Only Detect

REX STOUT. Three Doors to Death (1949).

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The adventures of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are best told, as they are told here, in novelet form. In its traditional forms, those of the short story and the full-length novel, the tale of detection depends for its success on a measure of ingenuity; it requires a master-stroke of deception or an intricately devious plot. And although Stout could spin a twisty-enough yarn when he set his mind to it, he lacked the patience needed to bury a clue with precision or to spread suspicion convincingly among a crew of alibi-bearing, motive-concealing characters. His strengh lay in so engagingly depicting his two protagonists, along with their milieu on West 35th Street in Manhattan, that readers are happy just to be with them for the ride. The road on which Nero and Archie happen to travel—that is, the plot that Stout musters for each of their outings—rarely holds much interest in its own right. So the trip should be neither too short (lest one feel harried in the company of old friends) nor too long (lest overexposure cause their charms to fade). The three stories in this volume, which clock in at 70 to 80 pages apiece, fit the bill perfectly. The victims, the murderers, and the sundry supporting figures in each case serve their appointed functions and quickly recede from view, leaving in one’s mind the unchanging image of Nero and Archie, alone against the cozily urbane backdrop of New York at mid-century.

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