liviapenn: miss piggy bends jail bars (remains sexy while doing so) (f. wolfe: wolfe's perfect day)
[personal profile] liviapenn posting in [community profile] milk_and_orchids
Okay, so-- Fer-de-Lance the actual story!

I have divided this up into a couple of different categories and just rambled on each topic, and then put some book-club type discussion questions at the end. Don't feel any obligation to address the questions if you don't feel like it, I just put them there because I couldn't possibly cover EVERYTHING in the book and wanted some open-ended discussion points. *G* Also this is REALLY LONG and I hope other people don't feel obligated to make their discussion-opening posts this long. I just work things out by rambling on and on. It's a thing.

* the actual plot!

So, to start with, FDL has one of these plots that seems coherent as you're reading through it, but then if you look even a little bit closer it suddenly reveals itself to be based on Galactically Massive Coincidence, and yet at the same time it is also kind of a subtle twist on an overused mystery trope. *G*

In this case the trope is "there's a murder, and a very Well Meaning Person thinks that Person X murdered Person Y, so the Well Meaning Person messes up the evidence in order to protect X. But despite the way it looks, X is actually not the killer, so all the Well Meaning Person actually does is muddle things up and create red herrings."

But the twist on the trope in FDL isn't "X isn't the murderer," it's "Y isn't the murder-ee," in the sense that yes, Mr. Barstow got killed, but nobody was actually *trying* to kill him. So Sarah Barstow is trying to cover up for a murder that... didn't actually happen. (Another bit that I think is really clever is FDL's riff on the typical Examination Of A Witness scene where somebody is like "No one would have wanted to kill him! He was such a nice guy with no secrets or weaknesses or dark spots in his history!" These characters, of course, are always wrong! The murder victim ALWAYS has a secret. And yet, in a total reversal, this time Mr. Barstow's BFF is actually right, he was a great guy and no one wanted to kill him!)

So this is where the Galactically Massive Coincidence(s) comes in, because despite the fact that to serve the story she has to believe something that isn't true, Sarah Barstow isn't stupid. The first part of the coincidence is Mrs. Barstow's history, that she had taken a shot at her husband once-- okay, so Barstow is probably the *one guy* at the golf club whose wife once tried to kill him in front of witnesses, and he just *happens* to be the guy who plays golf the day that Manuel Kimball sets his murder plan into motion? And then the second part of the coincidence is that a rigged golf club was the murder weapon, and Mrs. Barstow gave Mr. Barstow a bag of golf clubs for his birthday. Without both parts of the coincidence, Sarah Barstow would have no reason to start throwing golf bags in rivers and so on and so forth. But she does! And we're off to the races.

* the theme!

There's a theme that runs through this book that reminds me of a line Fraser reads from his father's journal in an episode of "due South" -- "They say that every man has a price at which he'll do anything. I like to think it's the other way around; every man has a line, a line he won't cross over, no matter what the cost." There's something very... I don't know, *human* about Wolfe in the sense that he respects people's lines. They may be irrational or emotional or downright stupid, but he still-- respects people's rights to draw the lines *where they want to*. He he won't try to push somebody over their line; he'll just do whatever it takes to get that person into a position where (1) they're still on the right side of their line BUT (2) they can give him what he wants anyway.

With Sarah Barstow the line is "I won't do anything to endanger my mother" -- Wolfe logics her into believing that she can give him what he wants (enough info and access to solve the case) while not endangering her mother, by promising "...if my inquiries lead to the conclusion that the murderer is actually the person you fear it is, whom you are now endeavoring to shield from justice, there will be no further disclosure. Mr. Goodwin and I will know; no one else ever will."

With Anna Fiore the line is "I'm going to keep my mouth shut because otherwise I have to give up the $100," and Wolfe gets around her by tricking her into thinking the murderer has broken faith with *her* and stolen her money back. This is extreme, but Stout sets it up by having Wolfe tell Anna "I have paid you a rare compliment; I have assumed that you mean what you say." And in a sense, what he does allows Anna to keep her self-respect; she made a promise and she gets to believe that she, at least, kept it. (Although I can see why Archie gave her $1000 at the end; she definitely deserved it.)

