Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Nero Wolfe Reviews: "The Silent Speaker" 1946

Rex Stout came roaring back from the war years with a full-length book as opposed to the short story collections he had been producing for the past few years.

The post-war situation obviously inspired this story with the Bureau of Price Regulation standing in for the real Office of Price Administration and the National Industrial Association standing in for any number of business organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce.

You see WW II brought about many governmental controls over industry in the name of mobilization for the war as well as a country which was still recovering from the Great Depression. As such, the government had taken over a number of industries and switched them to the production of items necessary for the war and the government had also set prices for many goods and services during this time in order to prevent gouging on items which had become more scarce or difficult to produce.

Of course, after the war was over many of these governmental controls remained in place in order to help ensure a smooth transition from a wartime economy to a peacetime one. This led to a certain amount of friction between the government and business as many businesses now wanted the government out of their hair.

It was this conflict which inspired Stout's story here.

The good news is that you don't have to be a history major to enjoy the story. Although if do have a background in history (as I do) it adds a little extra layer of satire to the story which is really enjoyable. That's right, *better living through history!*

Anyway, let's get on to the meat of the matter....

The Plot: Wolfe's funds are getting low so for a change he goes fishing for a case rather than accepting one that has dropped into his lap. In this case Cheney Boone, the Director of the Bureau of Price Regulation is murdered right before he is scheduled to give a speech before the National Industrial Association. There is certainly no love lost between the BPR and the NIA but who would resort to murder and why? Wolfe sets out to solve the mystery to earn his fee but along the way the killer strikes again and proves to be elusive -- much to Wolfe's anger. With a reputation and a big, fat paycheck on the line Wolfe is determined to solve the case... even if he has to drag both organizations through the mud in the process.

My Take: As I said before, you don't have to be a historian to get this story. The rivalries and conflicts are as old as time and readers will probably see some echoes in the modern struggle between businesses and government regulation.

At heart, though, the story is about the personalities involved and, as always, Stout creates strong, memorable personalities for his characters. In particular is Phoebe Gunther -- Boone's secretary and one of the few women who win the open respect of the misogynistic Wolfe. Not only is she a match for Wolfe's intelligence she is also a match for Archie's razor sharp tongue -- giving back as good as she gets.

And Stout's Archie and Wolfe are at the top of their game here -- Wolfe, for once, even more so than Archie as Wolfe presents one of the most hysterically funny and terrible displays of a "nervous breakdown" ever committed to print. Again, Stout proves masterful at throwing in bits of humor among the seriousness of the investigation.

The investigation in question takes many twists and turns and, interestingly, it stalls out for Wolfe and Archie yet Stout manages to make even no new information seem tension-filled. Wolfe being blocked at every turn, missing the last crucial piece of the puzzle, leaves the reader waiting with baited breath as the pressures mount for Wolfe to solve the case. Will this be the first time Wolfe loses?

This story also has the benefit of being one of those adapted for the A & E TV series. As with the previous outing, Over My Dead Body, the adaptation is almost ridiculously faithful to the book. There are a few slight changes but none of them are jarring and, again, dialogue is lifted pretty much whole from the book -- proving (as if proof were needed) that Stout could write just as well if not better than any Hollywood script writer.

There isn't a foot put wrong here and The Silent Speaker is Stout weaving a book-length tale in his inimitable fashion.

Favorite Quote:
"Who's Wolfe working for?"
"There is never," I told him, "any question about that. He is working first, last and all the time for Wolfe."

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