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This is quintessential, middle-of-the-road Stout, right down to opening the story with Archie doing his best to irritate Wolfe with cutesiness. Wolfe gets approached by the Hawthorne sisters to solve the mystery of their brother's will. Wolfe of course wants to say no, but events, the Brownstone's rapidly decreasing bank balance, and the gods that rule all detective novels mean Wolfe is soon investigating a murder.

Well, two murders. But the first one gets introduced with some of my favourite dialogue of the book:

“Well... am I to accept your facts?”
“Yes. They are unassailable.”
“Then they're unique. However, postulating them, Mr Hawthorne was murdered.”

It's just classic Wolfe. I do enjoy Wolfe's particular brand of snarky/logical smackdowns.

After a lot more of that, and another murder, it turns out it all hinges on some photographs taken by June's daughter Sara, who took up random photography as an appropriately quirky but cheap hobby she could manage as a Hawthorne on a budget. Wolfe gets the killer to confess, in a scene I find weirdly unsatisfying; maybe because it's sort of creepy but not full on 'gets the killer to commit suicide' creepy. Oh, and Wolfe nearly gets arrested, but it's okay because Archie finds this funny enough to keep the warrant in his Drawer Of Ever So Slightly Weird Wolfe Memorabilia.

More specific stuff:

The Ladies

This is a particularly female-inhabited book, with the Hawthornes and Naomi Karn and Daisy and Celia, and Sara whose photography habit ends up saving the day. It's certainly not perfect on gender issues – Archie's initial meeting with Naomi would be so much more awesome if she didn't turn out to be kinda-a-baddie! - but it's a lot better than some. The variety of women involved is nice, and it makes a refreshing change from the usual testosterone.

The Hawthorne sisters themselves I love! They're fun. I also like that they come in with a shout-out to Glenna McNair – I liked her, too, and I enjoy the things that pull in the rest of the universe to make it seem solid. This is also how I see the otherwise slightly weird references to political scandal and the Argentinian ambassador.: there was never any chance that was anything actually to do with it, because political shenanigating wouldn't have made anyone mess with the original will, but as part of a general sense that these are characters who live in the world, it worked for me.

I like Sara too, actually, even though she's a bit wet in some ways; I like that she has an actual background and a response to it, a motivation for her hobby that makes her more than just That Girl Who Likes Taking Photographs. (Also, it helps that I find the idea of Archie going all Srs Bzness Detective poring over the photos really kind of adorable. )

Archie's interactions with women are, I think, less weird in this book than they are in a lot of them – maybe it's just because there's quite a few. I do like his observation that “I would have died for her on the spot if I hadn't been busy taking notes” though. It is SO ARCHIE IT HURTS. What kind of ladies man spends half his time explaining why he's not doing clearly ridiculous and OTT lady-loving things? Archie Goodwin!

Archie Gets Entirely Freaked Out By Disability, Part Whatever

Daisy the tragic lady in a veil is kind of placed by the text, and specifically Archie being really freaked out by her, as a different sort of being entirely: it's definitely time for the Hey, World, Being Physically Different Doesn't Make You Evil PSA. Archie's response is entirely consistent with his previously being creeped out by Paul Chapin, but also, I thought, kind of flagged up as being really weird! I mean, he is seriously, irrationally creeped out, and nobody else is (or at least not to that extent). I just:

pitched high, with a strain in it that gave me the impression it wasn't coming from a mouth.

I don't know about anyone else, but I found that Stephen King levels of creepy. Urgh!

Archie once punched out a Cuban woman for turning wanting to stab Wolfe, but give him someone physically disfigured and he's “gulping down repugnance till I could feel it sticking in my throat.” That is not a restrained or typical reaction! The more I think about it the weirder that seems; nobody else is freaking out, and it really looks like a pattern of Archie specifically having some kind of personal phobic reaction to physical disability/deformity.

It's especially interesting to me because Daisy is very clearly inspired by a Sherlock Holmes story which also featured a veiled woman with an similarly scarred face whose husband mistreated her. But there's none of that gonna-puke panic response in that story at all.

(It also doesn't have the “I saw Mrs Hawthorne downstairs, or at least someone in a veil” plotpoint of anviliciousness; I kind of get the feeling Stout was like “Hey! Under a veil, COULD BE SOMEONE ELSE! I should put that in a book!” Which, bless him.)

Whatever else he might be changing or exaggerating for his readers, I think it's pretty fair to say that Archie has some fairly major Creepy Cripple issues, eh?

Wolfe has Left The Brownstone! I repeat, Wolfe has Left The Brownstone!

Fred: “But Jesus, Archie, he'll get killed or something.”
Archie: “Don't I know it?”

Hah, I love that Archie apparently has whole conversations with his colleagues about how without him, Wolfe is going to FALL DOWN A HOLE. But more specifically, in this book Wolfe voluntarily leaves the Brownstone, and Archie discovers that what a genius detective does with a two minute head start is 'run for the hills'.

Personally, I found Wolfe and Archie both hating the lunch and Wolfe then running for it kind of hilarious – partly because I have a really vivid metal image of Archie Goodwin, Man of Dignity, trying to get back into his own house later. But it occurred to me that Wolfe running off without even hinting beforehand could be seen as kind of mean. Or is it again so that Archie won't have to lie to the cops about knowing where Wolfe is?

