Sunday, January 15, 2012

Over My Dead Body: A Nero Wolfe Mystery

This is not the version that El T read, but the cover of this one is much nicer

The novel opens with a beautiful Balkan émigré entering Nero Wolfe’s office on West 35th Street, pleading for assistance on behalf of her friend. The friend, she claims, has been falsely accused of stealing some diamonds. When Wolfe expresses reluctance to accept the case, this mysterious femme drops the bombshell: the girl accused is no other than Wolfe’s long-lost adopted daughter!

From such hokey beginnings, the storyline unfolds: Archie Goodwin, Wolfe’s ever-faithful assistant, is despatched to the fencing school, where the petitioner and Wolfe’s allegeded daugther work as instructors. Once there, Archie stumbles across a murder – not to mention agents of foreign governments, heirs to rich industrialists, shady dealings with European royalty, blackmail...

Over My Dead Body was El Tarangu’s first introduction to Nero Wolfe, Rex Stout’s corpulent detective. Over My Dead Body, like the rest of the Nero Wolfe stories, is recounted in the first person by Archie, just as the Sherlock Holmes stories are relayed to the reader via Watson. In fact, there are a number of similarities in the dynamic that exists between Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, and that of Holmes and Dr. Watson (while reading Over My Dead Body, El T was also reading the second Sherlock Holmes story, The Sign of the Four). The hobbies of both Holmes and Wolfe are referenced in their respective stories: Holmes enjoys playing the violin and intravenous cocaine usage, while Wolfe prefers tending to his orchids and getting sozzled on beer at eleven in the morning. And the undercurrent of sexual tension between Wolfe and Goodwin runs even stronger than it does between Holmes and Watson. Sure, Wolfe and Goodwin both display a mutual antagonism towards one another, but that’s just the manner in which their repressed mutual desire manifests itself. And Goodwin once or twice passes remark about the desirability of certain female characters, but you can tell that he’s just doing it to make Wolfe jealous. To complete the closeted ménage, it is stated that Fritz, Wolfe’s chef-cum-manservant, is afraid of women, and hides whenever one comes to visit Wolfe’s brownstone.

Such latent longings aside, Over My Dead Body is a fun, well-structured, all-round enjoyable detective novel. The appeal of the Nero Wolfe mysteries lies not in the plot, but in the characters. The grouchy Wolfe frequently displays his dry, sardonic wit, while Goodwin regularly interjects with smart-alecky asides. Goodwin also occasionally comes out with pearls of ‘40s slang such as: “She sounded darn unconcerned for a girl who has just escaped being thrown in the hoosegow as a sneak thief”.

Nero Wolfe doesn’t like to leave the comfort of his brownstone, and co-ordinates all of his investigations from behind the desk in his office. This inevitably results in Goodwin performing most of the legwork, aided sometimes by Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin and Orrie Cather. Wolfe’s reluctance to leaving his office also means that any set piece perpetrator-unmasking dénouement is reliant on Wolfe getting the culprit to agree to come to his office. As Over My Dead Body is only about the seventh of the Nero Wolfe mysteries, this device worked fine, but I imagine that by book twenty or so, Rex Stout was beginning to run out of credible foils to have the murderer/criminal trot along meekly to Wolfe’s office to be caught.

Good novel with well-crafted, very engaging characters; El Tarangu would definitely recommend.

Hat tip: Thanks to Kinky Friedman for introducing El T to the Nero Wolfe mysteries in When the Cat’s Away.

Cover image from the Wonder Publishing Group blog, which El T also recommends.

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