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Time for the last couple stories in "Trouble in Triplicate"! I find them enjoyable, with interesting wartime and post-war details, and some great character stuff.

Also, take a look back at the book club post for the first story in the collection, "Before I Die", and see if you have any comments for that as well!


A great title, especially since this story seems to be grounded in the idea that You Can't Get Good Help These Days: we find out that Saul, Fred, Orrie, and Johnny Keems are all fighting overseas (though we don't know which service each is in), and Archie is technically employed by the Army but still cannot get into combat, something he and Wolfe have an ongoing tug-of-war over. Poor Archie, his entire group of friends/co-workers all in the war, and he the only one left behind.

THE PREMISE: An interesting thing about this story is that it seems like a sequel to a case from an earlier book, but there is no earlier book! It refers to the previous case so naturally that I have often forgotten that fact. I love how it reinforces that there are all kinds of between-book events and cases we didn't get to see.

Basically, Wolfe was recently responsible for getting corrupt Army captain Peter Root court-martialed and sent to prison. Now publisher Ben Jensen, who cooperated in the case, has had his life threatened and asks Wolfe for help. Wolfe says no. Jensen is indeed murdered, and then Wolfe gets the exact same death threat. This time, he does something about it.

ARCHIE WANTS TO GO TO WAR: We saw this conflict start up as soon as WWII did: Archie enlisted to fight, Wolfe flew completely apart, and Archie ended up stationed at home with his work for Wolfe considered military duty. As Wolfe puts it here, "Officers in Military Intelligence on special assignments have freedoms. Major Goodwin's special assignment is to assist me in various projects entrusted to me by the Army. For which I am not paid."

But that hasn't stopped Archie from trying! He stands at military attention in front of Wolfe's desk:

"I have an appointment," I said, "at nine o'clock Thursday morning, in Washington, with General Carpenter."

Wolfe's brows went up a millimeter. "Indeed?"

"Yes, sir. At my request. I wish to take an ocean trip. I want to get a look at a German. I would like to catch one, if it can be done without much risk, and pinch him and make some remarks to him. I have thought up a crushing remark to make to a German and would like to use it."

Ahahahaha. GET 'EM ARCHIE.

Archie knows the General will phone Wolfe, and he pleads with Wolfe not to ruin his chances. Since Wolfe has never shown any inclination to cooperate on this before, I wonder why Archie thinks he might have a chance this time?

Anyway, it does not seem to me that Wolfe takes it well! Because when the threat to his life comes in, he first suspects Archie sent it (presumably in order to goad or punish him? Or to somehow motivate him to let Archie go overseas??). Then, when he assumes Archie won't go to his Army meeting after all, Archie says of course he's still going. Archie also rubs it in, the way Wolfe made light of Jensen's concern but is only now taking the threat seriously.

And just like that, they're in a sub rosa domestic quarrel. Wolfe does the thing we've seen him do, where he aggresses by taking Archie entirely at his word, like some kind of judo move:

I added earnestly, "If I can clear it with Carpenter to cross the ocean, I will of course arrange not to leave until this ad-clipper has been attended to. I wouldn't want--"

"Don't hurry back on my account. Or alter your plans. You receive a salary from the government." Wolfe's tone was dry, sharp, and icy, plainly intended to pierce all my vital organs at once.

From then on, whenever Archie makes an offer to postpone or shorten his trip--and there's starting to be actual work to do!--Wolfe is constantly like NOT AT ALL, RUN ALONG TO YOUR ~OTHER ALLEGIANCE~.

...You know, I only just now thought of something. Archie's trip to Washington goes very badly. The General rips a strip off him, then says he should stick around to help with some current cases. Archie gets thoroughly bored and irritated, and gets the bureaucratic runaround when he tries to get permission to leave.

And now I'm wondering--Archie says he never found out whether Wolfe had called the General. What if Wolfe had, just to oh-so-mildly suggest the General keep him there to help out a bit? Quickest way to get Archie willingly running home is to have the Army bore the crap out of him. Judo tactics, I tell you!

