liviapenn: wolfe and archie having breakfast (wolfe: my fandom is super domestic)
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Sorry about being late with this book club post! Also, I'm going to be out of town this weekend & don't know what my internet access will be like, so... *waves hands* talk amongst yourselves! *G*

Not to keep ragging on "Too Many Women," but reading "And Be A Villain" is just so much more fun!

All the characters feel very distinct, and the "setting" of the radio show and the surrounding marketing and advertising industry feels very detailed and real. IMO, the story starts with a bang, has some great twists, no boring supporting characters or filler (not that there's no filler, but what there is, is interesting!) and never really stops. In Chapter One, Wolfe and Archie are having one of their characteristic wrangles about how to keep the brownstone running and solvent. Wolfe is irritating Archie by turning down well-paying jobs when it's almost time for them to pay their taxes... and then by sending a "man-sized check" to a World Government organization... and then by ignoring Archie and reading the poetry of Mark Van Doren instead of working!!

Archie needles Wolfe about all this until Wolfe tells him angrily "Leave the room!" ... Archie does not leave the room.

But, his needling has worked: Wolfe starts fishing around for a case!


Wolfe gets himself hired to solve a murder, that of Mr. Orchard, who published a horse-racing tip sheet. The murder happened on live radio, which is exciting. Archie and Wolfe are looking into this without much luck until Chapter 12, when they finally learn radio host Madeline Fraser's terrible secret-- that she's allergic to Starlite, the fizzy soda drink that she has to actually serve and drink, live, on her radio show. Once they know the cyanide was actually in Madeline's bottle of fake-Starlite (aka cold coffee) everything gets shaken up and twisted around-- as Cramer says, "We've got to start all over. It's one of those goddam babies where the wrong person got killed."

By Chapter 19 Wolfe, Archie and Cramer have the whole blackmail scheme figured out, and understand how it played into the deaths of Mr. Orchard and Ms. Poole (although it is still confusing them that Orchard was killed, when the poison was in Madeline's coffee.) They've also managed to cross Arnold Zeck!

Wolfe at this point advises Cramer to put extra men on Elinor Vance, to see if she's been getting anonymous letters and hopefully to find some. (He doesn't explain why to Cramer, and I'm not sure why either...) Wolfe also comes up with a plan of his own: write a fake blackmail letter, addressed to Elinor Vance, and send Archie over to Madeline's to show it around and get reactions. While they're over there, Deborah Koppel dies of eating a poisoned cookie. (She had previously tried to leave town, and Wolfe suspects she was going back to her hometown to re-examine her brother's suicide note.)

(I feel like Elinor really only exists to be a red herring. In hindsight, we ought to realize that she's a red herring, because she's the only woman who DOESN'T have a mysterious, possibly blackmail-worthy death in her past-- Deborah and Madeline both have the death of Lawrence Koppel (Deborah's brother and Madeline's husband) which should make us suspicious right away. And then once Deborah Koppel dies, I think the murderer's identity is obvious-- the only reasonable suspects are Deborah and Madeline, and if it wasn't Deborah... Plus, Madeline had more access to her fake-Starlite bottle.)

After some wrangling with the cops, Cramer is ordered to assemble everyone in the office for an interrogation, and he's nice enough to lampshade that it's not actually likely that these people would *want* to assemble in Wolfe's office, late at night, to be interrogated:

Cramer: "Maybe we can't get them."
Archie: "You can try. You're an inspector and murder is a very bad crime."

Once everyone is in the office, Wolfe addresses the room, and ANNOYS ME, because masculine pronouns are not universal! For a guy who will not let "infer" and "imply" be used interchangeably, and who won't allow "contact" to be used as a verb, Wolfe is pretty careless with his words here:

"I should begin," he said with just a trace of peevishness, "by admitting that I am in a highly vulnerable position. I have told Mr Cramer that when he leaves here he will take a murderer with him; but though I know who the murderer is, I haven't a morsel of evidence against him, and neither has anyone else. Still--"


Obviously the murderer is Madeline (okay, I say "obviously" but I totally never get who the murderer is before Wolfe tells. But if I have to write the recap then I get to pretend that I do. *G*) Wolfe tells Archie to sit next to her just in case she still has her gun with her, because she is "deft as a bear's tongue." But nothing happens, the case is solved and Wolfe gets paid!

