dorinda: Fat Pony appears in a blaze of light! (Fat_Pony)
[personal profile] dorinda posting in [community profile] milk_and_orchids
Apologies I couldn't get this done for Friday--I fell ill and have been completely out of commission. But now I am upright and typing again, so let's get into it--the second Zeck book!


A COMMIE IS A LOUSE

I really like this book, although when I first read it I was a little wary of the levels of demonization of card-carrying-Communists--but then, I have the knowledge in hindsight of the damage the Second Red Scare was just about to do to a lot of people and the culture in general. On the bright side, Wolfe's not a knee-jerk rightwinger in his anti-Communism; he uses the term with precision, but realizes that other people don't:

"Whom do you call a Communist? A liberal? A pink intellectual? A member of the party? How far left do you start?"

Sperling smiled. "It depends on where I am and who I'm talking to. There are occasions when it may be expedient to apply the term to anyone left of center. [...]"


Given the manner in which Wolfe makes his liberal ideologies plain throughout the series (including the way he asks in this book for the removal of aggressive right-wing blowhard Paul Emerson from the radio, as part of his fee), it seems that Sperling would well be able to call him a commie in the sloppy/Red Scare sense. But Wolfe is not prone to sloppiness or hysteria: he is the one of them who actually knows any members of the party; he knows how to work with Communists in order to do his real job (including the mysterious "Mr. Jones"--is he a mole? If so, why is Archie so afraid for Wolfe? Is he a Communist? If so, why does he give Wolfe so much information?). So it seems at least to me that Wolfe's objections are specific and thought out, which is not the same as Red Scare hysteria.

Archie is a stranger case, since he seems to be yanking Sperling's chain:

"I like the way your daughter put it. The best I can do is 'a Commie is a louse' or something like that."

Sperling looked at me suspiciously, apparently decided that I merely had IQ trouble, and returned to Wolfe, who was talking.


Oh, ARCHIE. Heh. What was that even about?


PLOT BASICS

* I will admit that Communism works well as the prime mover in the story and the way to dovetail with Zeck: it's a hugely-charged secret that would certainly draw a professional blackmailer (blackmailing Kane, but also Jimmy Sperling for his contribution to the front for the Henry Wallace campaign, which--at least in this book--is being controlled and manipulated by the Communist Party). And that's what connects Rony (Zeck's worker bee) to Kane, and why Kane kills him. The particulars of the party meetings are also a hugely-charged secret, and publishing those details is how Wolfe frames Kane as a stoolie in the eyes of the party, which motivates them to cut him loose and help prove he's a killer.

* As in "Too Many Women" a couple of books ago, Archie is supposed to go undercover in a group of people...and is unmasked almost at once. Archie, you are not cut out for the cloak-and-dagger! Especially because the unmasking is due to him having SUCH A FAN, with the photo on her tumblr clipping in her scrapbook. Face it, Arch, you're just irresistible.


SIDE CHARACTERS

* We get some Saul, Fred, and Orrie--and all of them together, in a meeting in which Wolfe asks if they'd be okay if he decided not to punish Rony's murderer (once discovered). I assume he needs to leave this option open since Rony was 1) a blackmailer and 2) Zeck's creature, and the killing might have been (in Wolfe's eyes) justified. Orrie's okay with it: "Here's to crime," he toasts Wolfe. Which in very very long hindsight can give one a bit of a shiver.

* And we get the wonderful Ruth Brady! I don't know if she appears in any future books--I fear not. Which is a damn shame, because she's great, and the way she works with the guys (especially Archie) is terrific. She's a fount of wisecracks, she's a respected specialist in the cosh, she's competent and informative and quick. And, frankly, Archie is able to work with her without the constant OMG LADY DETECTIVE that we get from him re: the later appearances of Dol Bonner and Sally Colt/Corbett. She could just as easily be Fred or Orrie, and that is a refreshing change.

* We get Lon again, and Lon gets a steak again! One of Fritz's, even, and the description always gets me: "The steak was thick and brown with charcoal braid, the grilled slices of sweet potato and sauteed mushrooms were just right..." Now I'm hungry.

* We see Lt. Con Noonan of the State Police again, with some references to the first time they met him in "A Door to Death"--which we haven't actually covered yet, I guess because the collection it appeared in was published slightly afterward. Anyway, he's a brute, and Archie honestly seems to hate him, telling us that Noonan "was fitted out at birth for a career as a guard at a slave-labor camp and somehow got delivered to the wrong country".


