And Be A Villain was also published under the UK title More Deaths Than One. The American title bestowed by its author is a snippet of quotation from Hamlet: “… one can smile and smile, and be a villain.” The British title is a snippet from Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol: “For he who lives more lives than one, more deaths than one must die.”
Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of detective fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you will learn more than you care to know about the titular novel, although IN THIS POST I do NOT reveal the identity of the murder or crucial details. I’m doing this post in conjunction with my fellow blogger JJ, at “The Invisible Event“, who carried on a conversation with me about the same novel, a transcript of which is found here. That discussion reveals EVERYTHING. If you haven’t already read this mystery and read either post, it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame; it’s an excellent book. So please go and read the book before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own.
What is this book about?
Madeleine Fraser is the host of a 1948 version of the talk show; this one is on radio and is a hit. Twice a week she welcomes guests who all sit around and chit-chat with her and co-host Bill Meadows on a topic putatively of interest to the listening audience. One fateful day, the topic is betting on horse racing. Among the guests are a professor of mathematics, to talk about statistics, and Cyril Orchard, who runs a racing tip sheet. In order to please one of the sponsors — a soft drink called Starlite, The Drink You Dream Of — at a certain point in every program’s proceedings everyone pours a glass of Starlite and comments on how refreshing it is, et cetera. (An early form of product placement.) Unfortunately for both the sponsor and the racing fraternity, when Mr. Orchard drinks his glass of Starlite, he falls down dead from cyanide poisoning, on the air.
Irascible private investigator Nero Wolfe needs money and decides to send his assistant Archie Goodwin to Ms. Fraser and her organization — associates, her manager, sponsors’ representatives — in order to drum up a fee for taking the case. The sponsors are anxious to pin blame on anyone and anything but Starlite and agree to foot the bill. Wolfe then embarks upon a program familiar to Stoutian aficionados; he calls all the suspects together in his home, and questions them exhaustively on every aspect of the death. Then he identifies small inconsistencies in the group story and sends Archie out to investigate them individually, with Archie paying special attention to any beautiful young woman involved in the case.
In the audience that day was 16-year-old Nancylee Shepherd, who “organized the biggest Fraser Girls Club in the country”. Miss Shepherd is what’s called a bobbysoxer, although not in the text, and her favourite intensifier is “simply utterly”. Although she is pert and sassy (more than verging on obnoxious), she is no match for Nero Wolfe, who pries a crucial observation out of her.
Wolfe goes quite a long way towards the solution but reaches a point where he can go no further — so he stirs the pot by faking a document that sends Madeline Fraser and her entourage into high gear. Someone reacts by poisoning a chocolate candy from a box of another sponsor, Meltettes, and a second person is murdered. The circumstances of this murder give Wolfe most of what he needs.
In a separate but important sub-plot, Wolfe receives an ominous telephone call midway through the case from someone whom he knows to be a very powerful figure in organized crime; a man named Arnold Zeck. Zeck suggests politely that Wolfe withdraw from the case; Wolfe refuses, but the request gives him inferences that he uses later to solve the case. He spends about 18 hours in his office chair pushing his lips in and out, thinking; he’s solved the case and is deciding just how best to bring off the revelation. In classic Wolfe fashion, he brings everyone together (police and suspects) at his brownstone, explains his chain of logic, identifies the killer and collects his fee.
In the final brief chapter, Wolfe receives another call from Zeck, who congratulates him on solving the crime without bringing a specific aspect of it to police or public attention. Wolfe thanks him, and says, “… when I undertake an investigation I permit prescription of limits only by the requirements of the job. If that job had taken me across your path you would have found me there.” “Then that is either my good fortune or yours,” says Zeck, and hangs up. The reader familiar with the Wolfean corpus understands this to be the first volume in a trilogy about the collision of Wolfe and Zeck. The second appearance is in 1949’s The Second Confession, in which Zeck sends gunmen to destroy Wolfe’s plant rooms, and the third is the magnificent climax, 1950’s In the Best Families, in which Wolfe finds it necessary to go to extraordinary lengths to defeat Zeck once and for all.
Why is this book worth your time?
As I frequently remark in this context, this is a book by an author who is one of the most important writers of detective fiction of the 20th century. Anything with Rex Stout’s name on it is worth your time; even his earliest rubbish, so you can understand how he got to the top of his profession. Anything with Rex Stout’s name on it as part of the body of work (with specific reference to Wolfe, this has become known as the corpus, referencing Wolfe’s large bulk) about Nero Wolfe is especially worth your time; reading every volume of the corpus is to most people a delightful experience because of the ongoing and ever-changing yet constant relationship between Nero Wolfe and his assistant Archie Goodwin.
