Friday, July 8, 2016

MIGHT AS WELL BE DEAD (1956) by Rex Stout


Nero Wolfe, the rotund genius of detection and his wise-cracking henchman, Archie Goodwin, must outrun the clock to save a wrongly convicted man from the electric chair.

This is my favorite Nero Wolfe book - I've lost track of how many times I've read it. And mind you, I've read all 33 Nero Wolfe books and as many of the novellas and short stories as I could find and in general am extremely fond of them all. Though of course, I have a whole list of special favorites, but MIGHT AS WELL BE DEAD is the novel I turn to more often than not when I'm in the mood for a Wolfe re-read. This particular story just never gets old for me. And it is so well set up by Stout.

The plot:

James R. Herrold, a stiff-necked hardware businessman from Nebraska hires Wolfe to find his son. The young man was given a raw deal years before and the family wants to make it up to him. Paul Herrold was accused of embezzling a large amount from his father's firm and immediately kicked out of hearth and home. But come to find out, years later, the boy has been proven innocent by circumstances which don't concern us except that they have led his father to travel to NY. Paul has sent Christmas and birthday cards to his mother and sisters postmarked NYC each year since his disgrace, so apparently that is where he dwells. Wolfe almost immediately deduces that he must be living under an assumed name.

Now, at the moment, there is a murder trial going on in the city. The victim was a man of somewhat shady background who was married to a beautiful young woman who should have known better. At any rate, she (coming to her senses rather late in the day) is assumed to have been involved with a certain Peter Hays, a young advertising copywriter who had fallen for her and it is he, who is now on trial facing conviction for the murder of her husband. The evidence seems overwhelming, including the fact that Hays was found at the scene of the crime with the murder weapon in his pocket AND was foolish enough to get into a scuffle with the cops. He has since refused to cooperate with the police, his attorney or anyone else who desires to know what, when, where and why. In fact, he refuses to speak at all or help in any way with his defense.

Not for nothing are we fans of whodunits and detective fiction; with this set-up, you know what happens next.

Turns out that Peter Hays is none other than the aforementioned and much maligned Paul Herrold of Nebraska. And here he is again, years later, once again done in for a crime he hasn't committed. We learn that bit of truth rather quickly but that's what we would expect once Wolfe decides that Paul Herrold and Peter Hays must be one and the same - a guy who if he didn't have bad luck wouldn't have any luck at all.

Once Hays is convicted (just a few pages into the story), the rush is on (without his cooperation) to find out what actually happened.

The case itself was initially put together by Inspector Cramer (head of NYC Police Homicide Division) and his men. They do not take it very well that their work has apparently convicted an innocent man. Cramer is an old favorite around the 35th street brownstone and when he shows up, sparks generally fly. It is to his credit though, that he recognizes Wolfe's rather annoying bouts of brilliance and even if they are not friends, they are not exactly enemies - both working for the same side.

"Cramer's sharp gray eyes, surrounded by crinkles, were leveled at Wolfe's brown ones. He was not amused. On previous, occasions, during a murder investigation, he had found Wolfe a thorn in his hide and a pain in his neck, but this was the first time it had ever happened after it had been wrapped up by a jury.

"I am familiar," he said, "with the evidence that convicted Hays. I collected it, or my men did."

"Pfui. It didn't have to be collected. It was there."

"Well, we picked it up..."

Since the solution to the crime had seemed at first glance to be self-explanatory and Peter Hays such a convenient murder suspect, it's hard to blame Cramer for accepting him as a gift to be quickly brought to trial. But still - once Wolfe gets on the case, it becomes obvious that the crime was never investigated as thoroughly as it might have been.

And once the case is re-opened, more murders occur as a ruthless killer is frightened into desperation.

What I like best about this particular book:

Some of the chit chat between Wolfe and Archie:

"...Did you get anything?"

