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QUENTIN PATRICK. The Grindle Nightmare (1935).

This book nearly defies categorization, and for many readers it will defy all possibility of enjoyment. Is it a mystery yarn set in a rural village? Is it a clue-filled puzzle that revolves around a complex array of alibis? Is it a work of social realism that provides a gimlet-eyed view of Depression-era class relations? Is it a horror tale that traffics in images of inhuman (or, perhaps, all too human) depravity? It’s all of these things, and yet it’s not quite any one of them. What stands out amid the many threads that Patrick weaves into this unholy tapestry is a striking pattern of violence, sadism, and misanthropy. Consider a few threads in particular: the practice of vivisection for medical research, multiple instances of outright cruelty to animals, a killer with a penchant for dragging victims (in at least one case, while they’re still alive) at the rear of a car, discussions of human congenital deficiency that echo then-still-popular eugenic theories, a rendition of rural society that seems borrowed from the bleakest naturalistic tract by Emile Zola or Theodore Dreiser, and depictions of sexual dysfunction that come straight out of a treatise by Krafft-Ebing. GrindleNightmare.jpg In sum, this fifth published effort by the Patrick-Quentin-Stagge consortium may be the least cozy novel produced by an author of otherwise mainstream detective fiction in the first half of the 20th century. (According to Curt Evans, a redoubtable authority on this “author,” Grindle issued from the pen of Richard Wilson Webb, with an assist from Mary Louise Aswell.) The slick, urbane style that the author applied to all of “his” work is very much on display, and Patrick even includes a telling reference to Agatha Christie. But the setting and mood of the tale owe far more to the likes of H.P. Lovecraft than to the creator of St. Mary Mead.

The village of Grindle, located in an unspecified part of New England, exists both as a tiny world unto itself and as an embodiment of the grand tradition in which authors like Lovecraft—along with precursors like Nathanael Hawthorne—envision a lush New World venue as a site of battle against ancient forces of evil. The novel’s opening scene provides an ominous glimpse of the land and people of Grindle: “There were little knots of villagers at every corner; in the woods we could hear the barking of dogs and there was an occasional gleam from a flashlight. … [Later] I could still hear shouts ringing across the valley. There was a restless, hopeless quality about them which gave me the impression that our neighbors had gone out to look for something which they knew they would not find—something of which they completely despaired.” The writer of those lines is Dr. Douglas Swanson, a young medical researcher who narrates the tale. He and another doctor, Antonio Conti, share a house in Grindle, and they commute to their laboratory at Rhodes University, which lies about 20 miles away. Although Swanson and Conti serve as emissaries from the realm of scientific modernity, their use of dead animals for research purposes adds a morbid note that resonates through the novel both practically and thematically.

As it turns out, the villagers in the introductory scene were searching for Polly Baines, a girl from a poor farm family. She and her cat have disappeared, and the prospects for finding them alive look none too good. Not long afterward, the slain corpse of Polly’s father is discovered in a pond; he had been left there to drown, with his hands manacled in a pair of animal traps. Aside from the down-on-their-luck Baineses, the key figures in this drama represent the affluent (or at least shabby-genteel) stratum of local society. At the center of that society is Seymour Alstone, a mining magnate who exerts tyrannical control over the village in general and over his feckless son, Franklin, and his mild-mannered grandson, Gerald, in particular. Other figures include a medical student named Peter Foote; the Goschens, a family of hearty sporting types; Colonel Edgar Tailford-Jones and his adulterous wife, Roberta; and Valerie Middleton, a young woman whose father committed suicide back in 1929, after undergoing a financial setback for which old man Alstone was partly responsible. GrindleMap.jpg Around these characters, Patrick builds a dense plot that encompasses a nocturnal assignation on an abandoned road, a ghostly face that looms in a window and disrupts a dinner party, an act of arson that destroys a barn and almost immolates the horses inside it, bloodstains on the wooden planks of a covered bridge, a snowstorm that hides crucial evidence, and much else.

