dorinda: Hands reach for two identical glasses, which are labeled "half empty" and "half full". (halfemptyhalffull)
[personal profile] dorinda posting in [community profile] milk_and_orchids
I would rank "Man Alive" third of the three stories in Three Doors to Death. Not that it's bad--I like it fine, but I like the others more. I think because "Omit Flowers" has Marko Vukcic, and "Door to Death" has Wolfe way out of his comfort zone in snowy Westchester.

But! "Man Alive" does have its pleasures...



For instance, it has Archie visiting a fashion show, and showing off all kinds of fashion knowledge. He says he learned it from Lily Rowan "and other reliable sources"--I think one of those sources must be Wolfe, don't you? Either explicitly in discussion, or implicitly by watching him? Because as far as we can tell, Wolfe seems to be impeccably turned out--if eccentrically, given his preferences for canary-yellow--and he has extremely strong opinions on such things as the Sulka shirts with the thin purple stripe that Lily gave Archie.


THE STORY
Pretty simple, and kind of symmetrical: Cynthia Nieder tells Wolfe and Archie that her uncle Paul committed suicide a year ago, by jumping naked into a geyser (though there were no witnesses and his body was never found). But then just last week she saw him, in disguise, attending a fashion show run by his company, Daumery & Nieder. She wants them to find him. The very next morning, however, Paul is found dead--for real this time, bludgeoned to death in the Daumery & Nieder offices.

Archie gets to go to a fashion show, but other than that, it's mostly Wolfe talking in his office to the five people with keys to Daumery & Nieder. There's a lawyer, a hot-tempered female fashion designer, a snooty male fashion designer, Cynthia, and Bernard Daumery (nephew of Jean Daumery, Paul's co-owner of the business, who also mysteriously disappeared/was presumed drowned six weeks ago).


WOLFE AND ARCHIE:
Their domestic life is peaceful in this story, especially for Archie: he's feeling sleek and pleased with himself because Wolfe has just bought him a new car. We find this out in the opening scene, along with another example of a woman running up against the determinedly-all-male-5ever household.

Archie's been flirting with Cynthia, and Wolfe grumbles:

"I supposed you needed a detective. If so, tell me what for, without encouraging Mr. Goodwin to start caterwauling. It takes very little to set him off."

I let it go by, though I am much more particular than his insult implied. I felt like indulging him because he had just bought a new Cadillac sedan, which meant that I, Archie Goodwin, had a new car, because, of the four men who lived in Nero Wolfe's house, an old brownstone on West 35th Street not far from the river, I was the only one who drove. [...] Therefore the new car was, in effect, mine, and I thought I ought to show my appreciation by letting him call me a tomcat at least once.


...and shortly thereafter:

"Daumery and Nieder," Cynthia said, "is as good a name as there is on Seventh Avenue, including Fifty-seventh Street, but of course if you're not in the garment trade and know nothing about it—I imagine your wives would know the name all right."

Wolfe shuddered.

"No wife," I stated. "Neither of us. That's why we caterwaul."


(Why we caterwaul, Archie??)

Anyway, as mentioned before, Archie's major information-gathering effort is to attend a Daumery & Nieder fashion show, but it comes to nothing. Saul's outside in case someone needs tailing, but no one ever does and we sadly see no more of Saul. *waves bye to Saul*

However, Archie does, as is his wont, tell Wolfe all about how he's going to marry the girl--or in this case, six girls, as he tells Wolfe he'll marry all of the models at once and live in a very big house with them. Wolfe's reply sounds a little coarser than we're used to: "Pfui," Wolfe said curtly. "Enter another, naked, carrying a basket full of bills, your checkbook, and a pen." (I am struck by this imaginary woman's role being so similar to Archie's in that regard, notwithstanding the clothes, given how we always hear Archie talking about how he compiles the bills and brings them to Wolfe to sign. Maybe I shouldn't be struck by this parallel. But too late! :D )

In the same scene, Archie speaks to Wolfe quite chidingly and Wolfe takes it, which is another example of how peaceful things are around the Brownstone: "Okay, you admit she thinks, so why not you? You're merely objecting, not thinking. Think."

One idle fannish question I have is, do we imagine this story comes before or after the events of In The Best Families? It's fun to think about either way, but if it were afterward, the current domestic harmony could reflect the calm after the Roeder storm, with Wolfe so glad to be home and Archie so glad to have him there that they aren't even keeping up with their normal levels of recreational bickering.

