does not detract at all though from the overall story. The characters are so forcefully drawn that it is them you keep reading for, not necessarily the mystery.

Archie and Wolfe tackle a mystery off their home turf, comedy and tragedy ensues and Archie meets a woman who just might be able to match him smart-alec quip for smart-alec quip. Some Buried Caesar sure shouldn't be buried in your reading pile.

My Favorite Quote of the Book: I stood up with my heels together and saluted him, and he glared at me. Naturally he knew I was on to him, Machiavelli was a simple little shepherd lad by comparison. Not that I disapproved by any means, for the chances were that I would get a fairly good bed myself, but it was one more proof that under no circumstances could you ever really trust him.

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