liviapenn: wolfe makes a sad face (wolfe: wolfe is sad :()
[personal profile] liviapenn posting in [community profile] milk_and_orchids
Gah, sorry about being late with this, you guys.

So, this is the only Wolfe & Archie wartime mystery! Well, not the only Wolfe and Archie wartime mystery, but the only one where they work together, for the military, on a military matter. We get hints in "Not Quite Dead Enough" and in this story that Archie has done some cases for the Army that would be more like what you'd expect in wartime (tracking down missing equipment, something or other involving a "distinguished visitor from Mexico," etc.) but in this one of course it's got to be a murder case.


Given that Rex Stout often used his stories to depict Communist characters as cowardly, venal, amoral sell-outs, you would think he'd have wanted to write at least one story where Archie and Wolfe smash a German spy ring and kick sand in Hitler's face, etc., but in this story the motive for murder isn't sabotage or spying or anything like that, it's *corporate* espionage-- meaning, the same old motive as usual, money. Mr. Shattuck kills two men to protect his scheme of selling corporate formulas and designs, which he has access to because they've been turned over to the military to help with the war effort, to competing corporations. (Hm, I was going to say "Archie never even got to punch a German in the face," but I guess there is "Over My Dead Body.")

Although on the whole it's probably best that Rex Stout didn't write any further German characters or agents in the wartime stories, as in "Not Quite Dead Enough" none of the characters seem to be able to distinguish between "Germans" and "the German army," and everybody just talks insistently about "killing Germans" as if they really wish they could just blow up the entire country and be done with it. (And later on Archie finds a copy of "Is Germany Incurable" in Dorothy Bruce's bag, a book which argued from a medical/psychological perspective that Hitler was only a symptom of German culture being basically paranoid and psychotic at its core. I assume that since Dorothy is brilliant and capable and is reading this book, we can take it as read that this is one of Rex Stout's times when he's name-dropping a book he wants more people to read.)


-- We get another moment where Archie is annoyed at himself for picking up Wolfe's habits, when he finds Lawson in Dorothy Bruce's closet: "Indeed," I said. That was Nero Wolfe's word, and I never used it except in moments of stress, and it severely annoyed me when I caught myself using it, because when I look in a mirror I prefer to see me as is, with no skin grafted from anybody else's hide, even Nero Wolfe's. I think I mentioned this once in my journal, but that "even" is pretty telling. <3

-- Working together while Archie is in the Army makes things pretty awkward for Archie when Wolfe (as per usual) leads up to the climax of the story by sending Archie out of the room during important discussions, and refusing to tell him ahead of time what his plans are and what kind of traps he's going to set:

".... I tell you, for instance, that Colonel Ryder was murdered, and I'm going to get the murderer. See where that puts you? What if one of your superior officers ask you a leading question? What if he orders you to make a report? As for Miss Bruce, I'm going to use her. I'm going to use Lawson. I'm going to use you. But right now, let me alone. Read a book. Look at pictures. Go to a movie."

His saying he was going to work meant he was to sit with his eyes shut and heave a sigh three times an hour, and since if he got any bright ideas he was to keep them to himself anyhow, I decided to make myself scarce. Also I had an outdoor errand, putting the car in the garage. I departed, performed the errand, and went for a walk. In the dim-out a late evening walk wasn't what it used to be, but since I was in no mood for pleasure, that was unimportant. Somewhere in the Fifties I resolved to make another stab at getting an overseas assignment. At home here, working in a uniform for Army G2 would have been okay, and working in my own clothes for Nero Wolfe would have been tolerable, but it seemed likely that trying to combine the two would sooner or later deprive me of the right to vote and I could never run for President.

Poor Archie. And after Wolfe went to all the trouble in the last story to get him posted home, too. *G*


Most irrepressible moment of Archie being completely irrepressible is when he's telling the other Army guys why he can't keep the grenade any more: "I know, but I have no place to keep it except my room at Mr. Wolfe's house, and that won't do. I caught him tinkering with it last night. I'm afraid he'll hurt himself."

Everybody looked at Wolfe. He said testily, "You know Major Goodwin, don't you? ...."

And also, earlier: Going down one flight to my room, I couldn't see anything to interfere with rinsing the figure, so I stripped and stepped into the shower. Ordinarily I find that a great environment for sorting out my mind and fitting pieces together, but since in this case I was being stiff-armed clear off the field into the bleachers, I left the brain at ease and had a good time admiring my muscles and the hair on my chest. Yeah, I'm... just going to pretend this means exactly what I think it means.