And speaking of Roeder, there's one other exchange that becomes really interesting no matter which side of In The Best Families you put it on! Cynthia tells Wolfe that Paul was obviously trying not to be recognized at the fashion show:

"Why shouldn't you recognize him?" Wolfe demanded.

"Because he had a beard, and he wore glasses, and his hair was slick and parted on the left side."


The story repeats several times what a handy idea this is for a simple disguise, with Wolfe noticing that everyone looking for the mystery man ends up just describing those same features, beard+glasses+hair/part. And who else do we know who either was just disguised, or will shortly be disguised, with a beard? So (thinking in a fannish/arc-y sort of way, as I enjoy doing), either this helped reinforce the idea in his head, or it reminds him of what recently happened.

This is another book where we see Wolfe's panic (here, incipient panic) when a woman breaks down crying in front of him:

The only thing that shakes Wolfe as profoundly as having a meal rudely interrupted is a bawling woman. His reaction to the first is rage, to the second panic.

I tried to reassure him. "She'll be all right. She just has to—"

"Stop her," he muttered desperately.

I crossed to her, yanked her hands away, using muscle, pulled her face up, and kissed her hard and good on the lips. She jerked her face aside, shoved at me, and protested, "What the hell!"


Archie's solution is on the one hand intrusive, in that way where Archie thinks he's being Tough And Noir. But on the other hand, he first tried just to get Wolfe to wait, let her get it out of her system and pull herself together, but Wolfe was still panicking. So, faced with the possibility of Wolfe flipping out and maybe even running away, Archie goes Full Noir. And I love Cynthia's response--she certainly does not melt into his manly arms, and that ends up snapping the noir attempt at the root.

I also find it endearing that when Wolfe finds out Cynthia hasn't eaten anything since breakfast, he's like WOOOP WOOOP RED ALERT, and all case activity ceases until she's had a good meal.


INSPECTOR CRAMER
Cramer makes a very big mistake in this story: he actually comes stomping into the dining room while Wolfe and Archie are eating lunch, he shouts at and insults Wolfe, he tries to rush him, and he slams his hand down on the table. It's very startlingly rude, even for him. Maybe if there really were some kind of tight time-based emergency, like someone is currently hanging by their fingertips off a rooftop, but otherwise, what do you think you're doing?

Within the story, it feels like a giant dumb mistake (the narrative hangs a lantern on it later, when Archie reflects that Cramer "had been a plain jackass not to wait until Wolfe had downed the other two rice cakes and had some coffee"). On a meta level, it feels like an example of the Cramer character being trapped in the corpus's tropes and routines, much more so than the other characters --the other characters have their patterns and rituals, which the books revel in, but Cramer's pattern so often involves stomping in and having to shout WHAT THE HELL'S GOING ON HERE, YOU'RE KEEPING THINGS FROM ME, WHYYYY I OUGHTA, even when you would think that after all of the time he's known Wolfe, he'd know that this behavior is not at all smart or productive. But the narrative requires some grit in the oyster, and often that ends up being Cramer.

I suppose it shows so clearly in this story because there is otherwise no apparent hazard or pressure, and also because of how Cramer's shouty-stompy-intrusion is really dialed up to 11.

Archie's not in Cramer's good books either; when he foils Cramer's first plan to spring a gotcha on Wolfe:

Cramer returned to the red leather chair, sat, and said to someone, "You snippy little bastard." I ignored it, knowing it couldn't be for me, since I am just under six feet and weigh a hundred and eighty and therefore could not be called little.


(...unless we are in In The Best Families and you are saying you used to be Nero Wolfe's little Archie. But I digress!)

Wolfe is enraged, and though he does go into his office as Cramer wishes, he punishes Cramer with the instant silent treatment. Cramer tries to make a few conciliatory remarks, like he thinks oh this was all in good fun and it'll blow over, but nothing doing. And when Wolfe eventually does speak, he enjoys lording things over Cramer and watching his discomfort. Like, they reveal that Archie attended the fashion show, which stymies Cramer's plan to whip it out as another gotcha-moment. So Cramer has to mumble:

"Yeah, I know about that."

"You didn't mention it."

"I hadn't come to it."

