Thursday, May 31, 2012

A hopeless case, an unfriendly cop and a nervous breakdown

It's always fun to re-visit a Nero Wolfe story. Of course, that's true of all the Great Detectives. It's as much their unique personalities as the well-constructed mysteries that draw us to them.

If you're not familiar with Mr. Wolfe, you need to be. Both he and his assistant Archie Goodwin are wonderful character that you always enjoy spending time with.

One thing about Wolfe is that he hates to work. If it were up to him, he'd stay inside his Manhatten brownstone forever, sticking to his rigid schedule that includes meals, a total of four hours with his orchids in his rooftop greenhouse and reading. But that lifestyle costs money, so he occasionally has to earn a (preferably large) fee solving a seemingly unsolvable murder.

The Silent Speaker (1946) gets off to an unusual start in that Wolfe actually solicits his services when the bank account runs a bit low. Of course, he does this in a way that brings the clients to him in a way that makes them think hiring him was their idea.

The murder victim in this case was an important government official who was killed just before giving a speech to an unfriendly organization of businessmen. That means there's something like 1400 suspects and the police are stumped. Wolfe seems to be stumped as well through much of the book, much to Archie's chagrin. When a second person is murdered right on Wolfe's door step, that narrows the suspect list down a bit, but there still seems to be no evidence pointing to the real killer.

Stout always seems to bring in new situations to his novels that give each one a truly unique feel. In this one, their usual police contact--the usually unfriendly Inspector Cramer--is replaced because of political pressure. His replacement--the even more unfriendly Inspector Ash--immediately issues a warrant for Wolfe, assuming that the corpulent detective is holding out on the cops. In a way, Ash is somewhat justified--Wolfe actually holds out on the cops all the time. But his method of dealing with Wolfe simply makes him an enemy that, in the end, he's not smart enough to deal with.

A bit later on, the situation becomes such that Wolfe knows something he does will bring the cops, his clients and a parade of newspapermen to his door. So he fakes a nervous breakdown, spending three days confined to his bedroom with a doctor's orders that he not be disturbed. Archie fends off the often very insistent visitors as he grows more and more worried. By now, everything hinges on finding a recording cylinder made by the victim not long before his death. But that seems hopeless and Wolfe's actions seem to be desperate ones.

But it just may turn out that Nero Wolfe had a plan all along.

The Silent Speaker is near the top of the list of the best Nero Wolfe novels. Wolfe may drive Archie to despair on a regular basis, but the rest of us need never regret spending some time with him.

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