WOLFE'S EVIL TWIN: The thing that finally tips Archie over the edge is seeing an ad in the paper which makes him worried for Wolfe, since it seems to be hiring Wolfe's double. And once he finds out that Fritz (Wolfe's only remaining help) doesn't know anything about it, Archie chooses his allegiance and completely runs out on the Army! (No aftermath there--he seems right that they won't even notice he left.)

The ad is interesting in terms of building a mental picture of Wolfe:

WANTED A MAN weighing about 260-270, around 5 ft. 11, 45-66 years old, medium in coloring, waist not over 48, capable of easy and normal movement. Temporary. Hazardous. $100 a day. Send photo with letter. Box 292 Star.

So, Archie returns home to find a doppelganger of Wolfe sitting in the office drinking highballs! OMG DID THE TRANSPORTER MALFUNCTION, CHECK TO SEE IF HE HAS A BEARD.

(The double leers at him. I wonder what he's heard about the Wolfe household?)

THE FIGHT PEAKS AND RESOLVES: Archie is thrown for a loop, but intends not to show it. I don't think he manages, though. He goes up to Wolfe's bedroom:

"Are you going to Europe?"

"You know damn well I'm not." I sat down. "We can discuss that at some future date when I'm out of the Army. It's a relief to find you all alive and well around here. [...]"

I mean, not only does he let Wolfe off the hook re: the fight about going overseas, but he reveals his worry. Of course, to Wolfe, he's always pretty transparent whether he means to be or not.

There's a brief period of peace, during which Archie refers back to Carla from "Over My Dead Body": It reminds me of the time your daughter from Yugoslavia showed up and got us in a mess. Now your twin. Also, Wolfe says that Hackett (the double), when properly dressed, would convince anyone except Archie. ♥

But the peace is not to last! Wolfe is in a romantic and despairing mood, and complains: The men I have used and can trust have gone to war. You bounce around thinking only of yourself, deserting me. He is still smarting from the trip to Washington.

And shortly, he pushes too hard on the topic and really hurts Archie:

"[...]I am aware that if you drive Mr. Hackett around, and accompany him into the car and out of it, crossing sidewalks at all hours of the day and night, you may get killed. That sort of thing was understood when I employed you and paid you. Now the government pays you. Perhaps Mr. Cramer has a man who resembles you and could be assigned to this. He would have to be a good man, alert and resourceful, for there's no point to this if an attempt on Mr. Hackett's life leaves us as empty-handed as we are now. You can give me your decision in the morning."

I'm surprised that I was able to speak at all. He had of course insulted me a million times, as I had him, but this was worse than an insult, there was no word for it. Coming on top of the turndown I had got in Washington, which had reduced my buoyancy to a record low, it made me so mad that I knew I'd better get out of there. But I did not intend to let him go to bed feeling noble, so I grinned at him and controlled my voice. "Okay," I told him. "I'll think it over. Sure, Cramer has a lot of good men. Let you know in the morning.[...]"

Ugh, BOYS. They've each swung too hard and hit the other on a very sore point (Wolfe: losing Archie, Archie: being replaceable to Wolfe). Luckily they make up the next morning in a very quick and grownup way, for them, which I found kind of surprising:

"Unquestionably Cramer could give us a man who would be my superior in courage, wit, integrity, reflex time, and purity of morals. But here's the trouble-- not one anything like as handsome as me. Not a chance. So I'll do it myself."

Wolfe cocked an eye at me. "I meant no offense. My intentions--"

"Forget it. You're under a strain. Mr. Hackett's life is in jeopardy and it makes you nervous."

Aw! I feel sympathy for both of them, and also want to knock their heads together a little. :D I also like how Archie points out to Wolfe that no one could replace him in terms of decorativeness. Heh.

THE CONCLUSION: So, the story continues and concludes. Hackett is trolled around as bait, but nothing happens...until Archie has retrieved Ben Jensen's son Emil and Peter Root's former fiancee Jane, who are young attractive ingenues. While they're in the house, SOMEONE shoots at Hackett. Who could it have been?

