Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Nero Wolfe Reviews: "Black Orchids"

This 1942 book would be the first of Rex Stout's to collect short stories into a single volume. It would not be the last. Most of Stout's short story collections would put two or three stories in a volume but rarely more than that.

The two stories contained here are "Black Orchids" and "Cordially Invited to Meet Death". Since both stories really do stand each on their own I'm looking at them separately for my review.

The other thing to make Black Orchids a little different is that the stories are connected and that . It is a somewhat tenuous connection but they are deliberately linked together with a bit of narration from Archie Goodwin. Other volumes of stories did not necessarily link the stories together. Here the link is, as the title suggests, rare black orchids.

The Plot: Black Orchids: Wolfe actually leave the brownstone again. This time he treks to a flower show to see the black orchids a rival orchid enthusiast has bred. When a murder occurs, though, and threatens scandal Wolfe undertakes to flush out the killer... for a very specific fee.

My Take: In point of fact, the method for murder here is rather needlessly convoluted and one can think of a dozen or more different ways it could have gone wrong. Stout's succumbing to a bit of theatrical flourish (okay, more theatrical flourish since, really, you can't get any more theatrical than Wolfe himself) does hurt the story a little bit. Stout quickly gets back on track, though, with a twisty little murder which hits all the right notes and concludes with a bang which manages to show off just how cold-hearted Wolfe can be sometimes.

Favorite Quote: The dick got out his memo book and wrote it down. "I don't think it was deliberate", he said. "I think she just changed her mind. I think she just --"

"You think? You say you think?"

"Yes, Inspector, I --"

"Get out. Take another man, take Dorsey, and go to that address and look into her. Don't pick her up. Keep on her. And for God's sake don't think. It's repulsive the idea of you thinking."

The Plot: Cordially Invited to Meet Death: A famous party organizer and all around eccentric come to hire Wolfe to find out who is initiating a smear campaign against her -- intimating she is uncovering secrets about her wealthy clients and then gossiping them about. Before he can sole the mystery, however, his client dies of tetanus -- a terrible accident. Wolfe feels honor bound to fulfill his contract though... by proving this was no accident but actually a cunning murder!

My Take: This one is likely to give you a kind of "mood whiplash" but in a surprisingly fun way. The story is filled with eccentric characters and crazy situations which make you laugh out loud but then there is nothing funny about the murder... or the murderer. It is interesting to see Stout tackle this kind of emotional balancing act though -- keeping the humor and the drama both in check and it should come as no surprise that he seems to do it effortlessly. It is also interesting to note that this story illustrates as well how far medical science has come in the intervening years since people in the U.S. today rarely die of Tetanus if they receive proper medical treatment -- even after onset of symptoms.

Favorite Quote: "The bottle in that cupboard contained good iodine at four o'clock that afternoon."

Cramer growled. Daniel demanded, "How do you know that?"

"Because it was used that hour. By Archie. He tripped on an alligator and scratched his hand."

And for the record -- that isn't Wolfe making a joke. The story contains a real, live alligator, a chimpanzee and a bear.

Taken as a whole, both stories in Black Orchid are fine examples of Stout's prowess with the pen and way around a good mystery. I have to say, however, from a personal standpoint, "Cordially Invited to Meet Death" is the stronger of the two with it's combination of more humor and drama and slightly less ridiculous method for murder.

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