On a rare excursion beyond their beloved Manhattan brownstone, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin travel to an agricultural fair in upstate New York where Wolfe plans to display his orchids. And the locals, as if to make the trip truly worth the great man’s while, put on a display of murder. The killer, on first reckoning, appears to be a prize bull named Hickory Caesar Grindon. But Wolfe soon emerges as the bull’s amusingly stalwart avenger, and he demonstrates that it was a human agent who gored the victim, Clyde Osgood. Caesar, indeed, serves as a kind of bovine alter ego to the famously corpulent detective: Both are prodigious and well-nigh immovable forces around which other characters fecklessly connive.
Some clever detection puts the plot of this novel slightly above par for Stout, but that isn’t saying much, and the padding supplied by comic set pieces—Wolfe ensconced on a boulder, under seige by the bull; Archie in a county hoosegow, organizing a prisoners’ union—overwhelms the tale’s puzzle element. As always, it is Archie’s sardonic, wasn’t-born-yesterday storytelling that drives the narrative engine. What drives Stout, apparently, is an obsession that would reach full flower in The Doorbell Rang and other late works in the Wolfe canon: a withering scorn for established authority. In scene after scene, as if merely to prove that raw intelligence trumps raw power, his two heroes bait and taunt and obstruct the officialdom of Crowfield, New York. Unto that Caesar, they will render no more than is absolutely necessary.