Sunday, February 6, 2011

Nero Wolfe Reviews: "Not Quite Dead Enough" 1942

And with this book the series finally enters the War years. World War II obviously. As with Black Orchids this book consists of two short stories -- "Not Quite Dead Enough" and "Booby Trap".

Not Quite Dead Enough
The Plot: Archie Goodwin has entered the Army and been made a Major in Army Intelligence. Archie is called back to New York after an assignment and told his new assignment is to get Nero Wolfe! The military brass wants Wolfe working for them but Wolfe keeps refusing to talk to anyone.

So Archie returns to the brownstone but gets the shock of his life -- Wolfe has not only stopped taking cases he's put himself on a diet and is exercising to get in shape to join the military and fight in the war! Needing dynamite to blast Wolfe out of this notion, Archie decides to do a favor for his sometime inamorata Lily Rowan. An acquaintance of Lily's -- one Ann Amory -- knows something about someone (a secret that seems to be tied to the death of an old woman named Mrs. Leeds) but needs advice. Archie is unsuccessful in getting the girl to confide in him and when Ann suddenly turns up murdered Archie sees a way of killing two birds with one stone. He gets himself sort-of framed for Ann's murder, knowing it will get Wolfe involved... and once Wolfe is involved he should be able to bring Ann's killer to justice.

Archie's plot works... perhaps a little too well, because now suspicion is thrown on Lily for the crime. What will Archie do if Wolfe uncovers Lily as the killer? Could it be possible?

My Take: This is another of Stout's stories that is filled with hilariously quirky characters -- from two old bickering ladies to a man with an obsession with racing pigeons. Unfortunately, the story is also tied to a murder in which the reader has to swallow something of the abject stupidity of the victim. There are no really good reasons for Ann not to confide in Archie and it is a bit of a failing on Stout's part not to give any. Then again, many mystery series require the reader to accept at least one stupid action (and sometimes more than one) on the part of the characters.

We also have the return of Lily Rowan whom we first met in Some Buried Caesar. She is sadly changed, though. Gone is the unconventional, free spirit who was inclined to thumb her nose at social conventions and who could take someone or leave them. Here she has been turned into a borderline stalker who pursues Archie relentlessly. It is, in a word, unattractive.

The real saving grace of this story is seeing what happens to Wolfe when he loses his right-hand man to the war. There is an insanity that seems uniquely Wolfian in that he retaliates in the most unthinkable (for him) manner possible. With Wolfe's extreme actions Archie is forced to take some extreme measures of his own to get Wolfe's head back on straight.

Favorite Quote: Archie: "There is one thing you are better qualified to do than anyone else, in connection with undercover enemy activities in this country. It is a situation requiring brains, which you used to have and sometimes used. The Commander in Chief, the Secretary of War, and the General Staff, also Sergeant York, respectfully request you cut the comedy and begin using them. You are wrong if you think your sudden appearance in the front lines will make the Germans laugh themselves to death."

Booby Trap
The Plot: Someone is selling manufacturing secrets to rival companies to give them a leg up after the war. When the Army Intelligence officer assigned to the investigation turns up dead Wolfe and Archie are assigned to find out what he knew... and find out why he died if they can. Things heat up quickly, though, when the dead man's commanding officer also dies -- his office blown up with a hand grenade. He had just lost his only son to the war -- could it have been suicide? Or is there someone who has a secret to keep? Wolfe is determined to get to the bottom of it but can even he flush out a killer who has covered his tracks so well?

My Take: As was true of Black Orchids one of the two stories is stronger than the other and this is the stronger one. There is less silliness to be swallowed and there is also a kind of cinematic drama to many of the scenes. This story could have easily been adapted to the A & E TV series.

There is also a decided lack of humor and quirky characters here but that is to be expected as Stout takes a more serious tone to the story. Also, considering that Stout wrote this story during the war years it makes sense that he would be willing to portray many of the military figures involved as somewhat less than inspired but by no means ineffectual idiots.

While the mystery itself isn't poor it also isn't really anything spectacular until the end. The ending to this story is shocking and one is again reminded that Wolfe is not always a very good person... or even necessarily a moral one.

Favorite Quote: Inspector Cramer: "I've known Wolfe for something like twenty years, and I'll tell you this. Show me a corpse, any corpse, under the most ideal and innocent circumstances, with a certificate signed by every doctor in New York, including the Medical Examiner. Then show me Nero Wolfe anywhere within reach, exhibiting the faintest sign of interest, and I order the squad to go to work immediately."

Taken as a whole, Not Quite Dead Enough is interesting and entertaining -- particularly as a kind of peek into history at what the homefront was like in WW II. It is the second story, though -- "Booby Trap" -- that will stick in your mind long after the cover is closed.

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