THE END... or is it? We end in the office, with Archie listening in as Wolfe is thanked by Zeck for staying out of *his* side of the case...


So, about Zeck! This is Zeck's second appearance. ETA: It's his first appearance, but not the first time he's crossed paths with Wolfe: On June ninth, nineteen forty-three, I called to give you some advice regarding a job you were doing for General Carpenter. On January sixteenth, nineteen forty-six, I called to speak about the advisability of limiting your efforts on behalf of a Mrs Tremont.

Zeck comes into the story when Wolfe advertises to find more blackmail victims-- he calls Wolfe and warns him to stay out. (Is there some significance to Duncan as an alias-- Macbeth reference?-- or is it random?)

Wolfe gives an ominous speech to Archie after they're off the phone:

" ... I should have signalled you off as soon as I recognized his voice. I tell you nothing because it is better for you to know nothing. You are to forget that you know his name."

"Like that." I snapped my fingers, and grinned at him. "What the hell? Does he eat human flesh, preferably handsome young men?"

"No. He does worse." Wolfe's eyes came half-open. "I'll tell you this. If ever, in the course of my business, I find that I am committed against him and must destroy him, I shall leave this house, find a place where I can work - and sleep and eat if there is time for it - and stay there until I have finished. I don't want to do that, and therefore I hope I'll never have to."

"I see. I'd like to meet this bozo. I think I'll make his acquaintance."

"You will not. You'll stay away from him." He made a face. "If this job leads me to that extremity - well, it will or it won't."

Later in the book, Archie makes an interesting, very practical suggestion: one of Zeck's stooges might have seen the murderer leaving the second victim's office after having shot her, so why not call Zeck and ask him to hand the killer over, and in return: "Wolfe would agree to forget that he had ever heard tell of anyone whose name began with Z".

All I got was my head snapped off. First, Wolfe would make no such bargain with a criminal, especially a dysgenic one; and second, there would be no further communication between him and that nameless buzzard unless the buzzard started it. That seemed shortsighted to me. If he didn't intend to square off with the bird unless he had to, why not take what he could get? After dinner that evening I tried to bring it up again, but he wouldn't discuss it.

This is an interesting exchange to me, mostly because I see Wolfe and Archie as *generally* having the same views as to what is ethical and just, and which rules are okay to bend and which ones are okay to break, and what kind of things are just Never Okay. (Except of course when Wolfe is advising Archie to seduce women to help solve a case-- but that's the next book, not this one.) But this seems like a pretty big gap, practically speaking. It's especially striking to me because Archie brings it up *twice*, not even taking Wolfe's first "no" for an answer. (There is QUITE A LOT of Archie being insubordinate in this book, just *starting* with refusing to leave the room when ordered in Chapter 1. I can't remember any other book where he's pushing quite so hard.)

Zeck, obviously, is Wolfe's Moriarty-- a real Napoleon of Crime, who may be controlling half the police department and the city government. Lon Cohen says of him, "There's a rumour that if you print something about him that he resents your body is washed ashore at Montauk Point, mangled by sharks, but you know how the boys talk." For someone who doesn't really *do* anything during the course of this story except call and talk to Wolfe on the phone in a reasonably polite manner, he manages to project a real aura of menace, and it's obvious this isn't the last we've seen of him.


Maybe Archie was feeling a little worn out after "Too Many Women," but I think this is one of the few books where he doesn't have a massive crush or a lust interest. It still doesn't stop him from evaluating everyone (especially the women) based on their attractiveness the first time he sees them-- it gets a little irritating when he even does it to Debby Koppel, who's been up all night being interrogated by the cops. SO SORRY that she doesn't meet your prettiness and cheerfulness standards, Archie-- maybe you should have called ahead and she could have prettied up a little.

To be honest, all the lustable female characters-- Madeline, Elinor and Deborah-- blend together a little in my mind, with Madeline being most distinct. But nearly all the other supporting characters are fresh and interesting.