Spoiler: it was Hackett himself, who turns out to be Peter Root's father. I admit, the solution to the mystery is dependent on a giant tower of 1) coincidence, and 2) lightning-fast timing. Hackett's a fat guy of the correct height who resembles Wolfe so closely. Hackett saw the ad and, with no reason to think it came from Wolfe, applied for the job--and ended up hired by his archenemy. Hackett whipped up an apparent murder attempt, perfectly scattering various rapid tasks during split-seconds when nobody was looking. Hackett put off murdering Wolfe for days until some unknown future time when he could do it perfectly and pin it on Emil and/or Jane. Etcetera.

Wolfe's final speeches in the narrative keep hanging lanterns on all of the improbabilities, and Stout is clearly aware of them. In the end, he doesn't seem to care, and I admit neither do I. I enjoy the story despite its allegiance to a heightened form of reality.


* We hear about the alarm (button in Wolfe's bedroom, gong in Archie's) that It had been installed on account of a certain occurrence some years previously, when Wolfe had got a knife stuck in him. This is another earlier event that we never got to see, or in fact hear much about as far as I can recall. Fanfic prompt??

* Speaking of Wolfe's bedroom, Archie tells us that Wolfe got out of bed, which was an operation deserving an audience. He often reminds us just how much he likes to watch pajamaed-Wolfe doing things.

* I forget if we knew this before, but Wolfe uses a straight razor: Standing in the doorway to his bathroom, facing me, his old-fashioned razor in his hand, all lathered up, he demanded brusquely, "What time is it?" I don't know why he's shaving at 6:30pm, though.

* Archie mancrush alert! When he first sees Emil Jensen: I had just pushed the button when who should appear, mounting the steps to join us on the stoop, but the Army officer that they use for a model when they want to do a picture conveying the impression that masculine comeliness will win the war. I admit he was handsome; I admitted it to myself right then, when I first saw him. He becomes avuncular and amused as he watches Emil and Jane grow closer together.

* BEST CONCLUDING LINE: Archie has a suggestion for Wolfe!:

"Only a suggestion. Let's advertise for a man-eating tiger weighing around two hundred and sixty pounds capable of easy and normal movement. We could station him behind the big cabinet and when you enter he would leap on you from the rear."



This is a post-war story set sometime in 1945, so Archie has stopped chafing to go fight overseas, although the question of his war service does come up. We also get Saul, back from the fight. I don't think I've yet read any fanfic touching on Saul's wartime experiences, come to think of it. Recs are welcome!

THE PREMISE: As in "Help Wanted, Male", it begins with someone telling Wolfe he fears he's about to be killed. This time, novelty manufacturer Eugene Poor says he'll be murdered by his business partner Conroy Blaney. But he doesn't want Wolfe to protect him--he says that he figures it's inevitable, and what he really wants is for Wolfe to keep Blaney from getting away with it afterward. Poor does end up dead, and Wolfe reluctantly starts looking into the case, which is more complicated than it had appeared.

WOLFE AND TAXES: We often hear about Wolfe's tax status, and there are times in the year he can't be bothered to earn any money because most of it will only go to taxes. But here, Poor suggests he take payment in under-the-table cash instead, and Wolfe will not have it:

“I am not a common cheat, Mr. Poor. Not that I am a saint. Given adequate provocation, I might conceivably cheat a man— or a woman or even a child. But you are suggesting that I cheat, not a man or woman or child, but a hundred and forty million of my fellow citizens. Bah.”

Wolfe is one of my very favorite extremely wealthy fictional characters, because of his attitude toward money and responsibility. He spends an enormous amount, he likes his household and his luxuries and especially his food. But he won't try to screw society out of tax money just to suit himself.