"Your reserves?" Wolfe smiled, as mean a smile as I had ever seen.


And when Wolfe decides the audience is over, he gives Cramer both barrels in a stentorian speech, and then gathers up his belongings (i.e. Archie and Cynthia) and sweeps from the room:

"You say I'm lying. Prove it. But for less provocation than you have given me by your uncivilized conduct in my dining room, I would lie all day and all night. Regarding this murder of a bearded stranger, where do I fit, or Mr. Goodwin? Pah. Connect us if you can! Should you be rash enough to constrain us as material witnesses, we would teach you something of the art of lying, and we wouldn't squeeze out on bail; we would dislocate your nose with a habeas corpus ad subjiciendum."

His eyes moved. "Come, Miss Nieder. Come, Archie."


That is a total GOOD DAY, SIR moment.


SOLVING THE CASE:
I mentioned earlier that this case is symmetrical. All of the dead people in the backstory--Helen Daumery a year ago, Paul Nieder shortly thereafter, and Jean Daumery six weeks ago--died under mysterious circumstances and with few or no witnesses. And it turns out that two of the three never died at all. Helen was murdered by Jean; Paul faked his own death to keep the same thing from happening to him; Jean faked his own death more recently with his nephew Bernard's help, hoping to draw Paul back into the light and thereby get him. Which Jean did.

Frankly, as a mystery, I don't find much to it. The only clue, such as it is, is that nephew Bernard apparently used to be aggressive and decisive, but since Jean's death he's been tentative; he can't even decide to come to Wolfe's house without going away somewhere private to dither first, even though it's manifestly in his own interest to come, both to look after his beloved Cynthia and also to try to keep important company asset Ward Roper from quitting.

The process of solving the case is pretty much just Wolfe leaning hard on people. First, Bernard:

"Where is he, Mr. Daumery?"

Bernard was not himself. He was trying hard to be but couldn't make it. He was meeting Wolfe's hard gaze with a fascinated stare, as if he were entering the last stage of being hypnotized.


Bernard folds, because luckily for him he's innocent, and only helped Jean fake his death because Jean said he was in danger. But now that things are looking bad, Bernard's like, sure dude go get him and let him clear this up.

So then Archie goes and brings Jean back, and Wolfe again just leans on him. First he reads a damning letter ostensibly left by Paul (but really faked by Wolfe himself while Archie was gone), and then he simply pressures Jean. He does this dramatic pause, pointing at Jean with everyone staring, then loudly demands to know when and where Jean last saw Paul. And Archie thinks:

It was devilish. No man could have stood up under it completely whole. What was Jean going to do about his face? What was he going to say?


It totally feels like this story is trying to go for the Wolfe who talked a guy into blowing himself up with a hand grenade, or who sent a message to a woman that makes her kill herself by sticking an explosive in her mouth, or who talks so powerfully to a dog-murderer that he collapses. But while I found all of those utterly convincing, here I do not buy it.

And Jean never even confesses, nor is there any real evidence, so it leaves Cramer holding the entire empty bag. All we have is the insistence that Jean's face has reacted enough to make it obvious and provable:

Cramer was scowling. "I could use some more facts."

"Bah." Wolfe resented it. "What more do you want? You saw his face; you are seeing it now, with all the time he's had to arrange it."


We do find out at the end that Jean Daumery was convicted of first degree murder (though Wolfe had to actually LEAVE THE HOUSE to go testify, which he did not enjoy!), though frankly I have no idea how.

Again the narrative, by saying of Wolfe's demands, "no man could have stood up under it" and "what was Jean going to do about his face?", hangs a lantern on what's kind of a weak piece of plotting.

(I just noticed I used that phrase before, and just in case: it refers to a narrative strategy where something in a story is particularly weak or implausible, and the narrative tries to make it okay by highlighting it. So, for instance, Cramer does something so unusually dumb, and the book has Archie think about how dumb that was. Or here, the crime is solved by Wolfe pressuring Jean and Jean's face reacting, both of which come across as weak supports for a mystery; so the book has Archie talk about how Wolfe's pressure was so extreme and could not be resisted, and both Archie and Wolfe remark about how the changes in Jean's face tell the whole story).

But then, I honestly don't read these books for the plots. :D


Anyone else been able to give this story a look? Have any thoughts? And don't forget, the discussion of In The Best Families is still open for your input, anytime!


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