Wolfe is kind of weird in this story. He expresses himself rather emotionally to Ryder, whose son was just killed in Sicily: I would hold up your heart if I could. Obviously you are capable of holding your chin up yourself. He flips out at Dorothy Bruce being a soldier, to the point of consistently calling her "Miss Bruce" rather than by her title, which seems rather out of character for someone who must've known about partisans & resistance fighters in WWI. (Then again, I guess partisans & resistance fighters aren't strictly "in uniform," which Sgt. Bruce is.)

We also get one of the darkest, most forceful Wolfe scenes ever, when he *purposefully* takes Shattuck out to Van Cortlandt Park for the purpose of compelling him to commit suicide. Other times he's understood that a murderer meant to kill themselves and not interfered in their decision ("Some Buried Caesar") and there are time's he's helped to make it more convenient by providing the means ("The Red Box") and then chosen to sit back and let the person kill themselves-- but this is the first (and possibly the only? correct me if I'm wrong) time in the books where he basically *makes* it happen-- imo, Shattuck would have been so defiant that he wouldn't even have thought of killing himself if Wolfe had left him alone.

There are very few characters that I can think of who are so strong, personality-wise, and so forceful that I actually *believe* they could talk somebody into blowing themselves up in five minutes flat, but Wolfe is definitely one of them. I totally believe in this scene & this monologue, that they would've been effective: If you change your mind, Mr. Shattuck, come back to the road, and we'll take you back to town, and the fight will be on. I advise against it, but I doubt if my advice is needed. You're a coward, Mr. Shattuck. I've had wide experience, and I've never known of a more cowardly murder than the murder of Colonel Ryder. Hang on to that as your bulwark. Say to yourself as you cross the meadow, 'I'm a coward. I'm a coward and a murderer.' That will carry you through, right to the end. You need something to take you that hundred yards, and since it can't be courage, let it be your integrity, your deep inner necessity, as a coward.


Dorothy Bruce is one of my favorite women in the books. I love the idea of a WAC secretary-spy, and she matches Archie snark for snark and trick for trick. And poor Wolfe is so upset about her presence, and then in the last scene, at dinner, he accidentally compliments her when he calls the strategy of sending out the accusing letters a "stroke of genius." Of course Carpenter says "yeah, that was Dorothy's idea," and Wolfe is like "WHAT. Well-- okay, but she ALSO was an idiot, because she tried to bribe me with a million dollars, which was so obviously ridiculous," and General Carpenter is like "oh actually that was my idea." Poor Wolfe, just live with it! You complimented a woman in uniform for her brilliant tactics during a campaign and you can't take it back!

I love the Archie-and-Dorothy banter mostly because of what it says about Archie-- he always seems to want the women he can't have, and not want the women he *could* have, Lily being the sole exception. When Dorothy is brushing him off (so neatly at first that he doesn't even know she's doing it) it only makes him pester her more. <3

Most of the other characters honestly blend in a bit with each other (to me) but I do love the subtle Wolfe-Cramer moments going on sort of behind the scenes, and Wolfe's line when he's explaining why Cramer is so justifiably cranky all the time: "Mr. Cramer is constantly leaping at the throat of evil and finding himself holding on for dear life to the tip of its tail." Haha.


-- Archie doesn't seem to recognize Yeats when he reads the poem Dorothy Bruce typed a copy of for herself. Is he faking, or has Lily not cultured him up to Yeats yet?

-- Apparently this story was used as the basis for an episode of the 1980s Nero Wolfe TV series, though I can't imagine how you could do it in a non-wartime setting. Just make it about corporate espionage, I guess? Darren McGavin and Patti Davis guest-starred. Oh, the eighties. ^_^

(no subject)

Date: 2010-07-12 01:14 am (UTC)
saraht: "...legwork" (Default)
From: [personal profile] saraht
In the dim-out a late evening walk wasn't what it used to be

Poor Archie! He misses the bright lights, Livia!

(no subject)

Date: 2010-07-13 04:58 am (UTC)
saraht: "...legwork" (Default)
From: [personal profile] saraht
It's probably just as well! You know he would have ended up in a duel! Poor Saul would have had to be his second.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-07-17 01:33 am (UTC)
dorinda: Vintage orange crate label, "Dorinda" brand (Dorinda_label)
From: [personal profile] dorinda
But you did me a favor by being late--you left room for my late post. So thanks!

I think I mentioned this once in my journal, but that "even" is pretty telling. <3

Agreed! Sigh. <3

Let me see, what was I thinking about this book... Well, for one thing, I like how, when Archie enumerates Wolfe's "sacrifices for victory", he lists some things that by now we know really are foundational for Wolfe: his income, time with his orchids, not having to leave his house on business, and a wide variety of gourmet food. Wolfe has given all of these up, and not only does this tell us (if we hadn't noticed it in "Not Quite Dead Enough") how extremely important the war effort is to Wolfe, but also, Archie seems to take those seriously as sacrifices.

