aris_tgd: "This story is a murder mystery--the mystery of MURDER." (Lyttle Lytton Murder Mystery)
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My apologies. Real life intervened. I had to briefly change my entire appearance and flee to California to adopt a life of crime in order to bring down a criminal mastermind.

But now!

The one you've all been waiting for!

In The Best Families, originally published 1950, the final book in the story of Nero Wolfe's confrontation with Arnold Zeck!

This is an amazing book. The status quo at Wolfe's house gets completely upended, Archie gets separated from Wolfe for the first time since he joined the Army, Wolfe puts aside many of his scruples and all of his habits, the boys go toe-to-toe with Arnold Zeck, and eventually a murder gets solved. (And several get committed!)

I don't know if this is the most intense Archie and Wolfe's feelings get, but it has some terrific Archie-and-Wolfe moments. And the murder mystery isn't too bad either, even though it's relegated to the very beginning and very end of the book.

Shall we begin?

Introduction--A Case, A Warning

We begin as in many other Nero Wolfe mysteries, with a client coming to see Wolfe, a family member tagging along, a case Wolfe doesn't really want to take, money being offered, and various domestic happenings around the brownstone. In this case the client is Mrs. Barry Rackham, her business is wanting to know where her husband is getting all his extra spending money, as he's been living off her wealth since they've been married and she's stopped giving him cash when he asked. The family member is Calvin Leeds, her cousin, who reluctantly agrees to help Archie get an in to the household and start asking Barry some questions. The money is ten thousand dollars, and the domestic happenings include getting a call about some fresh sausage from a gourmet sausage maker available for Wolfe to purchase.

All of which is perfectly normal until Archie makes a particular point of detailing when the sausage arrives and its journey to the kitchen to be opened, whereupon we discover the package contains not sausage, but a canister of tear gas, sent by someone with an agenda to make sure that Barry Rackham is not investigated: Arnold Zeck.

Archie's quick reflexes save anyone from inhaling anything noxious, and as soon as the smoke clears, Zeck calls and makes it clear that he considers investigation into the Rackhams to be treading on his turf.

And Then It Gets Bloody

Wolfe refuses to back down, of course, and that evening is when Archie is already set to investigate the Rackham clan. He visits Calvin Leeds and makes a show of investigating the month-old case of the poisoning of his dog, and meets the rest of the cast:

Annabel Frey, Mrs. Rackham's daughter-in-law (to her son by her first marriage, son now deceased.) "This was my first check on an item of information furnished us by Mrs. Rackham, and I gave her an A for accuracy. She had said that her daughter-in-law was very beautiful. Some might have been inclined to argue it, for instance those who don't like eyes so far apart or those who prefer pink skin to dark, but I'm not so finicky about details." She wanted to see Archie work, so he had to put in a solid hour of dog-poison detecting when he didn't want to! Poor, poor Archie.

Dana Hammond, who came to watch Archie work with Annabel Frey. Vice-president of Mrs. Rackham's trust, handles her money. Archie estimates that he also wants to handle Annabel Frey.

Oliver A. Pierce, state assemblyman. Used to be involved with Annabel, is now seeing Miss Darrow. Archie thinks he's smooth and will probably go places, if he doesn't turn out to be a murderer.

Lina Darrow, Mrs. Rackham's secretary. "... I never saw a finer pair of eyes. She was obviously underplaying them, or rather what was back of them. When I was questioning her she pretended I had her in a corner, while her eyes gave it away that she could have waltzed all around me if she wanted to." I love how Archie describes women he is impressed with.

And last but not least, Barry Rackham. Archie wants to know, mainly, if Rackham is on to him, and he can't figure it out all evening.

We're introduced to this whole cast of characters and Archie spends several hours with them, and then Mrs. Rackham goes for a walk, and Calvin Leeds takes Archie back to his place. Archie gets tucked in and Leeds takes a minute to look around for anything amiss, given that one of his dogs had recently been poisoned. Archie has some trouble getting to sleep, mulling over the events of the day and Rackham's behavior in particular, and is about to drop off when he hears something whimpering out in the dark.

He gets Leeds and they go investigate, and find one of the more heartbreaking sights I've ever heard described in a Wolfe novel, Mrs. Rackham's dog, dying of a knife wound.

The dog dies after snarling in pain when Leeds tries to soothe him, and they take him inside, leaving the knife intact. Then they go searching in the woods and find, not unexpectedly, Mrs. Rackham, dead of wounds from the same knife.

Leeds goes to the house to call the police and a doctor, and Archie goes to keep watch on the dead dog. He takes the opportunity to call Wolfe, ask for instructions, and report.

I'm fairly good with a billiard cue, and only Saul Panzer can beat me at tailing a man or woman in New York, but what I am best at is reporting a complicated event to Nero Wolfe.

The police show up shortly after he is done reporting, he leaves them the evidence, and gets taken to the main house to be interrogated by the Westchester PD. The farce reintroduces recurring characters Con Noonan and DA Cleveland Archer, but poor Archie doesn't get any sleep and doesn't learn anything else from a group of suspects ill inclined to be talkative. Eventually they let him go back to Leeds' place to get some rest. Archie, however, doesn't sleep, and it's a good thing he doesn't.