With Kimball Senior the line is "I won't face the fact that my son wants to kill me," and Wolfe doesn't manage to get around that. I don't think he wants to; I think he believes that Manuel Kimball has a right to avenge his mother. Anyway, more on that later.

* the tropes!

So to me one of the interesting things about the Nero Wolfe series is how satisfying they are in a fannish way. That is, they're satisfying in one of the ways that fanfiction can be extremely satisfying; I can read fifty First Times for the same pairing and they're all satisfying because they're all clever variations on a bare-bones plot: "there are these people and they hook up." What really *matters* is the way the plot is executed, a thousand different riffs but all following the same rules, or maybe I should say, conventions. The Nero Wolfe books do that a *lot*-- setting up a familiar situation, either a traditional mystery trope or some specific piece of Archie and Wolfe canon, like "Wolfe doesn't leave the house on business" or "Archie always knows how to handle women" or "Cramer is always a jerk" and then subverting or reversing it-- I'm thinking of things like "Why don't you have the sense to leave too!" from "Before I Die," which is HILARIOUS, but really only because of all the thousands of times we've been told that Archie Knows Women. (Compare this to, say, the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, which are all totally unique in setting, type of crime, etc.-- you could never get one of those books confused with another one in the same series. You don't get the same fannish sort of button pushing of "The same thing but cleverly different.")

FDL actually plays on this in a really interesting way, in that it brings in Fred Durkin as the guy who initially gets Wolfe & Archie started on the mystery, and Fred is an "established character"-- this is the kind of thing you'd expect to see in a third or fourth book. Like, "OK, you guys remember Fred, right, that minor character from the background of those other stories--? Well, now we're going to learn more about him!" It *reads* like that, like something an author would do a couple of books in to give more depth to a background character. (And it's an interesting way to handle exposition. If there's one thing I hate about pro genre novels that are part of an on-going series it's the horrible way that people clumsily infodump huge chunks of canon, when most of the time you don't even need it. You never get that sense with Stout, thank goodness.) Anyway, this leads into the next thing.

* continuity and exposition!

So Archie mentions a handful of imaginary past cases in this book, and also talks a bit in various places about how he first met Wolfe, etc. But actually two really major parts of the book also depend on "past cases"-- first of all there's the whole rivalry with District Attorney Anderson, which is kind of a mini-plot arc underlying everything else. I'm kind of impressed by Stout's barefaced chutzpah-- he's writing in the *resolution* of a mini-plot-arc into the FIRST BOOK. It's the conclusion to an arc that doesn't even exist! And it's totally satisfying! How is it so satisfying, when we never even saw the part where Anderson kicked sand in Wolfe and Archie's faces in the first place? I don't know. But, it is.

Then there's the ambush for Anna Fiore and Maria Maffei which is held at "the Williamson place" where Archie "had once picked Mrs. Williamson up in a faint and carried her to the pond to throw water on her" and so these people owe him a favor, etc. Again, like bringing in Fred as the guy who starts the story going, it's a convincing way to create the illusion that these characters have real pasts, not just pasts that existed before this current adventure, the way real people have pasts, but pasts that exist in the way that *fictional characters have pasts,* because that's exactly what an author would do in a book like this-- bring in a couple of grateful characters from a previous book!

* this one time? at band camp?

There was one specific "flashback" I wanted to mention, in Chapter 2, the part where Archie is worried that the "black-eyed demon" Italian kids will hurt the roadster: I had had the roadster in worse places than that, as for instance the night I chased young Graves, who was in a Pierce coupe with a satchel of emeralds between his knees, from New Milford all over Pike County.

