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 also 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. 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.) Then 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 like 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.]