I love Professor Savarese, who is so intellectually interested in Wolfe's business, and Tully Strong the ad guy, who doesn't live up to his name, but earns a tiny bit of Arche's respect for standing up to him, physically: I had to usher Tully Strong to the door and out. [....] At that he had spunk. Anybody could have told from one glance at us that if I was forced to deal with him physically I would have had to decide what to do with my other hand, in case I wanted to be fully occupied, but when I took hold of his arm he jerked loose and then turned on me as if stretching me out would be pie. He had his specs in one hand, too.

You can almost hear Archie going "Aww, bless."

Anyway. I *love* Nancylee Sheppard, the teenage Madeline Fraser fangirl (although interestingly, when Nancylee is referred to, she is "that child" or "the girl" -- the words "teen" and "teenager" apparently don't exist yet, or at least aren't used in this book.) When Archie is turned loose and expected to use his woman fetching powers on her, his retort is one of my favorites:

Wolfe: "I should have sent you in the first place, knowing how you are with young women."
Archie: "Thank you very much. She's not a young woman, she's a minor. She wears socks."

A&E didn't adapt this one, but I can totally hear/see Timothy Hutton standing there, cocking his head, and delivering that line: "She wears *socks*."

Although Archie is relatively nice to Nancylee & her mom (the part where he makes sure they get breakfast on the train is very sweet) the other part where he uses their fear of their (possibly) abusive husband&father in order to get them to Wolfe's for an interrogation is a little squicky to me. The way that Mrs. Sheppard is clearly terrified of her husband is treated in sort of the same way as cultural racism in the early books-- maybe a little tacky but not particularly appalling or sad, or something that demands any action whatsoever.

Then as if in contrast, in Chapter 17 & 18 we meet Dr. & Mrs. Michael, whose situation CLEARLY IS written and treated like a tragedy-- Dr. Michaels married the wrong woman, who is mean and resentful for NO REASON. (Except of course that her husband admittedly married her at least partly for her money, then once he wasn't dependent on her any more, abandoned her to find love and sex somewhere else.)

I do kinda like Dr. Michaels for putting Wolfe slightly in his place when they're discussing the beauty of the blackmail scheme he's become victim of:

"Interesting," Wolfe murmured. "Extremely."

"Yes," Michaels agreed. "I can understand your saying that. It's what a doctor says when he runs across something rare like a lung grown to a rib. But if he's tactful he doesn't say it in the hearing of the patient."

Wolfe acknowledges his point and apologizes. But then there's this part, which I'm REALLY not sure about:

"Good. How much substance was there in the hints in those letters about your conduct?"

The doctor looked at him, considered, and finally nodded his head. "It's intrusive, all right, but I'll take your word for it that it's important. You want a full answer?"

"As full as possible."

"Then it must be confidential."

"It will be."

IT WILL BE? Seriously? Even if he's been sleeping with his patients? Going back to the text, all Michaels says about the first letter is "It strongly hinted that I was chronically guilty of - uh, unethical conduct - with women patients." I guess that isn't as bad as I remembered it-- I suppose that could mean consensual sex, affairs, which would probably still ruin a gynecologist's practice, as opposed to molesting unconscious patients or something. But still.

Oh, and then at the end of their evening, Archie has sympathy with the poor guy, whose wife has the temerity to have him followed! As if he's cheating on her! Oh wait, he is cheating on her. *facepalm*


The media is almost another character in this story, in an interesting way. I haven't really drawn up a spreadsheet or anything, but I have the feeling that in the end, most of Wolfe and Archie's cases revolve around money. (Money being the motive for murder, I mean.) And quite a lot of this case features various ways that journalism and publicity intertwines with money-- starting with Wolfe himself, getting himself hired to work the case by presenting it to Fraser & co. as good publicity, and cheap at the price. As Archie explains:

[....] every paper in town will have your name in a front-page headline. You can't help that, but you can decide what the headline will say. [....] What if, instead of that, it announces that you have engaged Nero Wolfe to investigate the murder of the guest on your programme because of your passionate desire to see justice done? The piece would explain the terms of the arrangement: you are to pay the expenses of the investigation - unpadded, we don't pad expenses - and that's all you are to pay unless Mr Wolfe gets the murderer with evidence to convict. If he comes through you pay him a fee of twenty thousand dollars. Would that get the headline or not? What kind of publicity would it be, still out of the wrong barrel? What percentage of your audience and the general public would it persuade, not only that you and yours are innocent, but that you are a hero to sacrifice a fortune for the sake of justice? Ninety-nine and one-half per cent. Very few of them would stop to consider that both the expenses and the fee will be deductible on your income tax and, in your bracket, the actual cost to you would be around four thousand dollars, no more. In the public mind you would no longer be one of the suspects in a sensational murder case, being hunted - you would be a champion of the people, hunting a murderer.

(One thing about this I don't understand is that Wolfe's fee would be deductible from their income tax. How does that work?)

Anyway. The media comes into it again in Chapter 13-- Archie gets so frustrated with Wolfe not *doing* anything on the case, he goes to Lon Cohen to get him to write an editorial about how Wolfe has bit off more than he can chew, and "for our protection from vicious criminals we must rely on our efficient and well-trained police force, and not on any so-called brilliant geniuses." The editorial works-- and I think Archie even gets away with it! (Is this the first time he's successfully passed a deception off on Wolfe?)

Obviously, the theme of blackmail fits in with publicity and money, as does Arnold Zeck, who is, as Wolfe explains, immune to prosecution because he does all his work through intermediaries and will never be brought into the spotlight. (But more about him later.)

Another angle on this is brought in, late in the book, when a couple of the corporate guys try to fire Wolfe, because they don't like their case being associated with blackmail. This wasn't a propblem when it was murder-- "Murder is exciting," is their argument. But blackmail just stinks and will turn people off the show. Wolfe refuses to be fired, since he is still working for other parties as well.

Then the media works for Wolfe in in Chapter 22, helping him get Archie out of Deputy Commissioner O'Hara's clutches. O'Hara made his first appearance in "Too Many Women," and h's not any fonder of Archie now than he was then. Cramer actually tries to pull O'Hara aside and warn him NOT TO MESS WITH NERO WOLFE'S SIDEKICK-- "Would you mind stepping into another room with me? Perhaps I haven't fully explained the situation--" but O'Hara doesn't listen. He drags Archie down to the police station and DOESN'T FEED HIM for hours and hours, and eventually this happens:

"The desk just had a call," Cramer said, "from the WPIT newsroom. WPIT is doing the script for the ten o'clock newscast, and they're including an announcement received a few minutes ago from Nero Wolfe. Wolfe announces that he has solved the murder cases, all three of them, with no assistance from the police, and that very soon, probably sometime tomorrow, he will be ready to tell the District Attorney the name of the murderer and to furnish all necessary information. WPIT wants to know if we have any comment."

Of course it was vulgar, but I couldn't help it. I threw back my head and let out a roar. It wasn't so much the news itself as it was the look on O’Hara's face as the full beauty of it seeped through to him. [.....] I told O’Hara distinctly: The next time Cramer asks you to step into another room with him I'd advise you to step."

The way Wolfe & Archie both use the media in this story is kind of telling. Archie goes for the personal touch-- exchanging a favor for a favor, in order to needle Wolfe personally just where he knows it'll do the most good. Wolfe, on the other hand, holds off until he needs an elephant gun, and then wields it with the precision of an acupuncture needle. *G*


Correct me if I'm wrong, but I *THINK* this is the first full-length book where Archie doesn't manage to commit any actual violence whatsoever. I don't *think* it's the first book where he doesn't kiss anyone, but it's interesting that there's no kissing OR punching. Maybe he was all worn out still from "Too Many Women?" Or maybe he's too worn out from wrangling Wolfe. He is DEFINITELY earning his pay as a gnat in this book-- in previous books he's been unsubtle about it, just sitting in the office and needling Wolfe-- "Are we working now? Are we taking the job now? How about now?" Or maybe doing sneaky things which Wolfe is going to catch on to right away, like lying to him that Miss Frost is coming over in "The Red Box" and then having to actually sneak out and fetch her. But in this book it's possible, like I said, that Wolfe never finds out about Archie being behind the mean editorial, and he's pushing Wolfe in SO MANY other ways-- being outright insubordinate, several times. And it doesn't seem to come from a place of hostility-- he's just doing his job! This is his job, and he's doing it. It's an interesting dynamic, especially since (otherwise) Wolfe and Archie seem pretty easy with each other in this book.