A TALKING NOVELTY ORCHID OH BOY IT'S MY BIRTHDAY: When Blaney comes to talk to Wolfe about the case, he has the most horrible and hilarious idea for a new novelty item the world has ever seen:

"[...]Four: a proposal to make an orchid, guaranteed exclusive to you, an imitation orchid plant in a pot, growing and blooming, that would talk! When the pot was lifted it would say distinctly, ‘Orchids to you!’ or anything of similar length.” [...] And here’s the stroke of genius, I was saving this, the voice that does the talking will be— your voice! Whoever you send it to, preferably a lady, she will lift the pot, suspecting nothing, and your own voice, the voice of Nero Wolfe, will say to her, Orchids to you! [...]"

Wolfe abruptly flees the office at that point, and who can blame him. Archie only seems to remain because he's paralyzed with amazement. (He also says that this was the first time Wolfe had ever been chased from his own office, but we know that's not true, because we've read Over My Dead Body. It does seem to be the first time that Wolfe has fled from his office and gone upstairs, rather than hiding in the kitchen.)

But Blaney will not be dissuaded. And he has the BEST FOLLOWUP IDEA YOU GUYS:

"[...] The idea of the orchid having his voice doesn’t appeal to him. Then how about its having your voice? You have a good baritone voice. I would let you have it at cost, and you could give it to him for Christmas."

AAAAAHAHAHAHAHAHA. Okay, it's such a terrible idea that the very terribleness of it somehow turns inside out and becomes wonderful. But you know, I feel like Blaney, as obtuse as he is, has some interesting assumptions about Wolfe and Archie. 'Oh, Wolfe doesn't want a talking orchid? Well he sure will if it's YOUR VOICE. FOR CHRISTMAS.' I mean. The mind reels.

BACK FROM THE WAR: Archie seems happy not to be split between Wolfe and the Army anymore:

I grinned at him. Up to his old tricks. I had been a civilian again for only a week, and here he was already treating me like a hireling just as he had for years, acting as if I had never been a colonel, as in fact I hadn’t, but anyway I had been a major.

So the tug-of-war is over.

The book has a character and scene that I find really interesting re: the portrayal of returned soldiers! Blaney & Poor's foreman, Joe Groll, has drinks with Archie so Archie can pick his brain about the possible guilt of Martha Poor (who it turns out used to be Joe's girl but married Poor while Joe was off at war) or Helen Vardis, a Blaney & Poor employee.

First, we have the issue of the combat vs. the non-combat soldier: Archie notices Groll giving him a meaningful glance, and Archie answers it with, “I don’t sport a ruptured duck because I didn’t get over to kill any Germans. They gave me a majority so I could run errands for Nero Wolfe while he was winning the war."

I think Archie's a good sport not to be defensive about it, given how badly he wanted to get into combat. I assume that happens a lot. Although, I looked up the "ruptured duck" pin, and as far as I can tell, it only indicated an honorable discharge during WWII. The Pentagon website says "The eligibility requirements for the Honorable Service Lapel Button are honorable federal military service between 8 Sep 1939 and 31 Dec 1946," with nothing about needing to be overseas, or in combat, or anything that makes me think Archie wouldn't be eligible.

Maybe this means Archie is eligible for a pin but doesn't wear one, specifically because he doesn't think he deserves the assumptions people might make. But he'd have to know it would make him look like he didn't serve at all, and people might assume other things about him.

Anyway, later in the scene, we see a side-effect of Joe's service; when Archie pushes the idea of Helen being guilty, Joe flips out for a minute:

“Well, for Christ’s sake.” He said that calmly, and then suddenly his voice went up high. “Who thought that one up? Was it that cop Rowcliff? That buzzard? Was it Nero Wolfe? Was it you?”

He sounded next door to hysterical. I sure had pushed the wrong button, or maybe the right one, but I didn’t want him sore at me. “It wasn’t me,” I assured him. “Don’t get excited.”

