Friday, January 12, 2018

Friday Forgotten (or Overlooked) Book: TRIPLE ZECK by Rex Stout

Three Full Length Novels: AND BE A VILLAIN, THE SECOND CONFESSION and IN THE BEST FAMILIES.

I'm rereading the Arnold Zeck trilogy in handy-dandy omnibus form. The copywrites are 1948, 49 and 50 so it looks as if they were published one after the other - sounds like a trilogy to me. As many of you know, I am an enthusiastic Nero Wolfe fan-girl and as such, I am constantly re-reading my favorites in the canon and it's probably no big surprise that I will now and then write about them. However, I do try not to go overboard. Ha.

Who is Arnold Zeck?

Well, as Wolfe grimly warns his aide-de-camp Archie Goodwin - Zeck is a dangerous man, someone not to be trifled with. In fact Archie is to forget he ever heard the name. Wolfe says if he  were to involve himself in a case which even peripherally had anything to do with Zeck, he, [Wolfe] might have to leave the brownstone and go into hiding.

Archie doesn't believe him, but it turns out to be true.

It also turns out that the greenhouse on the roof of the brownstone is vulnerable to machine gun fire.

Worse yet, it also turns out that Wolfe might have to go on a diet!

And I won't even mention what Lily Rowan is asked to do.

Zeck is 'the napoleon of crime'. He is Wolfe's Moriarity. His nemesis. His arch enemy. And as we all know, any brilliant detective worth his salt must have an arch enemy.

"It's the Zeck with the place in Westchester, of course."

"Yes. I should have signaled 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 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 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."

An aside: I think I vaguely remember Zeck's name being brought up in a novel or novella involving a chess champion who dies during a tournament, but I'm not sure. Maybe not. At any rate, I hope any Wolfe experts out there will set me straight.  Zeck does say in the first phone call in AND BE A VILLAIN that he's called Wolfe twice before.

Anyway, to that first book in the trilogy:


AND BE A VILLAIN (1948)

A man named Cyril Orchard, publisher of a horse racing almanac, dies on the air while drinking the sponsor's product during a live radio talk show. Naturally every one is perturbed - most especially, the sponsor, Hi-Spot Beverages.

At the same time, back at the brownstone, Nero Wolfe is facing a pesky income tax bill. He needs a case with the likelihood of a fee high enough to please the tax man. So he brilliantly insinuates himself (as only Wolfe can) into the case of the dead talk show guest.

This particular mystery has a lively cast of characters for Archie and Wolfe to interact with which is always fun. There's the opinionated show's host, Madeleine Fraser and her array of minions: the on-air side-kick Bill Meadows, the friend and business manager (and former sister-in-law) Deborah Koppel plus a couple of sponsor's representatives and other concerned broadcasting pros. Not to mention, Nancylee Shepherd, teenage president of Fraser's fan-club who is allowed to hang out and be a kind of general dogsbody."She wears socks!" - and is fond of the word, 'utterly.'

As we get deeper into the story and upon further questioning of witnesses it begins to look as if the poison ingested by Cyril Orchard might have originally been meant for Madeleine Fraser herself, so the case has to be turned around and looked at from a different angle. Confusing for the cops, but right up Wolfe's alley.

However, during the course of the investigation Wolfe unknowingly steps on Arnold Zeck's toe, hence the warning phone call. But due to Wolfe's dexterous handling of a most difficult case, the end result is satisfactory for all (well, except for the killer) and Wolfe is not forced to go into hiding at this particular point in time.

Second book in the trilogy:


THE SECOND CONFESSION (1949)

James Sperling, a well-known industrialist hires Wolfe to find out if his daughter Gwenn's intended fiance, attorney Louis Rony, is a communist. Gwenn is a stubborn girl and prefers to do her own vetting of her own boyfriends and resents that her mom and pop are being difficult about a man she  may or may not marry.

Archie goes undercover to Sperling's Westchester estate where a house party is in progress. His mission: to dig around in general and in particular make himself appealing to Gwenn in the hopes of diverting her attention. He is Archie Goodwin, after all.

