‘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.
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
First published by the Viking Press, 1947
This edition Fontana Books 1970
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.
Brash Books – Writing Nero Wolfe: Any 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.