I have a way of realizing all of a sudden, as I suppose a lot of people do, that I made a decision some time back without knowing it. It happened that morning at 6:25. Looking at my watch and seeing that that was where it had got to, I was suddenly aware that I was staying awake, not so I could phone Wolfe at eight o'clock, but so I could beat it the hell out of there as soon as I was sure Leeds was asleep; and I was now as sure as I would ever be.

Archie packs his things, gets to the car--he wakes the dogs, but he manages to be on the road back to New York before anyone can stop him. He drives until he reaches the brownstone, and finds something shocking before he even gets out of the car: the door is standing wide open.

The Next Phase

Nero Wolfe has, of course, gone.

Wolfe had spoken before of going away and taking Zeck on head-to-head, but he had always implied he would be taking Archie along. And now he is gone, with brief notes to Fritz and Theodore to seek employment with Marko Vukcic and Mr. Hewitt, respectively, and for Archie: "AG: Do not look for me. My very best regards and wishes... NW."

Archie is pissed. He's snappish at everyone. He isn't going to go look for Wolfe, of course, Wolfe has asked him not to and he's got his pride. Fritz is worried that Wolfe won't eat (and he's nearly right), and Theodore doesn't want to go work on Long Island. Wolfe has also put ads in the paper announcing his retirement, which means Archie has to deal with inquiries left and right, which does not improve his mood any.

There's a glimmer of hope when Marko Vukcic calls and asks to see him, and Archie assumes Wolfe will be waiting for him--but no, disappointment all around. Archie!

Marko lets Archie know that he's been given power of attorney and can sign all of Wolfe's checks, Wolfe has instructed him to sell the house, and to instruct Archie, "You are to act in the light of experience as guided by intelligence."

Poor Archie, and everyone assuming he knows where Nero Wolfe went, because of course Wolfe wouldn't vanish without telling Archie! That would mean he didn't trust Archie Goodwin, and everyone knows that Nero Wolfe trusts Archie Goodwin, how could he not tell Archie where he went and what was going on?

After driving around aimlessly thinking for a while and getting nowhere, Archie is pulled up to Westchester to dictate and sign a statement. He learns that Rackham wants to contradict him on the points of Mrs. Rackham's query to Wolfe, and that the will has been read and Annabel Frey, Calvin Leeds, Lina Darrow, and Barry Rackham have all inherited large sums of money and in Annabel's case, a house. The Westchester PD and DA attempt to get Wolfe's whereabouts out of Archie, but him having no whereabouts to turn over, they wind up throwing him in jail.

In jail, Archie makes a contact who will come in handy later, Max Christy, a cultured criminal interested in the rapidity of horses, who offers Archie a job. This whole thing could be a setup for Zeck to get a better look at Archie, but the tag is made politely and then Christy is out, followed quickly by Archie getting sprung by Parker.

Archie then has to settle in for life without Wolfe. He handles correspondence, checks, and business, and gets a visit from Calvin Leeds, who is upset to see Wolfe gone and no indication that Archie or Wolfe will work on solving his cousin's murder. Cramer comes and lets on he knows a bit more about Zeck than Archie may have thought he did, and wants Wolfe to know that Zeck is out of reach. It nearly ends in a fistfight.

Three weeks later, very little has happened, except that Marko Vukcic has drawn five thousand dollars out of Wolfe's account for "travel expenses." Then Annabel Frey calls and asks Archie to come talk with the assembled cast up in Westchester, and that kicks Archie into gear. He gets himself his own detective office, his own stationery, moves in his dictionary, and heads up to interrogate as his own detective with his own agency. He gets nowhere with the suspects, all but Annabel refusing to speak to him.

The next few months we get brief glimpses into Archie's own cases, and they're charmingly varied. We get another glimmer of Nero Wolfe maybe moving in Marko Vukcic withdrawing more money for travel expenses, but mostly Archie gets good at working for himself, and proudly doesn't have to dip into expenses or Wolfe's bank account. He even makes plans to take a vacation to Norway with Lily Rowan, but he gets the sense he isn't going to be able to make it. And sure enough, Max Christy shows up, with an offer for a job--tailing someone. And he can meet the man who wants to offer him the job if he gets picked up by a car that evening.

Curious, and thinking the man might possibly be Zeck or at least a link to Zeck, Archie takes the stroll and gets picked up in the car.

Not only was he not Zeck; he was no one I had ever seen or heard of, though I was fairly well acquainted, at least by sight, with the high brass in the circles that Max Christy moved in. This bird was a complete stranger. With more skin supplied for his face than was needed, it had taken up the slack in pleats and wrinkles, and that may have accounted for his sporting a pointed brown beard, since it must be hard to shave pleats.

The man is Roeder, he comes from the West Coast, and he speaks through his nose. And the man he wants tailed is Barry Rackham, which is enough to get Archie's attention. They drive to Archie's office and Roeder comes up to speak with him, asks Archie to check for a bug, and then:

"I see you have my dictionary here."