Somehow the whole thing works. Once the novel enters its final phase, a satisfying work of classic detection comes miraculously into view. For those not entirely put off by the carnival of madness and mayhem that unfolds in the first three-quarters of the tale, the last fourth of the book presents a bravura chamber piece in which confusion and chaos give way to enlightenment and order. While the clock ticks toward an hour of reckoning—Deputy Bracegirdle, the local lawman, plans to make a decisive arrest—Patrick engineers several feats of canny misdirection and several moments of startling revelation. (Until the very end, a sense of mystery hangs over a pair of fundamental quandaries: Who counts as a suspect, and who qualifies as a detective?) Then, in one fell swoop, the pall over Grindle lifts. The truth, when it arrives in full, has the cleansing power of a bright dawn that follows a grotesquely long night. Even in the grim vale that Grindle residents call home, scattered rays of reason and sanity and even love shine through.

 
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Posted by on May 8, 2019 in American, Golden Age, Novel, Puzzle

 

DEREK SMITH. Whistle Up the Devil (1953).

In the setup of this double-barreled locked-room mystery, Smith offers a scenario that wins no points for originality. Everything about the tale’s two murders, and about the investigation of both crimes, might well have come from a book written in 1923 or 1933. Oft-used tropes pile up fast: A brilliant amateur detective named Algy Lawrence is summoned to Querrin House, near the village of Bristley, to prevent some elusive agent—a ghost, or maybe the devil—from killing Roger Querrin, the master of that domain. A supposed curse, traceable to a querulous ancestor, hangs over a particular room at the house, and Querrin plans to tempt fate by ensconcing himself there one night. Inside the room, a dagger hangs over a fireplace mantel. (Paging Dr. Chekov!)

True to form, the room and its immediate surroundings appear to be purpose-built for hosting an impossible crime problem: Its only points of entry are a single door with a newly keyed lock and a set of French windows that can be firmly bolted from inside. Surrounding the room and a passage that leads to it are beds of fresh soil that would show the footprints of any intruder. On the appointed evening, Lawrence and Peter Querrin, Roger’s brother, stand watch at the entrance to the passage. Sergeant Hardinge, from the local constabulary, watches from outside and has a full view of the French windows. Around midnight, a cry rings out, and Lawrence rushes toward the room and uses his gun to shoot open the door. Inside, he and his fellow watchmen find that Roger Querrin has died from a knife wound.

WhistleUpDevil.jpg Just as Lawrence begins to make sense of that killing, a second murder occurs in circumstances that seem to defy explanation. Simon Turner, an old family retainer who nurses a grudge against the Querrins, was caught prowling around the house and has been cooling his heels at the police station in Bristley. Somehow an agent of death manages to strangle him, even though all routes to his cell were under guard during the period when the killing could have taken place.

The solutions that Lawrence offers for these howdunit puzzles aren’t exactly elegant, but they are the best thing about the book. Both of them are plausible (or as plausible as such solutions can be), fairly clued, and wondrously intricate. The whodunit element is impressive, too, and it unfolds as a remarkably elaborate feat of misdirection. (The sequence in which Lawrence adduces answers to both the “who” and the “how” conundrums takes up roughly one-fifth of the novel.) Smith, who explicitly avows his debt to John Dickson Carr, delivers a plot that stands a cut or two above the average Carr tale in this vein. His handling of certain basics of storytelling, however, falls well below the Carr standard. He peoples his stock situations with stock characters who communicate mainly by exchanging stock phrases. The women of the piece, moreover, fall short of being even one-dimensional. They exist mainly to serve Smith’s own prurient interests, and his treatment of them dates the novel badly.

Near the end of Whistle Up the Devil, one ray of original insight glimmers in the dark-paneled library where Lawrence delivers his summation of the case. Smith, via Lawrence, posits the crime-solving equivalent of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle: Merely by acting as an observer, an investigator may affect—with dire consequences—the outcome of what he is observing. When Lawrence agreed to stand watch outside the room in which Roger Querrin would ultimately die, he assumed that he could maintain his status as an aloof outsider. In fact, as Lawrence ruefully notes, he became complicit in the violent deed that he aimed to forestall. A sense of the tragic therefore sets this tale apart from most prewar novels of its type. Despite its generally frothy tone, the book at that brief moment echoes other works (certain Ellery Queen titles from the same era come to mind) that reflect a mood of postwar atomic dread.