Wolfe and Archie (And Archie and Fritz) Cuteness
Archie is “touched” to find that Wolfe has delayed dinner half an hour for him after he's late taking Naomi Karns home. Awwwwww. I think I love this because that's just exactly the sort of little gesture that you notice and get way invested in when it's someone you really care about. I did the 'hearts!' gesture.

Archie feels the need to add in his note to Wolfe re the two Daisys that Naomi Karns scorns him and says Archie's not funny! Also, he signs off with “I resign., which” is totally funny because you know he mostly adds that every now and again to see if Wolfe's reading. Hee. I also like this as an illustration of how completely settled the Wolfe/Archie relationship is at this point: the “I resign” is clearly not intended to come over as serious in any way, it's never even brought up again, and I don't know if that would work even half as well early on in the series. Before you know Archie almost never means it, the casual way it's handled would, I think, seem a bit incongruous or odd.

Wolfe says of Archie that “Without him I'm an ear without a tympanum” - or, an ear without an eardrum. Aww.

Though, to be fair, he did call Archie his ame damnee before, which is rather less flattering! And Archie says that he's a “helot”. Helots were slaves in ancient Sparta and treated pretty badly to the point where once a year they were officially allowed to be hunted in the equivalent of Helot-hunting season. I being me however... went straight to the 'hahah, Archie just said their relationship was Greek' place. I will admit I spend a lot of my time mentally aged about five.

Archie is not happy that Wolfe thinks Johnny Keems is also good with the ladies! He seems genuinely miffed - “The rhinocerous had the idiotic idea that when Johnny looked at a girl and smiled she melted like ice cream in the summer sun. The fact is – oh, what's the difference. He'll marry a pickpocket's daughter for her money.” I believe the phrase is “Ow, dude, harsh.” I also wondered if anyone had theories as to what he almost-says, there...

Archie gets worried enough about on-coming relapse to sit still and silent for ten whole minutes. I feel this has to be some kind of record.

Archie also has a lot of cuteness with Fritz in this book! They have a food fight, even – or at least chuck rolls across the kitchen at each other giggling. Bless. And when Wolfe leaves Archie in the lurch, Archie says “All I wanted to do was phone the house and ask Fritz how he was.” Although I have my suspicions that this actually means “I wanted to ring up the house and go FRITZ IS EVERYTHING OKAY IS WOLFE THERE WHAT DO YOU KNOW HE JUST LEFT ME IN THIS HOUSE OF CRAZY PEOPLE”, it's cute however you slice it.

When Fred rings up all “I'VE GOT A CORPSE OMG”, Archie can fake an orchid emergency like no-one's business and Wolfe gets exactly what he's on about! I love how good they are at communicating, in their own weird and adorable way. Cattleya mossiae really are from Venezuela, too; I got quite into looking that stuff up and Stout really was just as much an orchid nerd as expected, it seems. I love that Archie has also got that; he's not as much a plant geek as Wolfe is, of course, but he knows enough to bust that out off the top of his head. Aww!

Trust and Honour

“Is that straight?”
“Yes, sir. I would have no compunction about lying to you, but that's straight.”
“I'll take it that way.”

Trust and honour and the reliability of your word are very very big in Wolfe world. I thought this little exchange particularly illuminating on that front; there's a very strong sense that being honest and honourable even when lying or committing criminal acts is the important thing. Beating someone up with vaguely decent motives is not particularly shown as problematic; faking a will and thereby abusing the trust and good name of your company are, even without the whole murder part of it.

Random Misc

Wolfe fired Fred for a month because he added vinegar to a brown roux sauce, and Fred is STILL banished to the kitchen! I laughed a lot, but poor Fred! Fred kind of really gets the short end of the stick in this book, even though Archie admits it can be useful that he knows so many barmen...

Then one of the more unlikely bits:

“There, after finishing the milk, I undraped my form, shaved my legs and removed my eyelashes, and dropped languorously into the arms of the sandman.”

UM, OKAY, ARCHIE? I am all for Archie's right to use whatever modes of expression he likes best, but seriously, if this were written more recently, Archie's slightly flame-y tendencies wouldn't be in doubt. I'm just saying. I also loved:

“Good morning, Jeeves. I'm Lord Goodwin.”

Hee. As good as Archie's saying“on the bed in a coma sequential to acute inebriation”, i.e. passed out in a drunken stupour, haha. Archie also says he has “lovely smooth skin”, fact-checkers!

Wolfe apparently “theoretically knew how to drive” - I don't think we knew this before, and I find it interesting, given his apparent response to motorized vehicles of any kind.

“Gosh, that wasn't cute,” I protested.

Me: Ahahaha Archie you can't claim not to be cute while using the word 'gosh'.

“It was too damn hot to throw something at him. I merely made a disrespectful noise, beat it out to the pavement where the roadster was parked, climbed in, and was on my way.”

Does this mark another instance of Archie blowing raspberries like a five year old, do we think?

Right, I think that's most of my thoughts done. I really enjoyed this. What did everyone else think?
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