liviapenn: wolfe makes a sad face (wolfe: wolfe is sad :()
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This week's book is "Too Many Women," or, "the one where a little bit of Archie Goodwin's attitude towards women goes a loooong way."



SOME CONTEXT

Honestly, this is one of my less-well-liked Nero Wolfe books. Back in the day in "The Sentinel" fandom there was this thing called the "loft tape," where someone took all the action-adventure and cop stuff out, and all that was left were scenes from the loft where Jim and Blair lived, and they were adorable and domestic and made each other breakfast and argued about who broke the toaster and stuff. I feel like I could live with the "loft tape" version of this book. ^_^

The first handful of Nero Wolfe books have their own weaknesses-- first, they're a lot more Sherlock Holmes-inspired than the later ones-- I think [personal profile] saraht pointed out in one of her reviews, they have a tendency for the heart of a mystery to be "something that happened long ago and far away in a foreign land," which is usually explained in a lengthy flashback/storytelling sequence. And there's also a lot of psychological drama, which almost tends to overshadow the mystery. This one feels like almost a purposeful reversal of that-- like "The Silent Speaker," all the main characters are local middle-class or upper-middle-class New Yorkers with regular jobs, not dukes or debutantes or cowboys, etc.

Also, when we reviewed "Too Many Cooks" and "Some Buried Caesar" some people commented these felt like the first "real" Nero Wolfes, when Nero and Archie hit their stride (and it's interesting in retrospect that these books have two things in common-- they both take place 100% outside of the brownstone and NYC, away from the usual supporting cast of Fritz, Cramer, Saul, Fred, Orrie, etc., *and* they both introduce a supporting character who will reappear in many books after this-- Wolfe's old friend Marko Vukcic in "Too Many Cooks" and Lily Rowan in "Some Buried Caesar.") Both Marko and Lily get a mention in "Too Many Women," but don't actually appear onstage, so to speak.

(Also, maybe someone else can tell me, is this the first book in which Lon Cohen appears? I think I've mentioned before that John McAleer's biography of Rex Stout, he mentions that Stout had gotten some criticism for basically the entire cast being WASPs, and in response he had replaced the previous newspaperman character with Lon Cohen, but I wasn't paying attention and may have missed the switch...)

Anyway, after these early books we get the first novellas, and handful of good-to-great full-length novels-- these also include the wartime stories, which shake up the dynamics in the brownstone a bit. "The Silent Speaker" and "Over My Dead Body" are my personal favorites, and I like "Where There's A Will" and the first half of "Black Orchids".

But I just don't know about "Too Many Women." Again, I feel like it suffers a little by coming right after "The Silent Speaker" -- the comparisons are easy to make, it's Wolfe and Archie vs. a massive corporation with its own tangled internal politics, plus the last act being one long wearying hunt for the One Piece Of Information that will make sense of everything. But to me "The Silent Speaker" is superior in almost every respect-- the supporting cast, the sense of tension and high stakes, the way Archie relates to the lead female character, etc. Unlike some Nero Wolfes, I don't find it hard to remember the entire plot of "TSS," whereas it's been really tough to find things to say about "Too Many Women" because the instant I finish it I sort of forget what happened. Okay, so there was Cecily, and her brother-in-law knew that she murdered her boyfriend... no, that wasn't it... *throws up hands*


THE PLOT

Seriously, though, here is the actual backstory as revealed at the end:

The first murder: Jasper Pine was in love with Hester Livsey. Jasper wanted to divorce his wife Cecily and marry Hester, but she didn't want that, because it would disrupt her life. Cecily convinced Waldo Moore to join Hester's department and seduce her. Unfortunately, when Hester and Waldo fell in love, Jasper Pine was way too obsessed with Hester to just give up, so he murdered Waldo Moore. (Cecily did not expect that to happen, so she maintains that it is not her fault and doesn't feel guilty about it.)

The second murder: Unfortunately, Cecily had confided in her brother Kerr Naylor, and given him some letters that Hester had written to Jasper. Kerr realized that Jasper had murdered Waldo Moore and so he decided to put "Murdered" as cause of death on some paperwork and caused it to be gossipped about in the offices where they all worked. Apparently Jasper wasn't sure at first whether Kerr actually knew that *he* specifically had murdered Waldo. But then when Kerr told Archie that he did actually know who did it, and Jasper found out that Kerr had the letters (or maybe not the letters that Hester had written, but the ones that *Jasper* had written-- I'm not sure about this) he murdered Kerr too.

(There are some parts of this that still don't make complete sense to me, but most of them can be explained away by "People who obsessively murder other people don't always do the logical thing," so okay.)