Eager to search Louis Rony's room for any evidence of communist nefariousness, Archie prepares a Mickey Finn cocktail to put the suspected communist out of action for a few hours. But the sleight of hand goes wrong when Rony pours his doctored cocktail into a nearby plant and instead, Archie mistakenly drinks a second Mickey-Finn cocktail also intended for Rony. Someone else at the house party has his or her own plan for Gwenn's boyfriend.  Not only will Archie feel very foolish, but he will spend a very unpleasant twelve or so hours the following day wishing he had never set foot in  Sperling's mansion.

Back at the office, Wolfe gets another phone call from Arnold Zeck. This time, the crime king-pin is a bit more perturbed than he was in the previous case. Wolfe is to leave Rony alone. Period. But when Wolfe demurs, an atrocious attack is carried out on the brownstone. Zeck doesn't fool around.

Wolfe then does the unthinkable: at risk of life and limb, he actually leaves the brownstone on business to travel by car (Archie driving of course) to Westchester to pay a call on his client.

A bit later, when Rony turns up dead on the grounds of the Sperling estate and Archie is roped in as the main suspect, all bets are off. Wolfe is prepared to do what he must. In fact, in a crazy turn of events, Zeck tries to hire Wolfe to find out who killed Rony. Go figure.

The last and most incredible book in the Zeck trilogy:


IN THE BEST FAMILIES (1950)

Once Wolfe and Archie are hired by wealthy society heiress Sarah Rackham to investigate her younger husband Barry, events are set in motion which will lead to a Wolfe/Zeck collision. At first it's just a case of finding out where Mrs. Rackham's hubby gets the wherewithal to lead the lavish lifestyle he does. Since she doesn't give him an allowance and he has no visible means of support, she wonders where exactly his money is coming from. Despite her cousin Calvin Leeds, a dog trainer, who urges caution, Mrs. Rackham goes to see Wolfe.

"...you ought to stop trembling if you can. It makes Mr. Wolfe uneasy when a woman trembles because he thinks she's going to be hysterical, and he might not listen to you. Take a deep breath and try to stop."

"You were trembling all the way down here in the car," the man said in a mild baritone.

"I was not!" she snapped. That settled, she turned to me. "this is my cousin, Calvin Leeds. He didn't want me to come here, but I brought him along anyhow. Where's Mr. Wolfe?"

I indicated the door to the office, went and opened it, and ushered them in. 

I have never figured out Wolfe's grounds for deciding whether or not to get to his feet when a woman enters his office. If they're objective they're too complicated for me and if they're subjective I wouldn't know where to start. This ime he kept his seat behind his desk in the corner near the window, merely nodding and murmuring when I pronounced names. I thought for a second that Mrs. Rackham was standing gazing at him in reproach for his bad manners, but then I saw it was just surprised disbelief that he could be that big and fat. I'm so used to the quantity of him that I'm apt to forget ow he must impress people seeing him for the first time. 

He aimed a thumb at the red leather chair beyond the end of his desk and muttered at her, "Sit down, madam."

...Mrs. Rackham spoke to Wolfe. "You couldn't very well go around finding out things. Could you?"

"I don't know," he said politely. "I haven't tried for years, and I don't intend to. Others go around for me." He gestured at me. "Mr. Goodwin, of course, and others as as required. You need someone to go around?"

She sure does and before too long, Mrs. Rackham will die along with her beloved dog. (A wretched scene.) This triggers Wolfe's disappearance from the brownstone leaving behind explicit instructions that Archie should not look for him. A bereft Archie and Fritz and Theodore must muddle through on their own without a hint from Wolfe.

This is a delightfully improbable book in which detection and coincidence go hand in hand. Certain things just happen in the course of Archie's trying to find his bearings and we must go along with them. Also near the end, we are asked to believe the unlikeliest of events, but hey, it's Nero Wolfe. Archie on his own manages just fine by the way, using his intelligence based on experience. And the endings are real eye-openers. Endings? Yes, there are two endings this time out.

By the way, you do not have to have read the first two books in the trilogy to read the third. The actions in the last Zeck book are not predicated on anything that happened in the first two. But it's still nice to read them in order of publication. Build up the tension, so to speak.

It's Friday once again and today, Todd Mason is doing hosting duties for author Patricia Abbott, at his blog, Sweet Freedom. Don't forget to check in to see what forgotten or overlooked books other bloggers are talking about today.