"I don't know." I sat. "She's either a featherbrain or a damn good imitation. She starts every other sentence with 'Oh' You'd walk out on her in three minutes. She drinks four parts ginger ale and one part gin."

"No."

"Yes."

"Good heavens. Did you?"

"No. But I had to watch her..."

One of several pithy Archie observations:

Tom Irwin, with his dark skin and think little clipped mustache, looked more like a saxophone artist than a printing executive, even while holding his wife's hand. His wife, Fanny, was obviously not at her best, with her face giving the impression that she was trying not to give in to a raging headache, but even so she was no eyesore. Under favorable conditions she would have been very decorative. She was a blonde, and a headache is much harder on a blonde than on a brunette; some brunettes are actually improved by a mild one.

And of course, the gang's all here: Fritz and Saul and Fred and Orrie and Johnny.

But in addition, Peter Hays' lawyer Albert Freyer (who believes fervently in his hapless client's innocence) is a stand out. As is Peter Hays himself, a sad lumpkin of a dejected fall guy - someone who has been so badly knocked about by life, one hardly blames him for being a gloomy gus. (Though if I were him I'd wonder what it was about myself that had caused me TWICE to be wrongly accused and convicted of crimes.)

I also like that Wolfe's lawyer/friend Nathaniel Parker plays a larger than normal role. AND, last but not least, I like that there's more than one murder to liven up events. Though one of the murders hits too close to home for Wolfe and Archie and adds a personal impetus to the search for a vicious murderer.

A proviso: the truth is that the initial crime unravels very briskly once the killer makes a stupid mistake and one wonders that the cops could have been so ham-handed in following up on certain rather evident inferences. But I guess when fate is kind enough to hand you an on-scene, practically caught-in-the-act murderer, the rest is duck soup, investigation wise.

All in all, a more than terrific book which I do not think I'll ever grow tired of re-reading.

Since it's Friday, (and Rex Stout Day) don't forget to check in at author Patricia Abbott's blog, Pattinase, to see what other forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today. 


20 comments:

  1. I haven't read this one in quite a while, Yvette, so I am sure I would enjoy a reread. It is a very clever book. I like Nathaniel Parker also, and the doctor who lives nearby who helps out sometimes. It is always interesting when they show up.

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    1. Everyone living on one block makes it handy. I love that brownstone. Just the sort of place I'd live in if I could. :) Though I don't know about all that yellow.

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  2. I think my favorite is The Doorbell Rang, but it's hard to choose just one!

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    1. That is another of my very favorites, Gram. I also love one of the very early ones: THE RED BAND.

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    2. Jeez. Not THE RED BAND - it's THE RUBBER BAND.

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    3. HA! I was wondering if you'd catch that. I thought, "Which does she mean THE RED BOX or THE RUBBER BAND?" I'll have to read that one next. It's one of the few hardcover edition Wolfe books I have -- and I put them all in one easy to find place!

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    4. My reply thing seems out of whack, but as long as I can read your comments and you can read my replies, we're good. :)

      Mine are all in one place too, John. I'm not the most organized person in the world, heaven knows - but I can lay my hand on a Nero Wolfe book in two seconds flat.

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  3. Excellent. It's been years since I read it and now I want to read it again. Thanks!

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    1. Thanks, Richard. You're welcome.

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  4. "Though if I were him I'd wonder what it was about myself that had caused me TWICE to be wrongly accused and convicted of crimes"

    Count yourself lucky never to have been the target of a malicious person. Often there are nasty people out there who accuse innocent people simply because they don't like them often having nothing to do with anything the accused person has done or said. I speak from experience as both an observer of this and as a target.

    The more I read of Stout the more I enjoy Archie's slangy way of talking and describing people and Wolfe's intolerance for almost everything under the sun. As a kid this kind of stuff was lost on me. As a crotchety 50+ year old it makes me smile or laugh out loud. I really get Nero Wolfe now because I have a low tolerance for nearly everything under the sun, too! For me Stout is not exactly a consistent mystery plotter. That's probably why I'll never be as big as a fan as you are. Still, Archie, Wolfe and the whole gang are growing on me. There is hope...as you might say. :^D

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    1. Malicious people will be with us eternally, kind of like cockroaches and rats.