Reading the corpus gives you an accretion of detail that allows you to experience fully the references in each specific volume. As Wolfe fans can testify, you see the same elements again and again, in similar contexts — by the time you open your 30th volume, you’ll already know why it’s important who gets to sit in the red leather chair in Wolfe’s office, and why it’s useless to bring clients to see Wolfe between four and six in the afternoon. (He’s in the plant rooms cultivating his orchids.)
If you needed more reasons, this is one of the very best volumes in the series. There are 47 books in the series, and I think it’s arguable that this is in the top ten (although not the top five). All three volumes of the Arnold Zeck trilogy are superior; there are not many instances in the corpus where an element of the story carries over from one volume to another — Zeck, Orrie Cather, Wolfe’s daughter/Montenegro — and all such instances have a heightened level of excellence.
But what, in Stoutian terms, defines a heightened level of excellence? That takes a little explanation. I think of each Nero Wolfe piece (I’ll use this term to refer to novels, novellas, and short stories) as having three levels: micro, meso, and macro.
As Nero Wolfe enthusiasts know, one of the most enjoyable things in the corpus is the ongoing relationship between Archie and Wolfe. They constantly bicker. Archie must badger Wolfe to work and rein in his spending; Wolfe indulges himself by frustrating Archie, either romantically or by refusing to tell him about progress on cases. There are constant explanations of the daily routine of the brownstone that they (and chef Fritz and “orchid nurse” Theodore) share; how those routines are broken occasionally but mostly observed. I think of this as the micro-level of each piece.
The meso-level is concerned with the case itself; Archie and Wolfe learning about people connected with the ongoing case, although they’re unlikely to ever meet again. This is the level of clients, witnesses, and murderers. It’s also the level of Wolfe’s supportive team of private investigators and friends: Saul, Orrie, Fred, Dol Bonner, Lon Cohen, etc. The meso-level is usually the most important level in any given Wolfe piece but most of it vanishes with each new work. The patterns, however, remain. In each new book it’s a different young female suspect whom Archie takes dancing at the Flamingo Club, but it’s always the Flamingo Club.
Finally, the macro-level has to do with long story arcs — for instance, Wolfe’s personal friendship from childhood with restaurateur Marko Vukcic (proprietor of the famous restaurant Rusterman’s) which begins in Too Many Cooks (1938) and ends so sadly in The Black Mountain (1954). The macro-level can also be about world events and circumstances that have an overarching impact upon Wolfe’s world; for instance, during World War II, Wolfe consults for the US government without fee. It’s important to note that the macro-level is not truly present in every single Nero Wolfe story but, as you will see, I suggest that its presence is what lifts a story from the ordinary level of excellence to a heightened brilliance.
So every story has the micro- and meso- levels; the excellent stories all share some involvement at the macro-level. Here the macro-level is represented by this volume’s membership in the Zeck trilogy; if you’ve read the other two volumes, you know that Wolfe undertakes one of the greatest challenges of his life in the defeat of Arnold Zeck. Zeck is Wolfe’s Moriarty, if you will; no other male challenges the detective to this extent. (There are a handful of Irene Adlers, though.) There are other social issues that are illustrated, notably the inner workings of the radio industry and the phenomenon known as bobby-soxers; Wolfe always has to contend with social institutions that are beyond his control when the zeitgeist impinges upon his private world. But the macro-level is definitely Wolfe’s encounter with what we later call organized crime. There’s also quite a bit of information about Wolfe’s attitude towards the income tax and why he hates paying it, but it’s the first third of Wolfe’s interaction with Zeck that is the mark of distinction here.
The meso-level is the case at hand; who killed Cyril Orchard and why? Wolfe follows his familiar pattern of investigation here as almost always. Wolfe sends out Archie to see the locations and speak with as many of the suspects as possible; meanwhile, Wolfe pressures the suspects into attending a large-scale meeting in his office. Archie reports verbatim conversations back to Wolfe, who finds a loose thread in the tapestry and picks at it until it unravels. This leads to a second murder and, when the murderer thus panics, Wolfe figures out what happens and calls a meeting in his office to identify the killer and end the book. In this book, Wolfe represents that he’s stymied at a certain point and resorts to the stratagem of faking a document in order to prod the suspects into action; this is not his usual inaction, but he wants the money quickly and pushes more than he usually does. Although the document is never used, the pressure pays off dramatically when one of Madeline Fraser’s inner circle of advisors is murdered with a poisoned box of Meltettes, another sponsoring candy. To Wolfe’s mind this narrows the range of suspects to a very small number and he soon identifies the guilty party. The traditional ending in Wolfe’s study, where he calls everyone together and lays out the case (and then Inspector Cramer puts a large hand on the guilty party’s shoulder), here is satisfying and moderately surprising.