 
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Posted by on April 24, 2019 in British, Novel, Puzzle

 

LANGE LEWIS. Murder Among Friends (1942).

By common agreement, the Golden Age of detective fiction ended when the 1940s began. From 1920 to 1939, according to this formulation, tales about feats of detection came into their own as a variety of literature with broadly shared standards of quality and with a recognized pantheon of outstanding practitioners. Arguably, however, it was in the following decade—the decade that began when the era of interwar peace ended—that the detective novel reached is pinnacle of achievement. In the early 1940s, first-time contributors and established figures in the genre started issuing minor and major masterpieces on a scale that resembled the rate of production in the munitions factories that were then kicking into high gear. For these writers, the distinction between art and entertainment, between serious fiction and playful mystification, practically disappears. Drawing on all of the resources provided by a maturing genre, they stand out for their ability to embed fair-play murder puzzles within richly conceived stories about people who lead socially realistic, emotionally complex lives. In many instances, they sound romantic or satiric themes that derive from the traditions of comedy. MurderAmongFriends.jpg But just as frequently (in novels such as Calamity Town, by Ellery Queen; Green for Danger, by Christiana Brand; and Five Little Pigs, by Agatha Christie), they strike a note of tragedy that resonates even after the typical reader forgets the clever solution that they have engineered.

For a prime example of this trend, one could hardly do better than to cite the work at hand. Murder Among Friends, the inaugural entry in a four-book series about Lieutenant Richard Tuck of the Los Angeles Police Department, is a classic of humane, literate detection. The friends in question are students, researchers, and employees at an unnamed medical school. (Stray references to the surrounding topography indicate that this institution is part of the University of Southern California.) Shortly before the action of the novel begins, a secretary named Garnet Dillon leaves her job at the school suddenly and without explanation. The young woman who takes her place, Kate Farr, serves as the novel’s co-equal protagonist—a point-of-view figure whose story runs parallel with that of Tuck’s investigation. On her first day as the new secretary, Kate witnesses the discovery of Garnet’s corpse in the school’s anatomy lab. An autopsy establishes poisoning by ingestion of digitalis as the cause of death, and the testimony of Garnet’s boss effectively rules out the possibility of suicide. But if it’s a case of murder, who had the wherewithal to administer a fatal dose? That question leads Tuck to focus his inquiry on the eponymous circle of friends, several of whom are young men who harbored (or may have harbored) amorous feelings for the victim.

With a light but certain touch, Lewis portrays the workings of the detective mind in its full glory. Tuck isn’t the most colorful sleuth—his main identifying trait is his extreme height—but he navigates his way through a thicket of clues and complications with easy-going intelligence. Step by step, he examines every viable permutation of means, motive, and opportunity. Lewis smoothly interweaves scenes that feature Tuck with scenes that revolve around the clutch of friends who, in the wake of Garnet’s murder, continue their struggle to build careers and lives. In witty, perfectly modulated prose, she fashions an immediately believable world around these characters and confers a sense of gravity on the murder case that looms over them. The global war that the United States had just entered when these events take place receives a single glancing mention. But the denouement alludes to the kind of life-and-death actions that the war will soon compel young people like Kate and her cohorts to make on a regular basis.

 
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Posted by on April 10, 2019 in American, Novel, Puzzle

 

GEORGES SIMENON. A Man’s Head (1931).