Not through his nose. I whirled and went rigid, gaping at him. The eyes again--and now other items, too, especially the forehead and ears. I had every right to stare, but I also had a right to my own opinion of the fitness of things. So while staring at him I got myself under control, and then circled the end of my desk, sat down and leaned back, and told him, "I knew you all--"


So Wolfe is back, and intends to find the murderer of Mrs. Rackham and take down Zeck, though not in that order. He hires Archie to tail Rackham to put pressure on him for Zeck, because that will allow them to get to Zeck himself. They freak Rackham out with the tailing, and then Archie allows himself to get caught and has a talk with him where he takes his measure and offers to sell him some information. Rackham is panicked, because Zeck has been threatening to release evidence that he killed his wife, which Rackham denies, but he knows that anything Zeck wants to make happen will happen. Archie takes his money one day, then a few days later comes back and returns the money, saying Zeck is just too big, Archie doesn't want to be caught with the accessory to murder charge, and that Rackham should meet with Zeck and get back on his good side.

There are a few complications, of course. The police from Westchester drag Archie up again just as he's set up the meeting, everyone's timing gets thrown off, it's all very tense. But finally Archie, Wolfe, and Rackham are alone with Arnold Zeck, and it's time for the endgame.

The End of Zeck, and Murderer's Row

We meet Zeck for the first time when he outlines his plan for getting Rackham to jump back into the fold to Archie, and we get one of my favorite descriptions of Zeck's eyes: "The eyes were the result of an error on the assembly line. They had been intended for a shark and someone got careless."

Wolfe and Archie have obtained a gun, and because Wolfe, as Roeder, has become a trusted associate, he is able to smuggle the gun past Zeck's security. And in the middle of their pitch to Zeck, Wolfe and Archie together team up and push Zeck away from his control desk, tie him to his chair, and gag him!

"Mr. Zeck," [Wolfe] said, "you told me on the telephone two years ago that you had great admiration for me. I hope that what has just happened here has increased it. I'm Nero Wolfe, of course. There are many things it would give me satisfaction to say to you, and perhaps I shall someday, but not now. It is true that if one of your men suddenly opened the door Mr. Goodwin would kill you first, but I'm afraid you'd have company. So I'll get one. Having by your admission matched you in intellect, it's a question of will, and mine has not failed me, as you thought."

They are in a precarious situation. The only way out of the room is past Zeck's security, and they can't really use him as a hostage. They can't kill him without security killing them. So Wolfe tells Zeck he'll make a deal--trade Zeck the information he's gathered against him for the information proving Rackham guilty of murdering his wife. In order to make the deal, Archie puts down the gun in order to untie him...

And of course Rackham grabs the gun and shoots Zeck.

Archie finishes untying Zeck and getting rid of the gag right before the goons bust in, find Rackham with a smoking gun in hand, and shoot him dead, killing two murderers with one plan.

Home safe, Wolfe happily being fed properly again, Archie assumes that's all, but Wolfe believes he still has to earn his fee and find the murderer of Mrs. Rackham... who he is convinced was not Barry Rackham. And when we get all the suspects together again, the second saddest part of the book happens, because we discover the murderer was actually Calvin Leeds. Nero Wolfe's contempt is well-deserved, I feel, because Leeds is a man who would kill a dog he trained himself, and it's grimly satisfying to see him caught.

Other Thoughts

You didn't think I was going to get out of this post without talking about Lily Rowan, did you?

LILY ROWAN, she's so awesome! When Wolfe shows up in Roeder disguise and needs a woman to offer him cover, so that he doesn't have to explain to Zeck or his minions what he's doing for a few hours, Archie calls Lily and she's great. "I'm the only woman in America who has necked with Nero Wolfe. Nightmare, my eye. He has a flair." And she gets Archie to spritz Wolfe with her perfume!

Archie and Lily do wind up getting that trip to Norway, too. I'm sure they had a lovely time among the fjords.

In the beginning of the book Archie estimates that he and Wolfe handle 40 cases a year, of which we the reader only get glimpses of a few.

The plot of this book is interesting, in that it's something of a short story plot wrapped around the Zeck happenings. None of the other characters are really fleshed out, not even Annabel, who asks Archie to come investigate, and Lina, who is the flirtatious one who wanted to get involved with Barry Rackham, then attempted to frame him for murder and made Archie's meetings go all wonky. I am willing to forgive that for the excellent rest of the supporting cast, though; almost everyone in New York showed up at one point or another to wonder why Archie doesn't know where Nero Wolfe is.

Zeck's killing! I thought the big showdown was a little anticlimactic, actually? There was a lot of tension and buildup, but the actual confrontation happened very quickly and depended on manipulating Rackham. And there was a bit of a throwaway at the end, where Wolfe reveals that Rackham didn't kill his wife, but had totally killed someone else, and that's what Zeck was blackmailing him for... so it's totally cool that he died, because he was a murderer. It's not quite convincing a murderer to kill themselves, but it's a little cold.

Still, Archie and Wolfe feels? Many of them?

What are your favorite bits? What are your favorite quotes?

Are there any other fictional supervillains/supercriminals you'd want to see Nero and Archie go up against?

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