Wolfe has a great line in the meeting with the officers and Shattuck. Colonel Tinkham gets his detectiving on, and gives some observations about the contents and physical characteristics of the letter. Then:

Wolfe made a noise, and Fife glanced at him. "What?"

"Nothing," Wolfe said. "I suppose I wouldn't mind if this chair were properly constructed and of a proper size. I suggest, if the discussion is to be at kindergarten level, that we all sit on the floor."

Heh. He might leave the house at the Army's behest, and even sit in an uncomfortable chair, but no way will he have patience with amateurishness.

In the same meeting, Wolfe makes his dramatic pronouncement that Cross was murdered:

Wolfe was pretending that nothing startling was happening. Not that any of the others could tell there was any pretense about it; nobody else knew him as I did. They probably were not even aware that his half-closed eyes were not missing the slightest twitch of a muscle among the group.

Archie's basically going, "I WIN. NYEAH." He absolutely loves being the closest and the savviest in the Nero Wolfe sweepstakes!

Archie and Wolfe have an interesting fight in this one. After the bit you quoted, where Archie's fed up and takes a walk rather than commit a felony. *g* It's late, and Shattuck leaves; Archie then starts poking Wolfe to TELL ME SOMETHING TELLLLL MEEEEEEEE:

I stood and glared at him.

He glared back, as if something was almost more than he could bear, and he would leave it to me what.

Finally, he said, "Archie. I submit to circumstances. So should you. And I'll make a concession to you. [...]"

...and he tells him about the suitcase and the booby trap. I find it a striking moment, with layers under it I don't know if I've entirely parsed. But in any case, it seems to be quite the peacemaking gesture. (You know how people say 'Don't go to bed mad'! :D)

Archie's still irky on the topic the next day, though, once the climactic showdown is arranged but he doesn't know the precise plan:

"I said," I told him icily, "all set. For what, God knows."

"Now, Archie," he murmured, pulling moss apart. "It's barely possible that I'm nervous. [...]"

(...did somebody slip Valium into Wolfe's breakfast?) The funny thing about that bit, I think, is that Archie seems to believe it, which makes me believe it. He shortly observes:

When I did so [got Cramer on the phone], using the phone there on the bench, Wolfe put on a show. After telling me he was nervous because it was so ticklish, he bulled it like this with Cramer:

So it was the phone call, the brusque confidence with Cramer, that Archie calls putting on a show. Not the murmuring and the admission of nervousness. Interesting! It makes me see it all as quite sincere--especially since I think Archie, being in a mood since he's been left out of things, could easily have vented his spleen by ridiculing Wolfe's confession.

Oh! And this book has one of my favorite oblique Archie-observations, in the very last scene:

He was gazing at Wolfe with a certain expression, an expression I had often seen on the faces of people sitting in that chair looking at Wolfe. It reminded me of what so many out-of-town folks say about New York: that they love to visit the place, but you couldn't pay them to live there. Me, I live there.

This has wonderful layers and feelings, seems to me, though I have trouble expressing quite why I cherish it so. In previous books we've already seen Archie the passionate New-Yorker, loving and reveling in his city and all its nuances. And here we have an analogy between the city and Nero Wolfe, especially in terms of its terrors and wonders for everyone else (everyone Not Archie)--not to mention that final double-meaning line, "I live there." In the center and heart of the city. In the center and heart of Nero Wolfe. I dunno, I just-- *hands* I have it bookmarked, is all I'm saying!

There are very few characters that I can think of who are so strong, personality-wise, and so forceful that I actually *believe* they could talk somebody into blowing themselves up in five minutes flat, but Wolfe is definitely one of them.

Agreed! That scene is amazing. The words we hear from Wolfe are powerful and disturbing, and then for good measure there's the bit we don't hear, when Archie is carrying the grenade over to the rock and then coming back. Wolfe is talking that whole time, weaving his spell.

And oh, gads, that final moment after Shattuck has pulled the pin and they hear the explosion/see the cloud of dust:

But a moment later, four seconds maybe, there was a soft rustling noise as particles fell into the grass over a wide area; a noise like the big scattered raindrops that start a summer shower.

AAAAAAAAAAGH. Perfect. And grim. And aaaaagh. *g*

(no subject)

Date: 2010-07-18 07:22 pm (UTC)
soupytwist: city street in the rain (umbrella)
From: [personal profile] soupytwist
Dorothy is fantastic. :D And I love the bit where Archie's joking about the grenade and Wolfe's sitting there rolling his eyes, haha.

And I find the talked-into-suicide scene so, so creepy! In a good way, I guess, but as you say, Wolfe is one of the very few characters from whom that kind of thing is believable. You can kind of imagine the hypnotic effect he could manage, and it is distinctly unnerving!


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