The man whose head is almost literally at stake in this novel—an early entry in the Inspector Maigret saga—is Joseph Heurtin, a simple-minded fellow whose ill-starred life has led him to a death-row cell at La Santé prison in Paris. Heurtin awaits execution for the murder of a wealthy American widow and her maid, and it was Maigret’s police work that helped convict him of that crime. But in a cinematically thrilling first chapter, Maigret engineers a prison break that sends Heurtin into the gloomy expanse of Paris at night. The inspector has been nursing doubts about Heurtin’s guilt, and his plan is to let the escapee trace a path that will (so he hopes) wend its way to the real killer.

This high-risk gambit launches Maigret and his men on a chase that extends to a seedy hotel along the Seine, to a derelict mansion in the Parisian suburbs, and ultimately to the American bar at La Coupule, a fabled café in Montparnasse that appears to be a focal point of the intrigue that resulted in Heurtin’s arrest (wrongful or otherwise) for a brutal double homicide. La Coupule is a microcosm of Café Society, a realm where idle wealth rubs shoulders with indigent Bohemia. Simenon excels at vividly limning all manner of specific locations, but he uses that talent to the fullest in describing the café and its denizens. Man'sHead.jpgAs the action shifts to that spot, Maigret trains his gaze on a small set of its patrons: a glamorous American couple, Mr. and Mrs. William Kirby, who might have stepped out the pages of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel; Edna Reichberg, an inscrutable Swedish heiress who might have graced a tale by Vicki Baum; and Johann Radek, a Czech native whose early promise has curdled into bitterness—an existentialist anti-hero who might have sprung from the mind of Dostoevsky or Kafka. An unseen lattice of connections binds these characters to Heurtin, and Maigret makes it his mission to bring this pattern into view.

The plot that drives A Man’s Head is inventive but not ingenious. As in most of his exploits, Maigret doesn’t follow clues in the usual sense of that term. He follows grand intuitions that he declines to reveal until he has rounded up his quarry. The core revelation in this case arrives as a clever and satisfying reversal of what precedes it. Simenon, however, does little to prepare the narrative ground for that twist.

In that respect, this compact thriller (it’s scarcely longer than a novella) resembles a typical adventure in the Sherlock Holmes canon. The comparison is more apt than it may seem: Although Holmes and Maigret appear to embody wholly different methods of detection—Holmes practices dispassionate ratiocination, whereas Maigret favors empathic intuition—their feats of discovery are often less compelling than the sordid events that they expose. As Arthur Conan Doyle does in many of the Holmes stories, Simenon predicates the story here on dark and disturbing schemes that unfold in the hidden recesses of urban life. And like many Holmes tales, this Maigret tale functions less as a well-designed puzzle than as a parable about the desperation and depravity that can afflict (seemingly) ordinary citizens. More broadly, Simenon shares with Doyle a profound knack for weaving magic with words. In his hands, readers don’t just suspend disbelief; they eagerly believe any outlandish thing that he wants them to believe.

[ADDENDUM: Next week, I’ll be visiting Paris and doing my best impression of a not-so-young Jeff Marle. While I’m there, I plan to read one or two contemporary novels that evoke the timeless “mysteries of Paris”; reviews of those works may show up here someday. But, to whet my appetite for the trip, I partook of this bite-sized treat of a novel—a Golden Age work that takes place during what was essentially a golden age for Americans in Paris. À bientôt!]

 
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Posted by on March 27, 2019 in Golden Age, Novel

 

SALLY CLINE. Dashiell Hammett: Man of Mystery (2014).

Substantial books about Hammett’s life and work today far outnumber his own famously modest output of novels and story collections. This one beckons for attention because it’s short—the main text runs to 204 pages—and because it’s relatively recent: It holds the promise of distilling several decades’ worth of accumulated research and cumulative wisdom about a genius who essentially invented a branch of American literature. So it’s unfortunate that this unevenly written survey of a writer’s life doesn’t reward even a brief investment of reading time. Cline, to her credit, appears to have read most of the now-quite-large array of primary and secondary sources about her subject, and she makes especially thorough use of material unearthed in recent years about Hammett’s relationship with his wife and two daughters. Like other students of Hammett, she also gives close scrutiny to his protean relationship with the playwright Lillian Hellman. But the biography that emerges from these scholarly endeavors offers neither a clear overview of what Hammett did and what he wrote nor a sustained argument about the meaning of his actions and achievements. It’s a helter-skelter jaunt through a life that merits careful, analytically sophisticated study.