ZECK DRAWS CLOSER

In the interests of backstory: Wolfe tells the Sperlings that he first got an inkling of Zeck "and something of his activities and methods" eleven years ago, although he didn't know his name.

Also: Zeck says he hopes he doesn't have to kill Wolfe, because "It's a more interesting world with you in it." Classic nemesis! Wasn't that later used from Hannibal Lector to Clarice Starling?

They have some bad luck here, Zeck-wise, but then some good luck that might end up staving off the final confrontation for a little while (and certainly gives Wolfe some good bug-out money). The bad luck is that Rony is one of Zeck's belongings--which is a coincidence, but I'm okay with it, given how widespread Wolfe describes Zeck's network as being. At first, Zeck warns them off for investigating Rony--to the point of DESTROYING THE PLANT ROOMS, a dramatic scene (and a favorite!) I'll discuss below. But when Rony is killed, Zeck asks Wolfe to find the killer--and even though Wolfe doesn't do it because Zeck told him to, Zeck still pays up. Archie, still blithely believing he'll be involved in case Wolfe does have to bug out, tucks the money away in an anonymous safe deposit box. Speaking of which...


POOR ARCHIE IN HINDSIGHT

I thought I'd link back to my earlier mention of this book at this point, because it's heartbreaking--but only afterward.

The first two Zeck books, as we've been mentioning, introduce and build on Wolfe's contingency plan In Case Of Terminal Zeck: he's going to flee the Brownstone and go completely undercover to defeat Zeck no matter what it takes, and "[Zeck] will know it is a mortal encounter". In the previous book, he mentioned it only to Archie; in this book, he mentions it to the the entire Sperling family (one of whom he knows has an attachment to a member of Zeck's organization), so the information is spreading wider now like the ripples in a pool.

But every time, and emphatically so in the case of this book, Wolfe emphasizes how Archie will of course be involved and there's no way he could do it without him. In this book, even when things are looking very dark indeed, Wolfe is all "If we ever meet him head on and have to cut off from here and from everyone we know, we'll need supplies." It takes the later events of "In the Best Families" to reveal (and rub in) the fact that this turned out not to be the case. :(

I also mentioned this in the post for "And Be A Villain," because I wonder... is there any clue in "In the Best Families" why he ended up making such a different decision? I can't remember, so I'll be paying more attention to that question when we get to that book. Could his promises to Archie have been flummery all along, with Wolfe secretly deciding to keep Archie safe and out of it, the way he did a few years before when he hired Bascom's men to track down/identify Zeck instead of involving Archie in any way?


WOLFE AND ARCHIE

There are so many great scenes and lines in this book, that I could've filled this entire post with nothing but citations and quotations! They're really getting along well, occasional and productive head-butting included.

* They decide on "Andrew" for Archie's pseudonym... "That would fit the A.G. on the bag Wolfe had given me for my birthday, which I naturally wanted to have along because it was caribou hide and people should see it." Archie, you self-sufficient, furniture-buying, kept man you.

* The ATTACK ON THE PLANT ROOMS. I love this scene--it's the sort of rupture of their sanctum sanctorum that really elevates Zeck (even though it's also hamhandedly hired-gunman-violent, not very clever-Moriarty-style), and honestly shakes Wolfe. The Brownstone is no longer any kind of shield, should Zeck decide to really get serious.

But more, I love the scene for its emotional content. Like the way that Archie narrates a realistic sense of shock (as we've seen him do in other books, when he's in combat-level crisis), having the first line after the cacophony simply be, "Wolfe said something." (We also get a bit of shock when he almost throws up after finding Rony's body, an interesting bit where he doesn't disparage himself or anyone for reacting that way.)

Archie is the man of action, rushing outside and then upstairs, and there's a nice piece of physicality where Wolfe is right behind Archie and would charge forward into the dark room full of shattered glass:

"Let me get by," Wolfe growled like a dog ready to spring.

"No." I pushed back against him. "You'll scalp yourself or cut your throat. Wait here till I get a light."


And Wolfe's very quiet reaction when they finally do have a light and he sees the carnage, I feel like it says a lot.

* Wolfe and Archie's trip back up to stay with the Sperlings! Poor Wolfe...his one safe place attacked and disrupted, and here he is on a guest bed with incipient holes in his socks, having to eat jellied consomme. (Man, that meal feels soooo 1950s to me.) I adore the way Archie pulls the blanket off his own bed to cover Wolfe. Daw. In general, their coupled-up napping feels very cozy and domestic; they fit together well, and it's clearly those two against the world.