So basically every other character that you can think of has nothing to do with the actual murder mystery. Rosa "The Curves" Bendini and her jealous punchy husband? Nothing to do with the plot! Gwynne Ferris and all her infuriating face-offs with Archie-- nothing to do with the plot! The whole part where Cecily has tons of boyfriends-- barely anything to do with the plot! The whole secret with Hester Livsey and Sumner Hoff, who basically take up the entire third act with their shenanigans and refusing to give up the Final Clue, and the whole situation where Wolfe and Archie basically set Hester up to be murdered... have nothing to do with the actual plot! Benjamin Frenkel, the gloomy one who has nightmares about being a murderer... total red herring! *flails* (Also, perhaps even more unforgivably, Wolfe and Archie have very little to do with the plot-- besides Archie being the means by which Kerr announces that he knows the murderer's identity, which is pretty incidental.)


THE WOMEN

In terms of important female characters in the book, there's Rosa Bendini, who seems to be all id, and Cecily Naylor Pine, who seems to be all ego. I do love Cecily and I wish there were more of her in the book-- she's just so hilarious and infuriating.

Archie: "You can't bribe or threaten Wolfe!"
Cecil: "But I wasn't threatening him..."
Archie: "I know, I just thought I'd say..."
Cecily: "Oooh, wait, I could totally threaten him!" *threatens Wolfe*
Archie: *facepalms*

Then there's Hester Livsey, who is the central bit of the backstory in that she's the one that everyone was in love with and the one that people got murdered over, but I never seem to get a hold on her character. (Honestly, by the end of it, I get her confused with Gwynne half the time.) And then there's Gwynne Ferris, who is sort of a second-rate Phoebe Gunther in that she knows important things and absolutely will not be shaken into sharing them with Wolfe and Archie, except that she REALLY doesn't know when she's beaten (when your fingerprints are all over the file, it's time to admit that you touched it!) and it just gets incredibly annoying. I would totally support spreading the rumor that SHE knows who the murderer is, I'm just saying.

But, I can't entirely not like her-- I will always sort of heart Gwynne Ferris if only because she is quick and clever enough to completely discombobulate Archie the first time they meet:

I sat on the corner of her desk and she looked up at me with the clear blue eyes of an angel and a virgin.

I leaned to her. "My name is Peter Truett," I told her, "and I've been hired as a personnel expert. If your section head hasn't told you about me..."

"He has," she said, in a sweet musical voice, a contralto, which is my favorite.

"Then please tell me, have you heard any gossip recently about a man named Moore? Waldo Wilmot Moore? Did you know him when he worked here?"

She shook her head. "I'm awfully sorry," she said, sweeter than before if anything, "but I only started here day before yesterday, and I'm leaving on Friday. Just because I can't spell! I never could spell." Her lovely fingers were resting on my knee and her eyes were going straight to my heart. "Mr. Truman, do you know of any job where you don't have to spell?"

I forget exactly how I got away.


Hee hee hee.


THE PLOT AGAIN (SERIOUSLY WHERE IS IT)

But, again, looking too closely at Gwynne Ferris shows the problem with the way this book is structured. When Archie first meets her and she claims she can't spell, that's at the end of chapter 6. We don't hear the actual *name* Gwynne Ferris until chapter 12, when Rosa Bendini gossips about her over dinner. And you would think Archie would want to track her down right away! But somehow he fails to have a meeting with her for FIVE MORE CHAPTERS-- she finally walks into his office at the end of CHAPTER SEVENTEEN, and then she basically stonewalls both Wolfe and Archie until the very end of the book, and it's SO INFURIATING.

I've said before that I like how there are characters in the Wolfe books who can't be bullied, and must be bargained or reasoned with (or in a worst case scenario, tricked) before they give up their plot-advancing knowledge, but this is really pushing it. There is really not enough plot here, is what I'm saying. (Oh, and on a re-read, there is ALSO the shameless "Kerr Naylor came to the door on Friday night and wanted to talk to Archie but he was out and Fritz FORGOT to tell either Wolfe or Archie about it until Cramer came by," which is only there to drag out the plot for another day or two and also to let Cramer badger Wolfe about being a liar and get in a state of mistrusting him.)


WOLFE AND ARCHIE

Okay, so, enough about the plot, let's look at Wolfe and Archie. There's a very short Chapter 1 at the beginning of this book, and it's seemingly all about Wolfe and Archie's relationship: It was the same old rigmarole. Sometimes I found it amusing; sometimes it only bored me; sometimes it gave me a pronounced pain, especially when I had had more of Wolfe than was good for either of us. This time it was fairly funny at first, but it developed along regrettable lines. Which is intriguing, but again, it takes four chapters to get back to it. Apparently everyone in the household is bickering with someone else for some reason. Between Wolfe and Archie: Archie wants a new car, but Wolfe wants to wait until next year, and Wolfe wants to buy Archie a noiseless electric typewriter, but Archie likes the one he has. Again, there's *so much* filler in this book, we don't get back to the typewriter issue until chapter *nineteen*--

"Archie. If I need to tell you, I do, that I have unqualified confidence in you and am completely satisfied with your performance in this case, as I have been in all past cases and expect to be in all future ones. Of course you tell lies and so do I, even to clients when it seems advisable, but you would never lie to me nor I to you in a matter where mutual trust and respect are involved. Your lack of brilliance may be regrettable but is really a triviality, and in any event two brilliant men under one roof would be intolerable. Your senseless peccadilloes, such as your refusal to use a noiseless typewriter, are a confounded nuisance, but this idiotic accusation that you lied in that report to Mr. Pine has put me in a different frame of mind about it. Keep your typewriter, but for heaven's sake oil it."