In later books I don't think Archie's made-up past cases are so... dramatic? In fact a lot of times he will make a reference to a time he did something really stupid, like "oh there was the time someone slammed the front door but didn't actually leave and I didn't double check to see that he was gone, so he overheard a bunch of stuff," and these kinds of "oh yeah, this one time..." references add this nice believable human quality to the overall canon, as opposed to the "this one time? there was the giant rat of sumatra!" references, which always kind of beg the question, if that happened and it was so interesting, why aren't we reading about *that*? *G*

Anyway, I just wanted to call out the idea of a Dramatic Car Chase as not very Nero Wolfe-y. There are tons of "dramatic tailing/escaping a tail" sequences in the books, usually in taxicabs, and a couple of drive-by shootings, but besides this flashback, I can't think of an actual canon Archie Goodwin car chase. Secondly, just the way it's described, it feels... off, like a transplanted flashback from an English country house mystery-- "young Graves" sounds more Watson-y than Goodwin-y, as does "stolen jewels" as a basis for a case. (I can think of two other times "stolen jewels" show up in Wolfe canon and they're both in "...this one time?" fake flashback cases-- the "prequel" that we don't get to see where Archie meets all the "Champagne for One" characters for the first time, and then that time that Archie refers to as a the basis for Wolfe's belief that Archie has magical woman-mind-reading powers, with some lady and her jewels and her nephew. Now I can't remember which book that's in.) Also now that I think about it-- in the first Lord Peter mystery doesn't his first case have to do with stolen emeralds? It's probably not an intentional reference, but still.

* read nero wolfe! learn new and interesting racial slurs!

Seriously, I had never seen/heard the word "spiggoty" before FDL. It took Google to tell me that it's related to "spic." Charming. Although to be fair to Archie I actually remembered him using it earlier in the book, when he'd first met Manuel, but he doesn't-- he says it (1) after they know he's the killer and (2) while he's all keyed up hoping Manuel doesn't kill Anna Fiore while Wolfe is letting him run loose. You could almost argue he's only doing it to annoy Wolfe, although that doesn't really make it better. (Oh, and then Wolfe rebukes him, but it's like the most intensely low-key Wolfe rebuke of all time. Sigh.)

I always wonder about Archie's low-key but semi-constant distaste-slash-discomfort with foreigners (especially girls with, gasp, ACCENTS) considering he lives with a Montenegrin and a Swiss and, you would *think*, might have learned better than to be like "This dude looks foreign let's suspect him!!" Seriously, in Chapter 10 he doesn't exactly go so far as to straight up accuse Manuel Kimball of attempted murder based on absolutely zip except the fact that "he makes me nervous and he looks like a Spaniard," but it is pretty close. "Dude, (1) he creeps me out, (2) he looks like a Spaniard!" And then he's big enough to be like, "well, I guess he has absolutely no motive or opportunity, so it's not like it's AIRTIGHT proof, but come on... SPANIARD." And then the narrative totally proves him right because Manuel Kimball IS the killer, which is like, presumably not reinforcing the lesson Wolfe wants Archie to learn about not stereotyping people.

On the other hand, I was actually impressed with the way this book described the Barstow family, and the way they accepted and understood Mrs. Barstow's mental illness. The book treats Mrs. Barstow like a *person*, not a scary symbol of evil or a cliched plot element-- just a person with a problem, whose family still loves her. From Chapter 8: Sarah Barstow "could not remember the beginning of her mother’s difficulty, for that had been years before when Sarah was a child; the family had never considered it a thing to be ashamed of or to attempt to conceal, merely a misfortune of a loved one to sympathize with and as far as possible to ameliorate." (It's kind of weird to compare the way "Fer-de-Lance" portrays Mrs. Barstow, to the completely creepy way Paul Chapin & his *physical* disability are depicted in "League of Frightened Men," especially since that's the very next book. IIRC there is some late minor reference "oh Paul was always creepy and evil even before he was crippled" but imo, it's such a tiny throwaway line that it doesn't really do much, if anything, to repair the Really Major Creepiness of that portrayal. BUT, we can discuss that next week. *G*)

* it's over!

