It’s Mystery Series Week! To celebrate, our Minnesota District Training Coordinator, Becky Marquis, put together a Top Five Rex Stout Mysteries list for us (Rex Stout, for those of you who don’t know, was nominated as Best Mystery Writer of the Century). Thanks, Becky M. — take it away!
“Rex Stout just has a way with words. As a child, my mother taught me and my siblings to use words as toys: puns, jokes, word games & vocabulary challenges. Now Rex Stout’s books are virtual playgrounds of clever phrases, ten dollar words, and snappy repartee. Every character has a clear and unique voice, and both Nero Wolfe & Archie Goodwin, Stout’s famous detective duo, are inclined to play with words themselves. Wolfe’s speech often keeps me on my toes with words like plerophory, casuistry, and sophistry. Archie’s speech often keeps me in stitches with phrases like ‘his mouth was arranged into a smile that would have done a brush salesman proud’. The cases are sometimes fairly simple, sometimes quite complicated, and always entertaining.
Here are my top 5 favorites:
For those interested in trying out a Rex Stout book, this would be my recommendation for a first taste. It has all of the classic elements of Nero Wolfe’s eccentricities (his immutable schedule, his refusal to leave his house, and his desire to not work any harder than necessary to earn his fee), as well as having some of the best of Archie Goodwin’s narration. The case involves a visiting noble in New York, multiple murders, blackmail, and a pact made at the turn of the century by an escapee from a lynch mob. Throw in a lovely young lady in distress for a touch of romantic interest, and a grouchy police detective for added complications, and you’ve got the full sample of a Nero Wolfe mystery.
This tale has Nero Wolfe out of his usual surroundings, being stuck at a country estate after a car accident on the way to the orchid exhibit at the North Atlantic Exposition. A young man is killed in the pasture, supposedly by a prize bull, and Wolfe undertakes to prove that the supposed accident was actually murder. And why does he take this case? Not out of any sense of justice, but, as Archie swears, to find a comfortable chair to sit in while he’s away from home. The interplay between Wolfe and Archie in this tale is fantastic, and never fails to make me laugh. This is also the case where Lily Rowan is introduced, the only woman able to keep up with Archie’s banter and return in kind.
This case brings a new element of Wolfe’s mysterious life to light. Wolfe’s adopted daughter, lost over ten years ago in the Balkans reappears in New York asking for his assistance in clearing her friend of thievery charges. Wolfe reluctantly agrees to assist, but when Archie is sent to get the details from the fencing school where the daughter & her friend work, he finds himself at the scene of a murder. Displaced Eastern European royalty, a German agent, and plenty of lies keep the plot twisting. One of my favorite parts of this story is Archie’s quick escape from the scene of the murder when he suddenly realizes that someone has stashed the murder weapon in his coat pocket.
This book is one of the more intense stories in the Rex Stout library, with Wolfe & Archie embarking upon a crusade to find the killer of Wolfe’s long time friend. Their search takes them to Montenegro ‘the Black Mountain’, and into many layers of peril and difficult discoveries. This case, more than many others was not only a matter of deduction & cleverness, but also a case involving a great deal of action and personal danger. Most Nero Wolfe mysteries I enjoy for the humor of Archie’s narration and the cleverness of Wolfe’s deductions. I love this one because of the way it grabs me and keeps me riveted no matter how many times I read it.
Technically, this book is comprised of two short stories ‘Black Orchids’ and ‘Cordially Invited to Meet Death’, but the stories are intertwined and both are favorites. The first story, ‘Black Orchids’ starts with Archie being sent to a flower show to scout out some rare orchids, and ends with Wolfe, Archie, Inspector Cramer, and a couple of cohorts sitting in Wolfe’s own fumigation room, waiting to be poisoned. ‘Cordially Invited to Meet Death’ involves murder by tetanus. What’s more to say?”
Thanks again, Becky M.! So, any other Rex Stout fans out there? Which book is your favorite? If there’s a book or series you’d like us to review here on the Half Price Blog, give us a shout.
— Becky G.