"Good God," I protested, "I oil it every--"

Cramer exploded with a word which the printer would not approve of. "Your goddam household squabbles will keep," he said rudely. He was at me. "Do you stick to it that Naylor told you he knew who killed Moore?"


There is a lot going on here and it's all ADORABLE. But I feel like it's slightly cheating to just *tell* us about it the typewriter conflict in Chapter 1 as something that's currently going on, and not *show* it, and then just have Wolfe give Archie a little bit of a hard time after his fight with Rosa Bendini's husband, and then the next time the typewriter argument comes up, it's completely resolved. So there's not even really a lot of Wolfe-and-Archie tension in the book either.


I GIVE UP, I'M JUST GONNA QUOTE SOME CUTE BITS

The door to the hall came open and Rosa Bendini was there among us.

It was a fairly embarrassing situation, with Wolfe still busy on the phone and the two public servants and me sitting staring at her as she stood just inside the door in that cherry-colored thing which, whatever its name might be, was certainly not intended for street wear. I thought of saying something like, "Mabel dear, we're discussing business with these gentlemen so go back to your room and wait for me," or something like, "We're engaged at present, Miss Carmichael, but we'll see you shortly," but the first seemed indecent and the second illogical, and no satisfactory substitute got to my tongue in time.

Wolfe, finished, dropped the phone back in its cradle and snapped at her, "What do you mean, coming in here dressed like that? Go back upstairs until I'm ready for you!"

His effort, it seemed to me, was no improvement on the ones I had rejected.



Heh. And then one of my favorite Archie and Fritz moments, because it totally underscores my reading of the Archie-Fritz relationship as "Archie is a lost duckling who has adopted Fritz as his mother"--

Fritz, who understands me, had fresh hot oatmeal ready, the chill off my bottle of cream, the eggs waiting for the pan, the ham sliced thin for the broiler, the pancake batter mixed, the griddle hot, and the coffee steaming. I made a pass as if to kiss him on the cheek, he kept me off with a twenty-inch pointed knife, and I sat down and started the campaign against starvation with the TimesĀ propped up in front of me.


N'awww. And Wolfe warning Archie about Cecily, the cougar, who is trying to seduce him with gifts:

He wiggled a finger at me. "Archie. That woman is a wanton maniac. It would be foolhardy to accept baseball tickets--"

The doorbell rang.

"If it's her again," Wolfe commanded me in quick panic, "don't let her in!"



There's also a super cute moment in Chapter 19 when Archie decides that the case isn't moving along (see, Archie totally agrees with me that there's not enough plot in this book) so he's going to go to a movie: Ordinarily I let the movies wait when we're busy on a case, but I broke precedent that Friday evening because (a) we weren't busy - at least God knows Wolfe wasn't - and (b) I strongly doubted if it was a case. [....] So I let my mind go blank and enjoyed the movie up to a certain point, staying nearly to the end. When it came to where they were preparing to wind it up right and let it out that the hero really had not put over the fake contract and cleaned up, I left in a hurry, because I had formed my own opinion of the hero from where I sat and chose to think otherwise.

Aw. That seems like such a fannish response to me. "I can tell where this is going, and I choose to believe that it's not canon, because it makes no sense for the character." Plus, it's so true of so many movies of the 40s, where you just KNOW that no, it didn't actually end with justice and true love resolving everything, that just happened because of the Hays Office. (See the end of "Gilda" for instance-- if Johnny and Gilda don't end up in a murder/suicide before the month is out, I would be astonished, but the movie seems to think they'll be FINE.)


IN CLOSING

So, what does everyone else think of this book? Does anyone like it better than I do? Would it have been better as a novella, instead of a full-length novel? Does anyone have any thoughts about the subplot where Archie and Wolfe are purposely putting it out there that Hester Livsey knows who killed Waldo Moore and Kerr Naylor? Or Archie's attitude towards the various female characters, or the theme of "protect your woman," or the appearance of Saul etc.,?

And perhaps most important of all-- what happens when Archie goes and meets everybody at 7pm at the bar at Rusterman's?

And, just a reminder, next week's book is "And Be A Villain" (UK title: More Deaths Than One) and the discussion post will be posted on Friday, Feb 1. (If anyone would like to volunteer to post that discussion post, let me know in the comments-- otherwise, I will go ahead and do it.) And the week after that, on Friday, Feb 8, will be the discussion of "The Second Confession".
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