Wolfe says something really interesting in Chapter 13 when he's interrogating Kimball Senior about why someone might want to kill him; Kimball Senior tells the story about how he murdered his wife and her lover, and Wolfe starts picking at the story and Kimball Sr. gets his hackles up, and Wolfe says "There is no danger in me to the innocent."

And then he lets Manuel accomplish his goal. I wonder if he would have been as... generous? later on in the series, or if he would have been too outraged by the snake-attack as an affront to his dignity and the violation of his home, to his very DESK, and just flat taken Manuel down and turned him over to the cops. But he even says to Archie "Evidence that would convict Manuel of murder was in my possession. How should I use it? Had I been able to afford the luxury of a philosophic attitude, I should of course not have used it at all, but that attitude was beyond my means, it was an affair of business." He should *of course* not have used it? Even after the snake?! Interesting. I can totally see that in terms of Wolfe's ego his logic makes sense-- if he's going to do other people's dirty work, for money, he can at least do the dirty work in a way he can live with. (I suppose it goes back to the whole "line you won't cross" bit. Yay, thematic!)

* other random observations!

-- On re-reading I noticed that Peter Barstow was born in *1875*. Every so often the timeline weirdness hits you in this kind of way. 1875!!! If Rex Stout were still writing books and Archie was still 34, he'd have been born in 1975-ish. He would be the same age as Microsoft! He would never have known a world without ABBA! Or the X-Men! And yet he would still remember solving the murder of a guy who was born 25 years before the turn of the CENTURY BEFORE LAST. O_o

-- There's no romance in this book. I could be wrong, but to me, Sarah Barstow doesn't seem to be attracted to Archie! I find this very weird. Although he does have his usual Flirt With Girl At Desk moment in Chapter 4 (though I have to say "You wouldn't lie to me just for practice?" is kind of a telling come-on) and then the girl, in this case a switchboard operator, remembers him enough to smile at him in Chapter 14. Luckily for his self-esteem.

-- Speaking of Archie's self-esteem, Archie punches a dude in this book! Which I didn't remember until the re-read. I guess it gets lost what with the plane crash and all. But, what can I say, I'm totally easy, I love it when Archie gets to hit people. From Chapter 18, he hits Corbett: I said, "Look out, here it comes" and plugged him on the jaw with plenty behind it. He wobbled and dropped his loot, and I let him get his hands up, and then feinted with my left and plugged him again. That time he went down. Also just noticed on this reread, Archie (in his internal narration) calls the other guy Corbett's "boy friend" twice. That's totally him calling them gay, isn't it. Archie! Although it's interesting that he thinks it twice but doesn't bother to say it out loud. Self-censorship? From Archie Goodwin? *raises eyebrow* (Someone remind me when "Some Buried Caesar" comes up to talk about Archie's canon gaydar.)

-- The idea of a "dead man" who can talk and tell why he was killed-- here it's metaphor, but Stout returns to/riffs on this theme in "The Silent Speaker."

-- Filed under "things we'll never see again," Archie opens Chapter 1 spending his leisure time chilling out (1) in the front room (2) reading a book. Of course since this is early days he makes a point of saying he "can't make head or tail of it." (Not that Archie is ever a bibliophile on Wolfe's scale, but it's a far cry from the Archie of "The Second Confession" who straight up drops a Rake's Progress reference in his internal narration and doesn't even cover with some excuse like "...Lily made me go see the opera version!")

* discussion group questions!

(If other people want to use some/all of these discussion questions in their own posts, feel free to copy/paste-- I imagine other books will suggest more specific questions?)

-- did you read this book first or other books in the series? how did that affect your experience of it?

-- what do you see as important themes in the book?

-- what is your favorite scene? least favorite scene? favorite quote? favorite supporting character?

-- what surprised you? what are the strongest points of the story? what do you find cliche or boring?