HammettManMystery.jpg Cline’s title holds real promise, even if the book fails to deliver on it. What, after all, is the core “mystery” of this man? One conventional, and not altogether wrong, formulation of the Hammett conundrum focuses on the question of why he essentially stopped writing after producing several dozen genre-defining short tales and five landmark novels between 1922 and 1933. Why did a writer who worked so diligently to reach the pinnacle of success all but give up on creating new, published work during the nearly three decades that remained of his life? The standard explanations seem valid enough: drink, politics, the sublimation of Hammett’s own productive energies in an effort to support Hellman’s career.

Yet perhaps the more salient mystery concerns his motivation for writing works such as The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key in the first place. Cline presents glimpses of an explanation, including this oft-quoted passage from a letter that Hammett sent in 1928 to the publisher Blanche Knopf: “I’m one of the few—if there are any more—people moderately literate who take the detective story seriously. … Some day somebody’s going to make ‘literature’ of it, … and I’m selfish enough to have my hopes.” Of course Hammett wrote for money, and for fame, and there were brief periods when he applied to literary work the same stoic professionalism that the Continental Op applied to investigative work. Deep down, though, he aspired to create fiction that would transfigure the form of his chosen genre. In fact, he did so, and did it more than once. (Each of his five novels in effect launched a major subgenre—from Red Harvest, which inspired a slew of tales about a lone hero who battles an entire corrupt town, to The Thin Man, which became the template for countless books and movies that feature a wise-cracking, crime-solving couple.) Then, once Hammett had fully stretched his talents in this way, he appears to have lost interest in using them. One gets the sense that he saw no middle ground between generating a masterwork and generating hackwork. As this biography inadvertently demonstrates, he was not so much a “man of mystery” as he was a man of supreme (and ultimately spoiled) ambition.

 
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Posted by on March 14, 2019 in American, Hard-Boiled

 

EDMUND CRISPIN. The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944).

The “gather all of the suspects” scene that closes out many a classic detective novel holds enduring appeal, despite its repeated use. Just as appealing, albeit less common, is the opening scene in which all of the suspects gather in preparation for the violent and puzzling events to come. Crispin executes the latter effect beautifully in this novel, which introduces the reading public to Professor Gervase Fen, Professor of English Language and Literature at Oxford University. A slew of characters, traveling singly or in pairs, arrive by train in the ancient university town and bring with them an array of worries, resentments, secrets, and desires. Along with Fen, they include the chief constable of Oxford; the young journalist Nigel Blake, who serves as a sidekick to Fen (and whose name and role echo the Nigel Bathgate figure who appears in many of Ngaio Marsh’s novels about Inspector Roderick Alleyn); and group of people associated with the Oxford Repertory Theater, which will soon put on a new play titled Metromania. In a series of vignettes, Crispin profiles each character evocatively and expeditiously, and along the way he plants clear indications that every member of the theater circle has a motive to kill a particular colleague: Yseut Haskell, a self-involved actress who flaunts her sexuality offstage with greater energy than she applies to her work onstage.

The narrative stage is set (as it were) for crime. Sure enough, a couple of days after rehearsals for the play begin, Yseut takes a bullet to her forehead while she prowls around a room at St. Christopher’s College, the fictitious Oxford institution that Fen calls home. The room isn’t sealed, but the murder bears the marks of seeming impossibility. During the critical period before and after a shot had rang out from the room, a workman saw no one enter or leave the stairwell that leads to the crime scene. GildedFly.jpg Fen, whose room at the college happens to be directly above that location, was hosting a party there, and almost immediately upon hearing the shot, he and Blake swooped downstairs to discover the slain woman. In her hand was a gun that she had ostensibly used on herself. Surely there was no time for a killer to quit the scene, let alone commit any trickery with the body. So impossible does the murder scenario appear to be that the police cling to a theory of suicide. But Fen never doubts that an unseen hand fired the deadly shot.

