Friday, May 29, 2015

Cloak & Dagger #8

I read this for the 2015 Cloak and Dagger Mystery Reading Challenge

And Be a Villain – Rex Stout, 1948

Madeline Fraser, with her silver voice and charming manner, became a radio favorite in late 1940s Manhattan. On air one early April day, however, her guests toasted each other with a glass of Hi-Spot, “the soft drink you dream of.” Then, suddenly to everybody’s shock and horror, one of the guests gagged and keeled over dead. The smell of bitter almonds said “cyanide” to the doctors. And “murder” to Lt. Cramer of the Homicide Bureau.

But for a week the cops have gotten nowhere.

Private eye Nero Wolfe, whose curiosity in the case was piqued by the papers, decides to take the case. The more compelling reason, his assistant Archie Goodwin points out in his witty narration, lies in the grim necessity of paying Wolfe’s tax bill of $20,000 (in today’s money, about $197K) to the IRS.

While Wolfe tricks the Police Department into doing most of the legwork, he sends Archie out on assignments related to both the business side and detecting side of the agency. The slow progress of the case tries Archie’s patience. So he needles Wolfe in his subtle way.

"I have to talk with that girl. Go and bring her."
I had known it was coming. "Conscious?" I asked casually.
"I said with her, not to her. She must be able to talk. You could revive her after you get her here. I should have sent you in the first place, knowing how you are with young women."
"Thank you very much. She's not a young woman, she's a minor. She wears socks."
"Yes, sir."
"Get her."

The young woman turns out to be a quintessential bobby-soxer, dazzled by celebrity and tossing out slang that the word-loving Stout obviously enjoys parodying. “Mellow greetings, yookie dookie!” All of the characters, in fact, are well drawn.

To my mind, the post-WWII Wolfe novels are among the best, neither too long nor too convoluted or far-fetched. Unlike the first half-dozen or so Wolfe novels, there are no slow spots. Mystery critics Barzun and Taylor selected this one as one of four best Wolfe novels.

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