21 comments:

  1. What a wonderful post! Sometimes I think we two should meet at a mystery con and just talk for hours and hours.

    I have this collection and it's been WAY too long since I read it! I can see it's spine from where I sit. I love the Bantam covers you found for this post, I don't remember seeing them. But them I have a bunch of newer pb editions, plus s few omnibus editions. Yes, by golly, I'm going to put this on my TBR stack today!

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  2. I bet we would talk up a storm, Rick. :) Though my memory of books I've read now has to be jogged a bit here and there. I try to do without going to google, but to no avail. I read the Zeck trilogy all the way through every few years. Though my most favorite Wolfe book remains: MIGHT AS WELL BE DEAD which I read about twice a year. Thanks for the kind words.

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    1. Twice a year! I don't even recall the plot.

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    2. This is the book where one of Wolfe's men meets his maker. That's all I'll say. But I love the book.

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  3. I was just recently debating whether this group of three books featuring Zeck would be on my top ten list. I like the first one and the last one best (of those three), but it has been a while since I read them.

    I am going to have to read MIGHT AS WELL BE DEAD again soon, to see if I need to move it up to my top 10 list.

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    1. It's funny, Tracy, because PLOT IT YOURSELF and MURDER BY THE BOOK were my two favorites for a long while. But then MIGHT AS WELL BE DEAD usurped their place. I don't place the Zeck books on my Top Ten. But I still enjoy rereading them. Though I must say that that first one in the trilogy is a doozy.

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    2. Oh, and THE SILENT SPEAKER is high up there as well.

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  4. IN THE BEST FAMILIES has forever been my favorite Wolfe novel, not least because it represents the most radical departure from Stout's usual format, but also because--and there are many readers who'll argue this point with me--it's one of the relatively few fair-play novel-length whodunits in the corpus.

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    1. Really?? Even with all the coincidences? The last ending is gut-wrenching and the next to the last ending is nail-biting fun. And of course, Wolfe's resources - both mental and physical are mind-boggling.

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  5. years ago i was foolish enough to let this book(the triple above) slip out of my hands when i should have kept it and reread it. A lot. i'm very fond of Wolfe and his minions and i think i'll look for another copy; this was one of his best mini-series... tx for featuring it...

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    1. You're welcome, Mudpuddle. I think a used copy is easy enough to find online. At least, I hope so. :) I've had mine for a few years.

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  6. The Doorbell Rang is still my favorite. I almost forgot about this trilogy and think I might have to reread it soon. Thanks for the reminder.

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    1. That's one of my Top Ten books too, Gram - THE DOORBELL RANG, I mean.

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  7. Ack..Zeck!!! You've sold me, Yvette. I must read this trilogy! My problem lately is reading books recommended by fellow FFBers and then feeling odd about trying to review them. But...I cannot overlook these three books! Zeck!!!

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    1. No, you cannot overlook these three books. Definitely. :) I don't think anyone minds reviews of their recommendations - makes sense that if you like the book, you'd want to talk about it.

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  8. Well, I couldn't get the Zeck (love that name!) omnibus, so I downloaded the three Kindle versions.

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    1. Good. Anyway you can read Nero Wolfe is a good way. :)

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  9. Yvette, a delightful post and a very timely one for me. My wife and I are currently watching the Nero Wolfe TV series with Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton. As a big Nero fan, what did you think of those adaptations?

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    1. I liked the series well enough, Rick. Though I didn't see all of the episodes. But I didn't love them as much as other Wolfe fans did. Can't put my finger on why. I did love Maury Chaykin as Wolfe though - his facial expressions are priceless. And I love the guy who played Saul Panzer.

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  10. This was wonderful to read! Why do I have a bad feeling about the Families book? I know I haven't read it, and I think I stayed away because of something I read about it. The last time I read Stout was (I think) seven years ago, and the bulk of my reading was in the early 2000s. I was swept away. I listened to audiotapes and just loved the books.

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    1. Maybe you're mixing that up with A FAMILY AFFAIR? I wouldn't read it. It's the one book I only reread twice and would never bother with it again. To me, it was a totally unnecessary betrayal of Wolfe's devoted fans. But the rest of the books in the series are pretty wonderful - a few even rise to greatness. I reread my favorites several times a year and I never tire of them.

      In fact, I'm currently rereading IN THE BEST FAMILIES and enjoying it once again.

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