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Here's our first glimpse of Archie and Wolfe in wartime, once the US has gotten into WWII. Archie's in the army, Wolfe has completely flipped out, and Archie's efforts to get Wolfe focused again end up depending on the sudden death of a woman with a secret.

I really like this story (is it considered a book if it's only technically half a book? A novella?)--I think the mystery plot device is simple and neat, and even more, I loooove the emotional/personal content for Wolfe and Archie both. Although I admit, mystery-plot-wise, there is one aspect that really bugs me...



CHARACTERS WITH SECRETS

The mystery plot in this one hangs on the fact that two characters, Ann Amory and Lily, keep secrets that they refuse to divulge. If either of them were actually to divulge her secret, 1) Ann very well might not have been murdered, and/or 2) the identity of the murderer would be revealed a lot sooner.

Okay, so the mystery needs the secrets to drape itself over, as a rationale and an engine. Fair enough. But where my mind goes while I read is to the question, Why won't a character divulge that secret? If there doesn't seem to be a robust/believable enough reason for it, then it bugs me; it smacks of 'because the author needed it to be mysterious', which takes me out of the story.

So: in Ann's case, Archie knows she has a secret; it's just that she won't tell him. Or Lily, or in fact anyone she has access to at the moment. She says she'd tell a lawyer, and Lily and Archie seem to think she would have told Nero Wolfe (although there's no hint from Ann that that's actually true), but she doesn't tell anyone, and then she dies.

In the end I could get onboard with the narrative reason for Ann's secrecy, even if it might be frustrating to me personally. She had suspicions that Roy had murdered Mrs. Leeds, but she most likely wasn't sure, and they were engaged (and it's hard to extricate yourself emotionally from something like that), and she didn't have anyone to trust, so she fixated on a lawyer and wouldn't be dissuaded. She was in much more danger than she knew, especially because of Archie and Lily's interference (which startled Roy, and then gave him the window to strangle her), but she had no real way of knowing that. So, okay, her secret I can grant.

Lily, though...I admit, Lily's behavior in this story frustrates the hell out of me. Sometimes she's the quick-witted Archie-foil I know and love--but more often, this story gives her the chance to 1) happen upon Archie with Ann and get Theatrically-Jealous!, 2) create the fake murder story just as a way to get Archie's attention (!!!), 3) have her stick to the fake story even after Ann really has been murdered, 4) have her sit and be truculent and not tell anyone the truth--not even pulling Archie aside to let him know privately--until Wolfe rolls his eyes and tells her he's figured it out. I mean, come onnnnn.

Granted, the narrative works hard to help her keep the secret by keeping her and Archie apart as much as it can. But then when she's in the office and it would be important for her to finally spill (and she should realize that), she's on with the jealousy and the 'how could you, after I got all desperate to pull strings to sit with you on the airplane'...and to me, Lily Rowan is not someone who's so incredibly jealous and possessive and needy for Archie that she falls over the line into idiocy.

So in short, her secret, and the lengths to which she continues to keep it, just never works for me (if only it weren't Lily! Couldn't it have been some other non-recurring character?). I have to handwave it, and I gladly do, because I love the emotional aspects so much vis-a-vis Wolfe and Archie.

For instance! As the head of US Army Intelligence asks on the very first page:

"WHAT THE HELL IS THE MATTER WITH NERO WOLFE?"

I think there are two big things the hell the matter with Nero Wolfe in this story, both of which hammer on vulnerabilities of his we've already seen: Archie's gone, and there's a war with Germany. If ever there were a one-two punch specifically designed to knock Wolfe over...

1. ARCHIE'S ABSENCE

Archie left for the army two months ago, and three days before the story begins he has already been promoted to Major. It seems clear that the powers that be actually appreciate his value to Army Intelligence!

As with other books, we have a mention of an offstage previous case, when Ryder says "You seem to have done pretty well with that mess down in Georgia, Major Goodwin." Whatever "that mess" was, presumably he did more than pretty well, since it seems likely that it was that mission that got him promoted. I wonder what could have been happening in Georgia during WWII to call for the skills of this specific brand-new Intelligence officer?

Anyway, in the very first scene, Archie hears that the military has tried to get Wolfe to come to them to lend his brain to the cause, but Wolfe has refused. Archie takes it in stride, and pinpoints a cause:

"I doubt if he's been outdoors since I left, two months ago."
and
"His moods are never anything to brag about, and of course he's dejected because I'm not there.

Archie is correct that his absence has had an effect...but as we're about to find out, he has no idea of the extent!

It also seems clear that Archie himself is homesick for the Brownstone and the people in it. And his plans to say a secret hi to Fritz and then hide in his room until Wolfe comes down to the office, so he can surprise him, are so endearing. Unfortunately, they are also moot--Fritz isn't there, neither is Wolfe, the kitchen isn't stocked with anything good, the office is dusty and abandoned. Archie rushes through the house and searches every room, convinced that they must be dead.

What he finds instead, though, is that Wolfe has completely shattered almost every foundational rule of his life: he no longer cherishes gourmet meals or eats much at all, he does not fuss with the orchids or sit in the office reading books/exploring the atlas, and he leaves the house twice a day every day. Wearing Archie's maroon sweater (!!!) (which he obviously retrieved and wore without Archie's knowledge or permission), he exercises, comes back to the house to eat salads and prunes, sits up in the greenhouse to sweat, and goes to bed by 9pm.

Wolfe has obviously lost his moorings, and in turn losing his certainties about Wolfe freaks Archie right out. Neither of them does well without the other one to depend on (physically, mentally, emotionally, take your pick).