He laughed. It sounded bitter but not hysterical. “That’s right,” he said, “I must remember that, not to get excited. Everybody is very thoughtful. They put you in uniform and teach you what every young man ought to know, and take you across the ocean into the middle of hell, bombs, bullets, shells, flame-throwers, your friends die right against you and bleed down your neck, and after two years of that they bring you home and turn you loose and tell you now remember don’t get excited."

That seems like a pretty strong depiction of PTSD, and it doesn't shy away from the causes. And this in the middle of a little mystery story!

The conversation loops back to Archie's service:

"[...] Why am I spilling all this to you? You weren’t in the Army.”

“I was in the Army,” I said, “but I admit nobody bled down my neck. I did what I was told.”

“So did I, brother. Didn’t we all. [...]"

So on the one hand, Joe does conflate Archie's earlier self-deprecation with Archie not serving; but on the other hand, he seems to agree that Archie did his time just like everyone else in the military. I wonder if Archie has to (or feels he has to) justify his non-combat time like that with other people.

ARCHIE GOODWIN, ACTION HERO: We have Archie's unreliable narration: I grabbed the knob and turned, and something darted out and banged me on the shin so that almost anyone but me would have screamed in pain. I uttered a word or two.

And we have protective (to a point!) Archie, when they're testing the explosive: I took the percolator. “The rest of you go in the hall. I’ll light it.” Fritz went, and so did Helen, but Joe merely backed to a corner and Wolfe didn’t move from his chair. I told Wolfe, “I saw Poor’s face and you didn’t. Go in the hall.” (But when Wolfe absolutely will not move, Archie lights the thing and ducks into the hall. He's no dummy.)

IS IT ARCHIE'S FACE, OR WOLFE'S EGO?: Archie talks again about the reason Wolfe sometimes keeps him out of the loop, but only to disprove it:

When the day finally comes that I tie Wolfe to a stake and shoot him, one of the fundamental reasons will be his theory that the less I know the more I can help, or to put it another way, that everything inside my head shows on my face. It only makes it worse that he doesn’t really believe it. He merely can’t stand it to have anybody keep up with him at any time on any track.

I don't remember if Archie has suggested that option before--that Wolfe says it's because of Archie's transparent face, but really it's so that Wolfe can guarantee he's always ahead of everyone else including Archie.

I could see it, because Wolfe does have a giant ego... but on the other hand, he's a genius and Archie often says as much, so why would either of them think that Wolfe needs to cheat to stay ahead?

SAUL: We get a hint of Saul's privileged intimacy with Wolfe, which we only saw a tiny bit of before, but which we see more of in later books. Here it's kind of striking: “It can’t be helped. Saul will go with you.” I stared. “Saul?” “Yes. He’s up in my room asleep. He didn’t get to bed last night. I can't remember who else might actually get to sleep in Wolfe's bedroom! (As admitted by canon, anyway. *cough*)

NERO WOLFE SENT ME WITH ORDERS: The climactic scene is dramatic and chilling, and could have come right out of a particularly gritty film noir.

Spoilers!: it turns out that that wasn't the real Poor in Wolfe's office, but an impostor. Martha Poor got him to pose as Poor; she killed the real Poor so Wolfe would pursue and convict Blaney, and she'd get all the money and the company. And she killed the impostor (one of the traditional 'smashed with a car' murders we see in the corpus) so he couldn't give her away.

Archie seems troubled by his instructions, but determined, and the scene becomes ghoulish and terrible, an extended march toward her grisly suicide. Back in the story "Booby Trap" from Not Quite Dead Enough, we see Wolfe forcibly talking the culprit into killing himself. Here, he has sent Archie with orders, and the orders basically back Martha into a corner and then provide her with a means of quick and violent death for herself.

Mrs. Poor kicks and squirms first, and it's really pretty painful and striking. She paces from room to room, as if she might be able to think of something, or to escape, and Archie has to follow her every move. Then finally, she turns to Archie and does her best to win him over, with a long speech about how she never thought she'd find the man for her, but now she's found Archie, and they could go away together. It's a very film noir scene; I could totally see it happening on a screen. (Especially when he responds to her speech by telling her to fix her hair, and she slaps him.)