* Speaking of Wolfe and Archie and the Sperlings...there's a description of what everyone else at the table is wearing, and it's all kind of scruffy-casual, including dingy coat sweaters and loud checks and rayon; Wolfe and Archie "were the only ones with neckties on". I get a sense here of time beginning to move forward without them, as the world outside the Brownstone starts to move more quickly than they do. Throughout WWII and right after, they still felt congruent with the outside world, but just about here I at least start to feel the shift.

* When it's revealed that Wolfe's car was involved, Wolfe and Archie exchange a look and a nod/headshake, and all the required information and confidence has been exchanged. ♥ When Noonan is thirsting to drag Archie to the station and beat the story out of him, Wolfe is Not Amused. ("...if Mr. Goodwin is taken to a barracks, as this puppy suggests, I shall go with him.")

* Archie teases Wolfe with more of his stealth-erudition, tossing out a Confucius quotation as something he heard a guy say once (and then, as always, enjoying Wolfe's double-take. *g*).

* Following up the 'if we have to run we'll need supplies' conversation about the money in the pseudonymous safe-deposit box, Wolfe finishes:

"I hope I never touch it. I hope it's still there when I die, and if so it's yours."

"Thank you very much. I'll be around eighty then and I'll need it."


OH, BOYS.

* Archie is so proud of himself for finding the murder weapon! And sooooo cranky when Wolfe seems to downplay it. He punishes Wolfe by not eating dinner with him. SO THERE. *g* Later, during the final rundown of the crime, Wolfe makes a sneaky peace offering, telling the entire group: "By a brilliant stroke of Mr. Goodwin's, [the ambush] was established as a fact. On Thursday he searched the grounds for the instrument used for laying Mr. Rony out, and he found it in the presence of a witness."

* Archie is honestly worried about Wolfe and Mr. Jones, sitting up late into the night until Wolfe has gone safely to bed. "What if I come down some morning and find you?" he asks. Poor guy. (I keep saying Poor Archie here, I know, when there certainly should be a Poor Wolfe or two as well! His cherished orchids, the sudden attack on his bulwark and his haven...)
 

What do you think? Do you like this one?

Edit!: Here's the schedule for the discussion of Trouble in Triplicate!:
  • 02/22/13 - trouble in triplicate - before i die
  • 03/01/13 - trouble in triplicate - help wanted male
  • 03/08/13 - trouble in triplicate - instead of evidence

Does anyone want to do the discussion posts for any of these? (If no one volunteers, [personal profile] liviapenn is willing to do "Before I Die".)

(no subject)

Date: 2013-02-10 10:24 pm (UTC)
rhi: "This icon has been hauled downtown and wants you to call Parker."  A Nero Wolfe joke. (Call Parker)
From: [personal profile] rhi
In retrospect, I think Wolfe never planned on taking Archie, since he doesn't trust Archie's acting. He kept saying he would, and deliberately made sure word got back to Zeck that he would, in part so Archie wouldn't be watching him too closely and in part so that Zech wouldn't be expecting Wolfe to show up after him with Archie working in NYC.

:grins: Other mileage may vary, of course!

On a more general line, one, thank you for writing this up! And two, I really enjoy the '40s and '50s Wolfe books. I particularly like the slow weave in of Zeck through these two, where it makes sense for Wolfe to run into him every so often. My only problem with the book is that now *I* want a steak after that description!

ETA: I hope you get completely well soon!
Edited Date: 2013-02-10 10:25 pm (UTC)

(no subject)

Date: 2013-02-12 09:56 am (UTC)
liviapenn: miss piggy bends jail bars (remains sexy while doing so) (Default)
From: [personal profile] liviapenn

I will probably make a ton of little comments about this one, but it is one of my favorites.

-- I like how Archie and Wolfe are deeply entangled in the murder plot, having been hired by the client (and Archie having gone undercover, staged the mugging on Rony, gotten involved with Madeline, etc.) before Rony's death even takes place. It just seems to make everything more *personal*. Also Wolfe is there at the Sperlings' house when Rony is killed, instead of being back at the brownstone. So it makes everything feel very personal and immediate, instead of how some books feel like... "Wolfe sits in the office and someone comes to talk to him about stuff that already happened a while ago, and Archie goes around to talk to some people about stuff they've already talked about to the police" and it's all very second-hand.

