Friday, May 6, 2011

Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge: PRISONER'S BASE (1952) by Rex Stout

The Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge is hosted by Bev at her blog, MY READER'S BLOCK. I'm nearing the end of my category - Take 'Em To Trial (16 + books) and since I read vintage all year round, I'll just continue reading and listing as we go along. Please check here to see who else is participating and what books they've been reading.
PRISONER'S BASE is a re-read for me, since I am currently in a Nero Wolfe Reading Binge mood, so I'm actually killing two birds with one stone - more or less. This is one of the Wolfe books with several cold-hearted murders and I admit, I like it when there are multiples - though I understand they can't ALL be multiples or I'd soon grow tired of the blood letting. But in this one the killer is particularly cruel and hard-hearted and Archie Goodwin feels a tug on his conscience.

It's kind of hard to like Wolfe in this one, especially in the first third of the book when because of his truculence and stubborn misogynist inclinations, a woman is murdered. He excuses it and his conscience and you might agree with his sophistry and feel differently about it, but I don't. I blame both Wolfe and Archie for being so self-indulgent that they can't spot real trouble when it shows up in the form of a young heiress needing to spend the night at the brownstone. Okay, so Priscilla Eads is a rich gadabout and makes certain imperious assumptions because she is used to getting her own way, but it's obvious that something is in the works and sending her back out into the street late at night is not the way to handle her.

Priscillia is on the eve of her 25th birthday and a Big Payoff - a huge inheritance from her father. But his will states that if she dies before that birthday, the money goes back into the Softdown Corporation (founded by Eads) to be divided up by the board of directors.

Once she's murdered, strangled that very same night, in her apartment by a killer who was waiting for her return, Archie feels that tug on his conscience. Wolfe doesn't. In fact, he refuses to help Archie in his quest to find Priscilla's killer primarily because there's no money in it for him. Hey, a man's gotta' live.

But when Archie is picked up downtown by his arch enemy, Detective Rowcliff, for impersonating a police officer (strictly speaking, he didn't), pursuing the investigation on his own, Wolfe steps in. He has been picked up at the townhouse, by Rowcliff barreling his way past Fritz at the front door, daring to clomp his way up the stairs to Wolfe's plant room. Wolfe's outrage knows no bounds and he informs the police that Archie is now his client. Archie overhears all this through a slightly opened door while down at police headquarters wandering about looking for a phone.

"This whole performance," Nero Wolfe was saying, "is based on an idiotic assumption, which was natural and indeed inevitable since Mr. Rowcliff is your champion ass - the assumption that Mr. Goodwin and I are both cretins. I do not deny that at times in the past I have been less than candid with you - I will acknowledge, to humor you, that I have humbugged and hoodwinked to serve my purpose - but I still have my license, and you know what that means. It means that on balance I have helped you more than I have hurt you - not the community, which is another matter, by you, Mr. Cramer, and you, Mr. Bowen, and of course you others too."

So the DA himself was in the audience.

"It means also that I have known where to stop, and Mr. Goodwin has too. That is our unbroken record, and you know it. But what happens today? Following my customary routine, at four o'clock this afternoon I go up to my plant rooms for two hours of relaxation. I had been there but a short time when I hear a commotion and go to investigate. It is Mr. Rowcliff. He has taken advantage of the absence of Mr. Goodwin, whom he fears and petulantly envies, and has entered my house by force and - "

"That's a lie!" Rowcliff's voice came. "I rang and - "

"Shut up!" Wolfe roared...In a moment he went on, not roaring but not whispering either, "As you all know a, a policeman has no more right to enter a man's home than anyone else, except under adequately defined circumstances. But such a right is often usurped, as today when my cook and housekeeper unlatched the door and Mr. Rowcliff pushed it open against resistance, entered, brushed my employee aside, and ignored all protests while he was illegally mounting three flights of stairs, erupting into my plant rooms, and invading my privacy."

I leaned against the jamb and got comfortable.

"He was ass enough to suppose I would speak with him. Naturally I ordered him out. He insisted I must answer questions. When I persisted in my refusal and turned to leave him, he intercepted me, displayed a warrant for my arrest as a material witness in a murder case, and put a hand on me." The voice suddenly went lower and much colder. "I will not have a hand put on me, gentlemen. I like no man's hand on me...I had assumed, charitably, that some major misapprehension, possibly even excusable, had driven Mr. Rowcliff to this frenzied zeal. But I learned from you, Mr. Bowen, that is was merely an insane fit of nincompoopery...

"I didn't have a client this morning, or even an hour ago, but now I have. Mr. Rowcliff's ferocious spasms, countenanced by you gentlemen, have made the challenge ineluctable. When Mr. Goodwin said that I was not concerned in this matter and that he was acting solely in his own personal interest, he was telling the truth. As you may know, he is not indifferent to those attributes of young women that constitute the chief reliance of our race in our gallant struggle against the menace of insects.

He is especially vulnerable to young women who possess not only those more obvious charms but also have a knack of stimulating his love of chivalry and adventure and his preoccupation with the picturesque and the passionate. Priscilla Eads was such a woman. She spent some time with Mr. Goodwin yesterday...Within three hours of her eviction by him at my behest, she was brutally murdered. I will not say that the effect on him amounted to derangement, but it was considerable. He bounded out of my house like a man obsessed, after telling me that he was going single-handedly after a murderer.....It was pathetic, but it was also humane, romantic, and thoroughly admirable, and your callous and churlish treatment of him leaves me with no alternative. I am at his service. He is my client."