2. WARTIME

The other aspect to Wolfe's undeniable loss-of-moorings is the state of war--and specifically, war with Germany. We're still given the explicit reminder that Wolfe fought in WWI, with all of the effects on him that that may imply (and that were touched on very evocatively in previous books).

I think it's indicative of a big old nervous breakdown, to have Wolfe drop almost every rule and comfort he had previously relied on, and instead to throw himself completely singlemindedly into turning himself back in to the person he used to be--the person who was lean and moved around, the person who "believed that all misguided or cruel people should be shot, and I shot some" (as he said in Over My Dead Body). This man who previously had said, with sheer disgust, that war "merely pickles [men] in the brine of disgust and dread" can now only say, "I am going to kill some Germans. I didn't kill enough in 1918." It must be a horrible feeling for him, like a flashback come to life and engulfing everything.

THE WIDOWER SYSTEM

Archie being Archie, and Wolfe being Wolfe, Archie doesn't respond to such a giant breakdown (just like with the relapses) with cooing and comfort. He knows instead that he has to forcibly snap Wolfe out of it, and in this case the breakdown is so epic that the tool should be epic as well. So what does he do? He frames himself for murder! ♥

It's a great idea, really... the combination of the horrible publicity and Archie trapped in both personal discomfort and legal distress, it hits the target. Wolfe shows up, properly dressed and Not Happy with Cramer. Cramer says to Wolfe:
"But he [Archie] won't talk. And by God," he hit the desk with one of the fists, "you have the gall to come down here, the first time you have ever honored us with a visit, and threaten to have the police department abolished!"

Of course, Wolfe knows just what Archie's doing, and after taking a couple of Archie's fake-speeches, in which Archie "smiles bravely" and talks "in a manly tone", he cuts to the chase:
"Apparently, Archie," he said grimly, "you forget how well I know you. Enough of this flummery. What are your terms?"

He had me flustered for a second. I stammered, "My what? Terms?"

It seems that Archie's saying he truly was flustered, not just acting (his earlier acting was clearly marked as such in the narrative). So I assume the point of his plan was just to get Wolfe working on the case to clear him, which would get Wolfe back in the right mindset and out of his super-duper-giant-relapse, which would let Archie properly steer him into working for the Army. Whereas Wolfe skips past the unnecessary investigation-of-the-frame-job, and just says, Let's make a deal.

I also love how, when Archie and Wolfe are communicating partly around the edges about making their deal, Cramer's left in the dust:
"What the hell," Cramer barked, "is all this?"

"Please be quiet," Wolfe snapped.

Heh. WE ARE HAVING A RELATIONSHIP NEGOTIATION, PLZ TO BE BUTTING OUT.

The reason I titled this section "the Widower System" is because of something verrrrry interesting Archie learns from Roy Douglas:
He said he was busy working on the widower system, and and all I got out of him was that the widower system was a method of keeping a male pigeon away from his mate for a certain period, and letting him in with her for a couple of minutes just before shipping him to the liberation point for a race, the result being that he flew to get back as he had never flown before.

You know, always excepting the female pronoun, somehow in this particular story IT SOUNDS LIKE A FAMILIAR DYNAMIC. :D

MISCELLANY

* Archie really does seem personally hurt by Wolfe's complete change, with his reaction including the bitter line "Much obliged for the fatted calf." Aww. And Wolfe seems to see quite well that Archie is hurt, with his conciliatory reply, "I hope, Archie, you will understand--"...but Archie stomps out. Oh, you boys.

* Cramer says his son is in Australia with the Air Corps, flying as a bombardier. I don't remember if we already knew he had a son.

* More of the "YOU'LL BE HEARING MORE ABOUT THIS WHEN WE GET HOME, HONEY", when, after Archie comes clean about his own frame-job of himself:
"Archie." Wolfe had found his tongue. "You admit that the sole purpose of this grotesque performance was to bring pressure on me? To coerce me?"

"To stimulate you, yes sir."

Wolfe nodded grimly. "We'll discuss it at the proper time. I prefer not to do so in the presence of others."

* Wolfe's brusqueness also does double duty as an evenhanded kind of reassurance--when Archie admits that he partly blamed himself, since he "went down there and stirred it up":
"Nonsense," Wolfe said testily. "A murder doesn't sprout overnight like a mushroom.

* I think it's interesting that Archie does seem able to actually suspect Lily Rowan, if that is where the evidence goes. I mean, not that he wants her to be guilty or believes strongly that she is, but he thinks under certain circumstances she could be. I appreciate that, as a realistic assessment, and a willingness to be realistic in his assessment in the first place (rather than refusing to believe she'd have the capacity, even if she had "gone completely haywire", to kill someone, simply because he loves her). He feels terrible about it, of course, but that doesn't stop him from allowing the possibility.

* When Archie is spilling the story of events so far to Wolfe, he does suppress something, and something seemingly innocuous (the indications on the plane that Lily has been chasing after Archie)--and Wolfe seems to have caught that fact, since he says he can tell Archie's hiding something. Which is true! Seems like a pretty clear example of Wolfe being able to read Archie in the super-subtleties.

* When Archie is examining Ann's dead body, his line is striking in its rough language: "All right, Ann, we'll get the bastard. Or bitch, as the case may be." An indication that we're in the 1940s now, not the 1930s? Or an indication of Archie's level of anger at the killer? Or both?

* Buried among Archie's freakout at Wolfe having changed his entire lifestyle, and Archie's need to get Wolfe working for the Army, is also this tidbit: and second, it looked as if he was going to kill himself if I didn't stop him. Aw.
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