The mood of this début work is by turns dark and breezy. Fen allows two other murders to occur before he sees fit to divulge what he knows about the killer and the initial killing. In the meantime, he deliberates at length over whether he should let the murderer remain unrevealed and unpunished. Like many other brilliant amateur sleuths of his era, he harbors a cavalier attitude toward the sanctity of life and the rule of law. In his philosophy of detection, apparently, some deeds are worse than homicide and some values are loftier than truth. Even so, the dominant mode of the narrative is comic. Crispin writes in a jaunty tone, and midway through the book he presents an interlude that evokes the power of love to triumph over death. Reprising the technique used in his opening chapter, he offers glimpses into the private musings of each suspect. But this time, in a nod to the tradition of Shakespearean comedy, he sorts his characters into romantic pairings.

As a puzzle plotter, Crispin displays notable talent here. His solution to the murder of Yseut has just enough cleverness and just enough plausibility to satisfy an impossible-crime enthusiast, and he ably points the vector of suspicion in multiple directions. Still, the mechanics of the plot break down in ways that one might expect in an apprentice piece: Fen stays mum about a couple of pivotal clues—that is, until he discloses them in his summing-up comments. In addition, the motive for the original murder is contrived and hidden from view, and Crispin handles it in a cursory fashion. The puzzle as a whole, meanwhile, borders on being too complex. Most readers, to keep their bearings, will need the diagram and the timetable that the author helpfully provides.

Crispin, as Anthony Boucher observed in his brief notice on the novel, blends the styles and storytelling methods of John Dickson Carr and Michael Innes. From Carr, he takes a flair for bold trick plotting and a preference for bold, feisty characters. From Innes, he takes a knack for over-the-top erudition and a familiarity with arty and academic settings. From both of these precursors, he derives a Chestertonian sensibility that treats the detective novel as more akin to an Arabian Nights tale than to a police report. In that spirit, he peppers this tale with in-jokes. The Nigel Blake character alludes not only to Marsh’s work but also to another precursor with a highbrow pedigree—the poet Cecil Day Lewis, who wrote novels about the detective Nigel Strangeways under the name Nicholas Blake. And Fen at one point signals that he resides in the same fictional universe as one of Carr’s heroes. (“Heaven grant Gideon Fell never becomes privy to my lunacy,” he says.)

Written toward the end of the Second World War, The Case of the Gilded Fly takes place in October 1940, when the Battle of Britain was still raging in the skies over the English Channel. Yet, although nightly blackout procedures factor somewhat importantly in the events that surround the death of Yseut Haskell, the titanic struggle for national survival registers as little more than a sideshow. The Oxford setting hovers on a practically timeless plane, and from start to finish Crispin stays true to the escapist promise of the detective genre. While the plot of the novel is decidely complex, its underlying message is simple: There will always be an England. And there will always be murder.

 
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Posted by on February 28, 2019 in British, Novel, Puzzle

 

REX STOUT. The Golden Spiders (1953).

The title here refers to an unusual pair of earrings worn by a victim whose murder Nero Wolfe resolves to avenge. Yet the arachnoid image could well be an oblique nod to the great detective himself. Like a spider, Wolfe sits at the center of a vast web over which he exerts iron control by engaging in subtle forms of manipulation. The web is New York City, and its strands extend in all directions from the splendid, sovereign brownstone on West 35th Street that Wolfe and his assistant, Archie Goodwin, call home. Much of the charm that attaches to the Nero Wolfe saga coalesces around that building, so it’s easy to forget that Stout uses the entire island of Manhattan to great effect. The city grid provides an expansive field on which Wolfe can pursue his brainwork and Goodwin can conduct his legwork. Ensconced in his West Side sanctuary, Wolfe—with ambulatory support from Goodwin—is able to spin filaments of detection that ensnare suspects and witnesses in all parts of town.