Now that I think about it, Second Confession has all the benefits of being a "travel" book (like Too Many Cooks, Black Mountain, etc) where Archie and Wolfe spend lots of time together in trying circumstances, but it also has all the advantages of an NYC setting book (the supporting cast, Saul & Fred & Lon Cohen, etc., plus the stakes raised yet AGAIN by Zeck's strike at the brownstone.)

-- Living by logic and dying by logic!

So this has one of the openings that I really like where Wolfe is like, "Come on, BE LOGICAL." He tells Mr. Sperling-- think about it! The main objective isn't actually to prove Rony is a Communist. The main objective is for your daughter Gwenn to dump him, so you should hire me to find ANYTHING that will make her do that. And Mr. Sperling is like "oh yeah that makes sense." (And this leads to the hilarious attempted cheat by Wolfe, where he's like "look, ACTUALLY actually, we don't have to prove Rony is a louse. You just have to make Gwenn fall in love with you. PROBLEM SOLVED.") [1]

But then when they're at the house and Wolfe logically presents the Only Possible Options to Gwenn (He can quit the case, he can be fired by Sperling, he can go after Zeck in order to get proof about Rony, or Gwenn can accept what he's saying without proof and dump Rony) ... it takes a female character to point out to Archie that there is actually ANOTHER option, which is "Gwenn could be like FUCK YOU ALL and run away with Rony!" And Archie of course is like "Oh, damn, Wolfe has a blind spot there in terms of romance, he wouldn't have thought of that," but.... you didn't think of it either, Archie!




[1] Okay seriously I have to quote this whole part.

" [....] Get invited to his home, socially. Meet Mr. Rony, and form an opinion of him. More important, form one of the daughter, as intimately and comprehensively as possible. Make appointments with her. Seize and hold her attention. You should be able to displace Mr. Rony in a week, a fortnight at the most-- and that's the objective."

"I'll be damned." I shook my head reproachfully. "You mean make a pass at her."

"Your terms are yours, and I prefer mine. Mr. Sperling said his daughter is excessively curious. Transfer her curiosity from Mr. Rony to you."

"You mean break her heart."

"You can stop this side of tragedy."

"Yeah, and I can stop this side of starting." I looked righteous and outraged. "You've gone a little too far. I like being a detective, and I like being a man, with all that implies, but I refuse to degrade whatever glamour I may--"

"Archie!" He snapped it.

"Yes, sir."

"With how many young women whom you met originally through your association with my business have you established personal relationships?"

"Between five and six thousand. But that's not--"

"I'm merely suggesting that you reverse the process and establish the personal relationship first. What's wrong with that?"

"Everything." I shrugged. "Okay. Maybe nothing. It depends. I'll take a look at her."



*flails* I don't even know, you guys.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-02-12 09:59 am (UTC)
liviapenn: phoebe gunther is smarter than you (wolfe: saving it for mr. goodwin)
From: [personal profile] liviapenn

And we get the wonderful Ruth Brady! I don't know if she appears in any future books--I fear not.

I don't think so. She does get mentioned in "In The Best Families" -- Archie suggests her to... do the thing that they end up recruiting Lily Rowan to do (woot!) and Wolfe says no because she's known to be a detective (and presumably one with ties to Wolfe and Archie) and might be recognized by the wrong people.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-02-24 07:41 am (UTC)
ekaterinn: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ekaterinn
I actually found and reread this book, so I could comment on this post! Here's a few of the things I loved:

-The gunning down of the plant rooms - incredibly dramatic and shocking. As said above, the Brownstone is no longer a shield. (I'll love to see an adaption of this book for that scene alone). Which, I think, is only emphasised by the fact Wolfe ends up traveling for part of the book - a foreshadowing of what he will be required to do in that "mortal encounter"?

-Archie's search for the murder weapon: I just find it v. amusing that he can't shake Madeline and I like their banter and Archie's willingness to "take a tip from a woman"

-Archie's and Wolfe's protectiveness of each other. Archie is very much about the physical protection - staying up all night in case Mr. Jones tries something funny, putting that blanket over him. Wolfe protects by keeping knowledge from Archie - if Archie doesn't know any details about Mr. Jones and other players know he doesn't, then he can't be shaken down or hurt for those details.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-02-24 07:46 am (UTC)
ekaterinn: (the seasons of my discontent (selphish))
From: [personal profile] ekaterinn
I do agree that Wolfe never planned on taking Archie, but I think another intriguing (if sentimental) explanation is that he planned on taking or at least using Archie in some capacity, but found that he couldn't bear to put Archie in that much danger. (In another fandom, I'd say something about "slash goggles", but I think that term is irrelevant when talking about Wolfe and Archie).