      I understand Wolfe better myself, John, now that I'm a crotchety old lady. But I've always liked him - it was Archie that I had to get used to over time.

      Inconsistent murder plots don't bother me as much as they do you, John. Possibly because I'm a woman. HA! Couldn't help myself.

      These books are all about the guys - I don't even like Lily Rowan.

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  5. Unthinkable as it might be, our public library has not a single Rex Stout novel on its shelves. But this one I must have, and if it's on Kindle it soon will be on my laptop. Thanks for the delightful, as usual, review, Yvette.

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    1. Yeah, libraries don't. I don't understand it myself. People still read Rex Stout. But I'll bet it's because people would rather buy the Nero Wolfe books than borrow them. Maybe. Glad you enjoyed the review, thanks.

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  6. i first read the canon in my teens and was totally swept away into a new world; i was and am just nuts about archie and nero, although i haven't gone back to the brownstone in quite a few years; many thanks for bringing back wonderful memories and reminding me of some of the good things in this life... I remember "The Black Mountain" best, although all 33 of them are just great....

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    1. Thanks, Mudpuddle. Maybe one of these days you'll begin reading them again.

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  7. Oh, gosh, this is one Nero Wolfe book I haven't read and will read it over the summer. Miss the gang in the brownstone a stone's throw from my apartment building.

    I first began reading the Wolfe canon in my teen years, as my father liked them and recommended the books. Probably because they were witty and fun and basically nonviolent. Then years later, I read about the dynamic duo and their entourage right here and I was inspired to plow into the series again and I did.

    But I still have books to read and will do so this summer.

    Glad you are still rereading and enjoying Wolfe and his coterie.

    I could surely enjoy living in a West Side brownstone, but without all the yellow (certainly no yellow pajamas). I'd like a garden and a chef, too, but I wouldn't hassle him or her about how many juniper berries to put in a dish, as Wolfe does. And I'd have rescued dogs and cats, which I am sure Wolfe would never do. He has to be the center of attention at all moments, even when a perpetrator is in the hot seat.

    Even thinking about that brownstone full of private detectives, cops and suspects makes me smile. I thank my father for bringing me up to appreciate these books and this blog for re-involving me in Wolfe and Goodwin's adventures and dialogues -- priceless.

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    1. Thank you so much, Kathy. I'm glad my blog spurred you into rereading the Wolfe books. They are certainly worth it. Your father sounds like he was a special man. Unfortunately, my parents were basically non-readers and where my love of books comes from, I don't know. Unless it was the fact that I had a few fabulous teachers in my early school days and first got my library card in first grade when my teacher took us to the library.

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  8. By the way, I binge-watched season one of Grace and Frankie over the weekend. I loved it. Will hover at Netflix and the library website, waiting for season two.

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    1. Glad you liked it, Kathy. I'm waiting for the third season.

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  9. On becoming a bookworm, I got my library card at three, youngest ever in the library used by people in Greenwich Village.
    My father read constantly, my mother sometimes. So, I read good books, adult books starting at 13 reading Upton Sinclair's The Jungle.
    And he read a huge variety of books, but loved mysteries. He introduced me to Sherlock Holmes first, of course.
    And he liked humor, so the Wolfe books fit the bill. Also, I'm sure he liked Rex Stout's politics on most issues, another factor.
    The problem with my reading was that I loved to read and was late to high school because I'd be up late reading good books, and I couldn't bear to stop reading. Still have those habits -- a night owl who reads until all hours.
    My father loved British wit. I was thinking the other day about his reading P.D. Wodehouse and he'd reread Tom Jones every three years. And he loved Monty Python, even the wacky Peter Sellers.

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