Archie seems strongly affected by her! At the beginning of the speech, he observes, The funny thing was that if at any moment up to then I had made a list of the ten most beautiful women she would not have been on it. And at the climax of the speech, she touches his sleeve and he yanks away: “Listen,” I said, with my voice sounding peculiar, so I tried to correct it.

The end of the scene is understated and grim. She goes into the bathroom, still carrying the explosive. And Archie just waits:

Instead of crossing to the window and standing there without breathing, as I had done before, I sat down on the edge of the bed and did nothing but breathe. I suppose I did actually know what was going to happen. Anyhow, when it happened, when the noise came, not nearly as loud as it had been in Wolfe’s office because then the capsule had been inside a metal percolator, I don’t think I jumped or even jerked. I did not run, but walked, to the bathroom door, opened it and entered. Less than a minute later I went to the back door in the kitchen and opened that and told Saul Panzer, “All over. She stuck it in her mouth and lit the fuse. [...]"

It can be very hard to tell, when Archie doesn't give us cues, how accurate his self-description is. I don't know if he might have jumped or jerked, even though he says he thinks he didn't. But I do feel sure he walked instead of ran. I wonder how long he looked at her body--"less than a minute" is actually kind of a long time, when you're looking at a woman who's blown her head off.

I find the end of the scene really interesting on a subtle emotional level. Archie tells Saul to go report to Wolfe. And Saul, the one who's just come back from overseas combat, says, “But you must be— I’ll stay—” And Archie answers, “No, go on. Step on it. I feel fine.”


* A crucial part of the murder plot is that there are no photographs of the real Mr. Poor available. That seems to really anchor the story in its time (or earlier), but would be less and less possible later. And even then, it seems to be a big weak spot in her plan. Yes, she can make sure there are no photos to give to the newspapers or the police if they ask, but to guarantee that the newspaper files don't have some old photo of Blaney & Poor, who are businessmen, at some function or at the opening of their factory or something else in the past?

* Archie finishes a verbal report to Wolfe with, "When I got home you were in bed, snoring.” He had long ago quit bothering to deny that he snored. The thing is, I wouldn't be surprised if Wolfe snored? But, knowing Archie and his unreliability, I can't be sure that Wolfe does snore! He might have stopped bothering to deny it because Archie finds it too fun to fight over it and pretend he does. :D

* We get what might be another hint about why Wolfe keeps Archie out of things: protecting him from the consequences of knowledge (definitely something that is relevant in the Zeck books!). Cramer grills Wolfe about misrepresenting a photograph of the impostor, and when Wolfe says “I knew it. Mr. Goodwin didn’t. He thought it was a photograph of Mr. Poor.”, Cramer shoots back, “Protecting the help, huh?”

* When Blaney first comes to the office, Archie takes against him at once, and we see that he can be just as set in his ways as Wolfe is, no matter how he might try to deny it sometimes: Blaney started off by rejecting the red leather chair and choosing one of the spares, which irritated both of us, since we like our routine.

* A tiny Sherlock Holmes echo!: when Wolfe is telling Cramer early on that they don't have good enough evidence, he does a little playacting: I am the defense attorney. I am speaking to the jury.” Wolfe fixed his eyes on me. “Ladies and gentlemen, I respect your intelligence. [...]" And then Wolfe gives a speech explaining how certain evidence exonerates the defendant.

It totally puts me in mind of a scene in the Sherlock Holmes story "The Adventure of the Abbey Grange", in which Holmes designates Watson as the jury:

"See here, Captain Croker, we’ll do this in due form of law. You are the prisoner. Watson, you are a British jury, and I never met a man who was more eminently fitted to represent one. I am the judge. Now, gentleman of the jury, you have heard the evidence. Do you find the prisoner guilty or not guilty?”

Sorry to go on and on, but these stories have a lot that grab me. What do you think? Anything you noticed, in the plots, the characters, Wolfe & Archie, etc.? Anything you particularly like or don't like?
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