Saturday, March 4, 2017

Rex Stout's Where There's A Will

Two Nero Wolfe novels came out in 1940; this was the second. Where Over My Dead Body was very much a novel of its year, with contemporary political concerns, Where There's A Will feels much less fixed in time. As you might guess, the case turns on a will; by the standards of Golden Age Mystery wills, this one isn't completely crazy, but it does leave all the money to Noel Hawthorne's mistress and not to his wife. The wife plans to raise holy heck to get her money, and the family, mostly in the form of the dead man's sisters, the fabulous Hawthorne girls, engage Wolfe to solve the problem without scandal.

Within pages District Attorney Skinner announces that Noel Hawthorne was murdered, and didn't die in a hawk- or crow-hunting accident. All hope of avoiding scandal is out the window.

Wolfe, who famously never leaves his home, (except when he does) heads off in a taxicab, unescorted by his goad and chief assistant Archie Goodwin, to the house of one of those fabulous Hawthorne girls. There he asks questions until a second murder occurs and he sneaks off back home, letting Archie deal with the irruption of policemen investigating the second murder.

In the end, of course, the suspects are assembled in Wolfe's office, a trick is played, and the murderer revealed.

For me, this one didn't work as well as the previous. The introduction the Hawthorne sisters was not as witty or as swift as that of Carla Lovchen in Over My Dead Body. Some elements seem oddly unnecessary: there's confusion whether the dead man was out to shoot a hawk or a crow, a confusion that has no bearing on the plot. (It's clearly a crow on the cover.) Nearing the end, in a ploy that Stout uses elsewhere, Wolfe keeps secrets from Archie for no particularly good reason, but so that he can also keep them from us. Oh, well. Even on a bad day, there's nothing quite like a Rex Stout novel.

I'm seeking out well-paced, comic mystery novels, more even than usual, at the moment to distract myself from reading the news. Alas, in a novel written in 1940, with an introduction by Dean Koontz from 1992, it's not entirely possible to escape:

Twenty years ago, when I was struggling to find my own voice as a writer, I was reading five novels a week in addition to putting in full days at the typewriter. (We didn't have the great blessing of computers and word-processing software back then. But we didn't have freeway shootouts or Donald Trump, either, so it wasn't altogether a less appealing era.)
I'd definitely trade away my computer and word-processing software if we could roll back six months...

Whether Noel Hawthorne went hunting for a hawk or crow, there's definitely a bird on the cover.

Golden Age. Bird. My Reader's Block Vintage Mystery Scavenger's Hunt.

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