To construct the work at hand, Stout draws on a highly specific urban geography. The case starts in Wolfe’s neighborhood, at the intersection of 35th Street and Ninth Avenue, where a 13-year-old kid named Pete Drossos has a fateful encounter with a Cadillac driven by a woman who signals to Pete that she’s in danger. GoldenSpiders.jpg The next day, the kid dies in a hit-and-run incident at the same location. Soon the body of another hit-and-run victim turns up on a cobbled stretch of South Street, and the car that hit both victims is found on 186th Street. Amid these events, Pete’s mother comes to the brownstone, offers up the boy’s life savings ($4.30), and says that her son’s last words were a request to enlist Wolfe’s help. One thing swiftly leads to another, and soon a wealthy widow named Laura Fromm visits Wolfe and offers up a check for $10,000. (Intriguingly, she is wearing gold, spider-shaped earrings. According to Pete, the woman in the Cadillac had worn earrings that matched that description.) The next day, the dead body of Mrs. Fromm is discovered under the East Side elevated highway; she too had been run over by a car. To earn the hefty fee paid by his deceased client, Wolfe launches his operatives on an investigation that covers disparate points on the city map. There’s a visit by Goodwin to the Fromm townhouse on East 68th Street, a scheme by gumshoe Saul Panzer that involves loitering at a “a cheap hotel on First Avenue,” a rendezvous at Danny’s Bar & Grill on 55th and Ninth, a fight with hoodlums at Nunn’s Garage on 48th and Tenth, a colloquy between Goodwin and assorted NYPD officials down on Centre Street, and so on. Then it’s back to West 35th Street, where cops and suspects gather to watch Wolfe reveal the murderer in the time-honored fashion.

In many ways, this mid-series work serves as a paradigmatic Nero Wolfe adventure. Along with effectively situating Wolfe in his native habitat, the tale contains all of the ingredients that have endeared the series to fans over many decades: the cocksure patter of Goodwin’s narration; the passive-aggressive, yet also affectionate, banter through which Wolfe and Goodwin conduct their relationship; the ritualized patterns that shape domestic life at the brownstone; the well-choreographed blocking and tackling that mark every confrontation that Wolfe and Goodwin have with the forces of law and order (strikingly, these detectives seem to view cops, rather than criminals, as their main adversary); the retinue of largely interchangeable suspects, most of them drawn from the educated business and professional classes. Likewise, the plot of The Golden Spiders is par for the course. It features a couple of good clues, and the overall puzzle is neat enough, albeit rather simple—indeed, more worthy of a short story than of a novel. (The feat of deduction used to solve it doesn’t justify the repeated assertion by Goodwin and others that Wolfe is any kind of “genius.”) In sum, those who like what Stout has to offer will enjoy this rendition of it. Those who are immune to the charm of the series will be happy to give the book a miss.

[ADDENDUM: Whereas I deem this novel a “paradigmatic” example of the Wolfe canon, Armchair Reviewer at the Cross-Examining Crime site suggests that it’s a departure from the series norm (and quotes the novelist Linda Barnes, who calls it “atypical” in her introduction to the Bantam edition of the book). To some extent, I suppose, a paradigm is in the eye of the beholder. I’ve read only about a half-dozen of the Wolfe novels and a smattering of the novella-length works, so I’m hardly an authority on the subject. The Golden Spiders, however, strikes me as a tale that aligns fairly well with others in its set. (The whole series has a theme-and-variation structure: In each case, something unusual happens—here it’s the appearance, followed by the poignant death, of a 13-year-old would-be client—that breaks the glorious routine that Wolfe and Goodwin have built around themselves.) In any event, Armchair Reviewer rightly notes “an abrupt style change” that occurs in the back half of the story, “when Goodwin and his cohorts use physical pressure … to get some suspects to talk.” Like Armchair Reviewer and a couple of commenters at the site, I found this intrusion of hardboiled writing to be dull and off-putting. But Stout recovers from that lapse in quality to deliver a sound finish.]

 
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Posted by on February 14, 2019 in American, Novel