(no subject)

Date: 2013-02-24 05:11 pm (UTC)
rhi: Saul Panzer, smiling and watching. (Saul)
From: [personal profile] rhi
::laughing:: I don't see Archie and Wolfe through slash goggles, oddly enough. (Saul and Archie now, I have no trouble with.)

But yes. I can very much see Wolfe leaving Archie as a way of making sure he'd have his old life to come back to when he was done, if that makes any kind of sense. Both a touchstone and a gad to chase Wolfe up after to make sure they could still afford everything after however many months of not bringing in legal income.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-02-25 06:51 am (UTC)
liviapenn: miss piggy bends jail bars (remains sexy while doing so) (Default)
From: [personal profile] liviapenn

*adding some late comments*

One of the interesting things about the plot of this book (and "More Deaths than One," the one that directly precedes it) is that you get a sense of Rex Stout starting to play with mystery tropes. Like, not just writing a competent mystery novel (which is hard enough, I would imagine) but actually using the readers' understanding of how mystery novels typically work, in order to misdirect their expectations.

Like, it is pretty typical to have the "reveal" halfway through a mystery that the person who died was not actually the intended target, therefore everybody's assumptions must be shaken up and the detectives basically have to start over. (As in the very first book, "Fer-de-Lance," where the wrong person is killed because he borrowed the intended victim's golf club.) So it's basically just a way to delay the conclusion of the plot, and isn't really a shocking twist for most readers-- it just means that the detectives to have to spend a couple of chapters discovering the real intended victim before they can discover the real killer. And Rex Stout uses this very trickily in "More Deaths Than One"-- if Wolfe spends the first third of the book painstakingly digging out the real "truth" that Madeline Fraser was supposed to be the real victim, then who is going to suspect her of actually being the real killer? So it's extra surprising when she actually is.

And it's the same in "The Second Confession"-- we "know" that Kane can't be the killer, because he confessed! Obviously, he is just a red herring, and the real killer MUST be someone else!! So while we're reading we completely dismiss Kane, but secretly, most of the book (if we could read it from Wolfe's perspective) is just a lot of shenanigans in order to force Kane to revoke his false confession. (Similarly, as readers we expect that Sperling was right about Rony being a communist, because he was carrying an official membership card-- even if it wasn't in his own name, it definitely didn't occur to me that it might be *someone else's* membership card. But that is also misdirection.)

Also, one of the very subtly funny things in "The Second Confession" is that several times during the book, there are hints about the strategy that Kane's using-- hiding the truth in plain sight by pretending it's an obvious lie-- because ARCHIE does it, several times. First when he's being interrogated about Wolfe's car being used to run over Rony, he's asked why he had a hangover on Sunday, and he lies by telling the truth sarcastically: I leaned forward and spoke in a low voice. "I had nine drinks and they were all doped." Obviously not true, but the fact is his drink *was* doped. Then later when Madeline Sperling asks him who scratched his face: "You'd be surprised." I tilted my head to whisper in her ear. "Your mother." And of course she just laughs. And yet even Archie doesn't suspect that Kane's confession might be working the same way...

(no subject)

Date: 2013-02-25 04:56 pm (UTC)
liviapenn: wolfe makes a sad face (wolfe: wolfe is sad :()
From: [personal profile] liviapenn

The gunning down of the plant rooms - incredibly dramatic and shocking. As said above, the Brownstone is no longer a shield. (I'll love to see an adaption of this book for that scene alone). Which, I think, is only emphasised by the fact Wolfe ends up traveling for part of the book - a foreshadowing of what he will be required to do in that "mortal encounter"?


You know, maybe that *does* explain it, at least a little... Zeck does mention a few times that he respects Wolfe's intellect & would at least slightly regret being forced to kill him if it became necessary-- I wonder if, until the assault on the plant rooms, Wolfe was unconsciously extending that tiny amount of restraint on Zeck's part to Archie as well. But considering that it was sheer luck that Theodore wasn't killed when the orchids were destroyed, and it would have made no difference to Zeck either way... maybe at that point Wolfe has the harsh realization that if he brings Archie directly into the fight, Zeck would have no compunction about just destroying him like he destroyed the orchids. Because Zeck only sees Archie as a tool or servant, like Theodore, who could be killed just to "send a message", and doesn't deserve Zeck's respect and grudging tolerance like Wolfe does.