Rex Stout: The Silent Speaker

thesilentspeaker

‘For God’s sake. As if this case wasn’t enough of a mess already. All it needed to make it a carnival was Nero Wolfe, and by God here he is.’

I’ve been meaning to dip into Rex Stout for several years without getting around to him, an omission probably explained by the scarcity of his books in second-hand bookshops in the UK. The stats say Stout wrote 33 novels and 39 novellas and short stories from 1934 to 1975, but like John Dickson Carr, he rarely seems to turn up in shops I visit.

So the result is that The Silent Speaker is my first Stout. Let’s see what I thought…

Stout’s sleuth Nero Wolfe is a corpulent genius who can rarely be seen outside his New York brownstone. He investigates crime largely for financial motives, and devotes his spare time to the cultivation of orchids. His legwork is performed by his vigorous sidekick Archie Goodwin, who is the hard-boiled foil to Wolfe’s Golden Age eccentric dilettante.

archie-and-nero1

Maury Chaykin as Nero Wolfe and Timothy Hutton as Archie Goodwin in an early 2000s TV adaptation

In The Silent Speaker, they find themselves short of cash, so Wolfe initiates what Goodwin calls Operation Payroll. He sends Goodwin to poke around the edges of a recent murder until the authorities and the suspects believe he is already involved, then sweeps in and picks up a client: The National Industrial Association.

…the public, the people, had immediately brought the case to trial as usual, without even waiting for an arrest, and instead of the customary prolonged disagreement and dissension regarding various suspects, they reached an immediate verdict. Almost unanimously they convicted – this was the peculiar fact – not an individual, but an organization. The verdict was that the National Industrial Association had murdered Cheney Boone.

Cheney Boone, Director of the Bureau of Price Regulation, has been killed in an anteroom at the Waldorf-Astoria before giving a speech. Instead he is bludgeoned to death with one of his props, a wrench. Nobody – neither the immediate thing of suspects nor the audience of 1500 business people gathered to hear the speech, has an alibi. The case is almost impossible to solve.

‘What can genius do with this confounded free-for-all? A thousand people, all with motive and opportunity, and the means at hand!’

The investigation kicks off with one of those scenes where all the suspects are gathered together – which usually happens at the end – and the sheer number of them is emphasised by the difficulty of gathering enough chairs together. The members of the National Industrial Association certainly had motive enough to kill the crusading Boone, and their executive committee looks suspicious enough, especially the slimy Don O’Neill, whom Goodwin tags as a vacuum cleaner salesman. However, Boone’s immediate circle may also hide a suspect. What about the new temporary head of the BPR, Solomon? Or was he having an affair with his gorgeous PA Phoebe Gunther – sparking the jealousy of weedy researcher Alger Kates? They’re all possible, and neither the police nor Wolfe’s team manage to turn up any physical evidence. Towards the end, Wolfe pulls off an outrageous trick to catch the killer. It’s so outrageous that Goodwin is actually embarrassed.

I enjoyed the relationship between Wolfe and his not-so-admiring ‘Watson’ Archie Goodwin. They’re is respect there, but also a painful awareness of each other’s weaknesses, and a near-constant prickle of annoyance.

What Wolfe tells me, and what he doesn’t tell me, never depends, as far as I can make out, on the relevant circumstances. It depends on what he had to eat at the last meal, what he is going to have to eat at the next meal,the kind of shirt and tie I am wearing, how well my shoes are shined, and so forth. He does not like purple.

Handling all those suspects meant that The Silent Speaker gets off to something of a slow start, but the story seemed to pick up in the second half with another murder (plus I found myself falling into the rhythm of Goodwin’s narrative a little more). By the end I was enjoying myself thoroughly. I’ll definitely read more Stout.

The Silent Speaker
Rex Stout
First published by the Viking Press, 1947
This edition Fontana Books 1970
192 pages
Source: Simon Finch, Holt

I am submitting this title to the 1947 Club, a challenge co-hosted by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Stuck in a Book.


See also:

Brash Books – Writing Nero WolfeAny avid reader of the Stout books soon discovers that there are three ways Wolfe will solve a mystery:

a) Wolfe either calls, mails, or in some other way contacts all the suspects and accuses each one of being the murderer, then waits for one of them to expose him or herself by either trying to steal or retrieve a key piece of evidence — or trying to kill Archie, Wolfe, or some other person Wolfe has set up as bait.

b) Wolfe sends his operative Saul or Orrie to retrieve some piece of evidence that is with-held from Archie (and, by extension, all of us) and revealed in the finale to expose the killer.

c) Wolfe uses actual deduction.

About pastoffences

Past Offences exists to review classic crime and mystery books, with ‘classic’ meaning books originally published before 1987.
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12 Responses to Rex Stout: The Silent Speaker

  1. So glad you enjoyed your first glass of Stout, Rich 🙂 – I think Nero Wolfe is a terrific character, and i’t nice to know he made a good impression on you.

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  2. lesblatt says:

    Very glad you finally got to read and enjoy a Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin story. While you’re looking for other titles, keep an eye out for “The Doorbell Rang.” Or maybe “Murder by the Book.” Or “Some Buried Caesar.” Wolfe may be the genius detective, but it’s Archie’s voice that keeps me coming back for more.

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  3. Glad you enjoyed this Rich – the series is great fun and the TV series with Tim Hutton superb.

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  4. tracybham says:

    I was holding my breath to see if you liked this. I love the series, but I started reading them in my teens, and my love for them could be part sentimentality. I have reread all them multiple times. I agree with all the comments above. The next one I read will be Over My Dead Body. The Silent Speaker is one of my favorites, because I like Phoebe Gunther.

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  5. Brad says:

    I had a run with Stout many years ago and enjoyed them. There’s not much continuation here, so I hasten to recommend the three novels that DO form a continued series. These are the ones that feature Wolfe’s own Moriarty, crime boss Arnold Zeck. In order, they are And Be a Villain, The Second Confession, and In the Best Families.

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  6. I read a *lot* of Stout back in the day, and loved the sparky relationship between Wolfe and Archie. I never see his books about nowadays, which is a great shame…

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  7. Simon T says:

    A great contribution to the club, thank you! I’ve been meaning to read some Stout for years.

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  8. Jason Half says:

    Glad you enjoyed your first Nero Wolfe book out of the gate! Rex Stout was an author that took me about a half dozen titles before I started to appreciate the tonal mix of hard-boiled (or wise-cracking) and mystery puzzle and the relationship between Wolfe and Archie. Reading them as a teen, it offered a much less evocative and intriguing landscape than the British cosies provided. Looking at them through adult eyes, I can really appreciate the nimble use of bureaucracy — so very many crimes taking place at businesses or involving board meetings! — and the relative realism of Archie’s navigating Manhattan and Westchester County.

    Thanks for the review — it was great to read your views —-

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  9. Noah Stewart says:

    Glad to know you enjoyed The Silent Speaker, which actually is one of the best novels in the series. Once every five or seven years I go through them all from start to finish, and they never fail to delight.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I haven’t read this one, but have always enjoyed the ones I have read. I read them randomly, no attempt at taking them in order. Will add this one to my list…

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