...The dry cutting voice of Bowen, the DA, put in, "All that rigamarole was leading up to that?"

I pushed the door open and stepped in.

After that wonderful tirade, I forgave Wolfe his initial bad behavior and read on. The murderer isn't finished yet. It will take a great deal of work on the part of Wolfe, Archie and the rest of the guys, to finally flush a daring, cold-blooded and very nasty killer out into the open.


  1. I found it hard to like Wolfe in this one too. But I guess if he hadn't turned her away then we wouldn't have a story.....

    That makes 16 so any time you're ready to claim your challenge prize, shoot me an email and I'll get the list to you. [phryne1969 AT gmail DOT com}

  2. Bev: It was the damn stupid will by a damn stupid man which doomed her. Although you could say, as Wolfe probably would, that is was the killer himself who is solely responsible. He has a point, I guess. Okay, email coming right up. :)

  3. This is one of the better Wolfe stories, I think. It may have escaped notice that the woman could easily have gone to a hotel instead of insisting she be allowed a night in Wolfe's home, a man she knew only by reputation. Would Holmes have let her stay? No. He could, however, have had someone watch her.

  4. One of the best tirades I have ever read in crime fiction! And I like Bowen's nonplussed response. All fun.

    And if the young woman hadn't gone to her apartment along, she wouldn't have been murdered. And, hence, no story, no need for Wolfe, Goodwin and the rest.

    Anything for a good plot. And for a good analysis of it, as above.

    I'm settling in with "The Doorbell Rang," which I read decades ago as a teen-ager, but it was so long ago, it's new to me. I'm already laughing.

  5. Correction: Paragraph 2, line 2 above, "along" should be "alone."

  6. Richard: Yeah, sure she could have gone to a hotel. But she didn't. Truth is, I've always thought that Archie acted a bit out of character by letting her go off into the night that easily.

    But as Wolfe says, we are not omniscient. Yes, it is one of the better books. The third murder is especially affecting and the denouement is especially good.

    One of the things I learned about Rex Stout, originally, many years ago was this: he did not play favorites. His murder victims were sometimes very likable people. They weren't all scurrilous sorts deserving of murder.

    Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment.

  7. It's been a while since I read this one, Yvette. Thanks for the reminder of how good it is. It goes back into the teetering To Be Read pile!

  8. Les: Well, you know, I'm kind of in a Wolfe Reading Binge now, so who knows what title may turn up next. :)

  9. I am laughing reading "The Doorbell Rang," some hilarious sentences. I'll write up a few later on.

  10. Kathy: Yeah, one of his best. I've read it so many times and it always holds my interest. I love the idea of Wolfe putting one over on the FBI. HA!

  11. I'm laughing, have lots to do, but keep being drawn like a magnet to the book. After I read, "he was like a fish. No one could get less out of a day. And these were the three promising ones." I was hooked.

    So, I totally understand the Nero Wolfe binges. I would love to do this except I have 5 more library books due soon I haven't opened, 2 friends' books I had started reading, one for my History challenge (Ariana Franklin), the other for Vintage challenge, and have 5 I bought for global challenges, and I must catch up.

    So resist I must, Wolfe and Goodwin, you will be there in a few months. And then I'll binge up to my earlobes -- oy, except the library doesn't have many copies. So to the Abe Books I must go.

  12. Kathy: I'm so glad you're enjoying your Wolfe break. :) Stout had a great sense of humor and he knew his characters inside and out. Archie and Wolfe will be waiting for you - no rush. :)

  13. I loaned a friend "The Doorbell Rang," a few days ago. She is not acquainted with Wolfe, Goodwin and the gang.

    She told me that someone on the subway saw her with this book, and mentioned that she was very lucky not to have read any Nero Wolfe books yet, so she could look forward to reading them for the first time. That reader had read them and wished that he could start fresh.

    I didn't mention that several fans go on "binges," and reread them, but I'll tell her after she's read this one.

  14. Kathy: Yeah, we're pretty 'bingey' around here. Ha! It's good that you're passing around the Wolfe books as you read them. So, how did you like the ending of THE DOORBELL RANG? Wasn't it a howl? Hoover on the doorstep. HA!

  15. Right! That's the ending. It was a very good ending.

    I liked the book fine, especially the wit. I can always be won over by wit. And there is no stress reading the book. It is relaxing and fun -- and well-written, or should I say well-crafted.

    My only problem is that the library doesn't have too many books circulating about Archie and the gang, so I must figure out my budget.

    The ones that the library carries aren't books that you have recommended, although I need to locate a list again.

    I can tell that these books will be good for a vacation afternoon during the dog days of summer, when off to an air-conditioned place, getting iced tea and reading, with nary a care in the world -- and laughs and fun.

    I can see why fans have binges. There really is no substitute for these books. They are classics. Even though there are many good books around, and series which I like and have humor, these are their own genre in and of themselves.

    I wish this library system didn't put so many books out of circulation, but right now there is a movement just to save the libraries, staffs, programs, so I can't complain about this.

  16. Yeah, it's hard, Kathy, when you're on a budget. I am on a very strict one, so I understand. I'm lucky in that I bought my Nero Wolfe paperbacks many years ago when a local bookstore went out of business.

    Do the best you can, you'll eventually get to them. And of course, you're right, these books are in a niche of their own. That's what makes them so special.

  17. And I guess I should look for Murder by the Book, Plot it Yourself, Fer-de-Lance and Too Many Clients.

    Those are the ones I'll try to find at the library at Abe Books used, and as you suggested, to try to find multiple books in one volume.


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