-- was the ending what you expected? is the ending satisfying?

-- has this book 'dated' well? what would need to be changed if it were set in modern times?

-- if you were going to cast actors to play the supporting characters, who would you cast?

-- does this book give you any hooks or ideas for fanfic?

Also, there are still a few free spots available in the sign-up post. If people who have already signed up for one want to grab another one, feel free. If it ends up that nobody wants to do "The Red Box," I'll do it, *G* and then the next open slots are six weeks from now, so no rush, really.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-04-08 02:56 am (UTC)
dorinda: Fat Pony appears in a blaze of light! (Fat_Pony)
From: [personal profile] dorinda
Reading this--which was very interesting!--has brought home to me just how much I don't re-read these books for the mysteries. *g* By which I just mean, I think I seldom give the actual mystery plots much direct thought, so the analysis of aspects of the mystery kept making me say "Huh! Yeah!" Having been prompted to actually think about it, I realize that normally, the Well Meaning Person (hiding evidence because they wrongly think someone they love is suspected) can kind of bug me, but here it didn't. Perhaps because Wolfe and Archie never seemed truly bugged about it? It was an obstacle, but they didn't spend time resenting it (possibly because, once it was apparent Barstow wasn't the target, they were hot on the true scent, which kept their morale up).

Agreed on the awesomeness of all the past cases (and past conflicts which keep playing out). It took me a while to truly notice how many of these get salted in, I think because I didn't read the books in order (my first was Some Buried Caesar, a gift from a pal for my birthday when I was around 12), so I couldn't really separate the true references from the made-up ones. (And you're right, the unseen first case referenced in the Wimsey books is about emeralds.)

He should *of course* not have used it? Even after the snake?!

Now that you mention it, Wolfe really doesn't seem to take the snake personally. This feels different from later times when he and Archie are menaced, or even when the plant rooms are attacked in what might be seen as a similar stab to the heart of his home. Here, the attack doesn't provide ammunition for him to righteously rise up and smite the offender or anything.

Partly, I wonder if it's because of his clear (if subtle) utter disapproval of Kimball Sr.'s actions vis-a-vis the child. Kimball is so matter-of-fact about it that it's horrifying, the way he just mentions in passing that the boy was on the floor with his toys and some of the blood got on the toys, so anyway then I left and had a drink and blah blah blah. Wolfe, however, gets a clear picture of what happened--as Wolfe says later, the image obviously clear in his mind, "the infant son whom he deserted sitting on the floor in a pool of his mother's blood."

Wolfe does have the occasional tendency to get murderers to kill themselves, or to make sure they're killed by someone else--justice being done when the law wouldn't quite be able, and/or to avoid bad accompanying consequences. So I can see him going lightly on Manuel specifically until the "right" death has taken place. And then once Manuel was finished killing his father, Wolfe could still hand over the evidence about Barstow and take care of him that way (if Manuel didn't kill himself first, which I think Wolfe was pushing for).

However, now that I've said that, I'm also thinking...

or if he would have been too outraged by the snake-attack as an affront to his dignity and the violation of his home, to his very DESK, and just flat taken Manuel down and turned him over to the cops. I'm not entirely sure, even if he had seemed to take the snake more personally, that Wolfe Roused would indeed hand the affronter over to the cops as the final blow. Perhaps a tacit personal affront is actually part of the trigger that makes Wolfe keep the cops out of it until he's engineered a more dramatic conclusion. We don't see his final call to Manuel directly, so it's not clear how hard he brought his will and force to bear on causing the suicide, but his reference to telling Manuel "that he was surrounded, on the earth and above the earth" makes it very likely that it was his intention. And of course he knew that Manuel wouldn't kill himself without being able to take his father with him.

Argh, there's still so much I want to talk about! I will have to come back later. Darn books, so full of discussion fodder, grumble, harrumph.

If I have more to say on a topic that seems to belong to the previous thread (e.g. the ersatz marriage), should I add it there? Or here?


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