Some of my favorite Wolfe & Archie cute bits:

[Wolfe, suggesting people for Cramer to pay attention to] "Mr Savarese? Miss Shepherd? Mr Shepherd?"

"What?" Cramer's eyes widened. "Where the hell does Shepherd come in?"

"I don't know. Archie doesn't like him, and I have learned that it is always quite possible that anyone he doesn't like may be a murderer."

D'aaawwwwwwwwww. Wolfe knows nothing about this guy except that Archie doesn't like him. And hey... he COULD be the murderer. It's really cute that he says this in front of Archie, too.

Can't remember if this bit is later or earlier:

Since Wolfe likes plenty of air at night but a good warm room at breakfast time it had been necessary, long ago, to install a contraption that would automatically close his window at 6 a.m. As a result the eight o'clock temperature permits him to have his tray on a table near the window without bothering to put on a dressing gown. Seated there, his hair not yet combed, his feet bare, and all the yardage of his yellow pyjamas dazzling in the morning sun, he is something to blink at, and it's too bad that Fritz and I are the only ones who ever have the privilege.

A PRIVILEGE. *beams*

We get another clue as to Wolfe's attitude towards women, when he's first listening to Madeline Fraser's radio show:

When it was over and I had turned the radio off Wolfe muttered:

"That's an extremely dangerous woman."

I would have been more impressed if I hadn't known so well his conviction that all women alive are either extremely dangerous or extremely dumb.

There are also several little throwaway lines that are just super adorable-- Archie not listening to Wolfe at the dinner table, "pretending to listen to Wolfe telling how men with moustaches a foot long used to teach mathematics in schools in Montenegro" -- DUDE. Wolfe is telling you stories of his boyhood, and you aren't even listening!!!

Also, Archie notes, "By noon Sunday he had finished the book of poems and was drawing pictures of horses on sheets from his memo pad, testing a theory he had run across somewhere that you can analyze a man's character from the way he draws a horse."

... Can we all just take a minute to sit and think about Wolfe spending a lazy Sunday drawing pictures of horses. <3

Next week, Feb 8, will be the discussion post for "The Second Confession," and the week after that, the three stories in "Trouble in Triplicate" -- does anyone have any preference vs. discussing them one by one, or in 3 posts in the same week? (Also, if anyone wants to volunteer to post the discussion post for "The Second Confession" or one of the bits of "Trouble in Triplicate," just let me know in comments or pm-- otherwise I'll do it. *G*)

(no subject)

Date: 2013-02-02 07:20 pm (UTC)
saraht: writing girl (Default)
From: [personal profile] saraht
ABV is, I think, my #1 favorite of the canon.

First, because the mystery is more serviceable than most: the secondary cover-up (of the coffee) is plausible and is then blown for a believable reason (meddling kids!), and then the coffee switch itself is a reasonable distractor. (Though I do think it's cheating that the motive is buried somewhere we're specifically blocked off from--"You wouldn't know him, he committed suicide. In Canada.") Let's face it, in these books the mechanics of the mystery experience aren't always completely smooth.

Second, because the Wolfe-Archie relationship is humming along on all cylinders. Archie does the most outrageous things ("too old or too fat") to save Wolfe from his own indolence, because it's expected (he doesn't think he might get fired, he only fears retaliation), and then Wolfe drops the hammer to rescue Archie from his dinnerless ordeal at the DA's. Adorable!

Third, I love Nancylee. And her socks. She's simply utterly! On the question of Shepherd, I'm not sure we're meant to think he's abusive per se. For us, for a woman to be scared of her husband like that reads as an unquestionable sign of some kind of abuse, but I think back then being scared of your husband's reaction to things would be considered more normal for a wife of meek character, especially if the husband is rather yell-y.

Also, I wish I had one of those window contraptions. I feel the same way Wolfe does.


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