In the process of solving the mystery, Wolfe uncovers a scheme of organized blackmail that is brilliant. You really should read the book to get the full picture, but it would work today as well, if not better, than 1948 — requires no evidence or proof of anyone’s misdeeds — and has the good sense to stop after a year of payments. It is a scheme worthy of a kingpin of crime like Arnold Zeck, and Stout achieved a great thing in inventing it. Stout didn’t always depict gangsters well, but his intelligence produced great schemes for them to carry out.
The micro-level is represented by the everyday activities of the brownstone. For instance, Wolfe provides a wonderful meal for a physician who gives him valuable information in return — “fresh pork tenderloin, done in a casserole, with a sharp brown sauce moderately spiced”, with a mention of the extraordinary brandy labelled Remisier, “of which there are only nineteen bottles in the United States and they’re all in [Wolfe’s] cellar.” Archie goads Wolfe into action by planting a story in the newspapers, via Lon Cohen, about how Wolfe has failed to solve the case. Wolfe and Fritz the household chef argue about whether horse mackerel is as good as Mediterranean tunny fish for a veal dish called vitello tonnato. Madeline Fraser gets to sit in the red leather chair in Wolfe’s office. And at the end of the novel, Wolfe gathers all the suspects in his office and solves the case.
Micro, meso, and macro levels are all present in this excellent volume; I recommend it to your attention and hope you form the same attachment to the adventures of Nero Wolfe as I have. It’s brought me delight for many, many years.
A note on editions
Wikipedia has someone, or a group of people, who has devoted considerable time and effort to outlining the publishing history of every single Wolfe title. I don’t see any reason to re-invent their wheel; you can find that information at the bottom of this page. My own favourite edition is my beautifully near-mint copy of Bantam #824, shown above, with Madeline Fraser in a blue low-cut suit looking at Nero Wolfe. It’s the first US paper edition; the UK paper precedes it but with the variant title as noted at the top of this review.
I love reading posts about books by Rex Stout because I don’t have to worry about spoilers and I can read all the detail. This is wonderful, and this book is one my favorites. Well, the whole Zeck trilogy, actually.
I think the best ones are the ones where there’s something going on that’s bigger than the case at hand. You should read the conversation at the link in the post, that I had with JJ — we both pinpointed a peculiar hole in the plot that is a false note, to do with Nancylee Shepherd. If you like the fine detail, there’s one for you 😉
I did go over there, Noah, I could not resist. And I liked it very much and I did note your comments on the false note. I also noticed that you have read all of the Goldsborough books (except the most recent one) multiple times. I have read all of the ones he wrote before 2000 and Archie Meets Nero Wolfe, but not the rest of them. I should go try those out too.
I noted later that, before the Meltettes incident, it is specifically noted in the text that Nancylee and her family have a solid alibi for the murder of Beula Poole, although no one else does. It still begs the question of why no one pounced on her for saying what she said but at least Archie is on solid ground in not suggesting that Nancylee has guilty knowledge.
[…] Always keen to explore different ways to talk about books as I am, there’s yet another format to this: Noah and I spoke about it as best we could — we’re in different continents — via Facebook’s messenger function and I’ve edited the conversation into hopefully readable shape below. Once again, spoilers follow pretty quickly and with little warning, so here’s your last chance to opt out. Or, for a slightly more immersive analysis, Noah has now put up his own take over at his blog. […]
Hi Noah. Could you suggest the top best five Stout novels for beginners?
If it’s recommendations for someone who has never read a Nero Wolfe novel (and I am limiting this to Wolfe books) I would truly recommend starting at the beginning with Fer-de-Lance and going chronologically. You can find a chronological listing at http://www.stopyourekillingme.com/S_Authors/Stout_Rex.html. It’s not just my obsessive-compulsive disorder kicking in, I really think that’s the best order in which to read them.
If for some reason you cannot access them chronologically, I’d just try to read earlier rather than later. The characters grow and develop in each decade of the series and you’ll truly understand them if you read the stories organically. The one firm thing is that you absolutely shouldn’t read the last book, A Family Affair (1975) until last. (I can’t explain; trust me.)
A top appreciation of the book, and Stout in general, Noah. I had a great time reading the transcript of your chat with JJ over at his site and I hope these pieces draw some more readers to Wolfe’s world.
Thanks Colin! I think Rex Stout doesn’t need much help from me, but you never know. As Wolfe himself says at a couple of points, “Any spoke will lead an ant to the hub.” 😉
[…] novel (And Be A Villain by Rex Stout) in a real-time conversation using Facebook Messenger. Then I did a traditional blogpost on the same […]