A group of bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and each publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’ve now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer every month; Tuesdays in January will be devoted to Rex Stout. Stout’s stories about Nero Wolfe are called by fans the corpus and I’ll use that locution here.
WARNING: This book is a classic work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this book, although the identity of the murderer and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own.
Prisoner’s Base (1952): A Nero Wolfe Mystery
What is this book about?
It’s an average day in the brownstone: Wolfe and Archie have recently been squabbling about a lack of work, and there is tension in the air. While Wolfe is in the plant rooms, a good-looking young woman arrives. Perhaps she’s a prospective client, but she’s … eccentric. She knows enough about the routine at the brownstone to arrive when Archie is alone, she doesn’t want to reveal her name, and she wants to pay $50 a day to rent the south room for a week. While she’s locked in the south room awaiting Wolfe’s disposition, an elegant lawyer arrives and offers Wolfe $5,000 to find a young woman named Priscilla Eads who is about to turn 25; next week she will assume ownership of a ten million dollar corporation, Softdown Towels. Perry Helmar shows Wolfe photographs of Priscilla Eads that reveal her to be — the lady in the south room.
Easy money, right? But Wolfe does feel a small responsibility to the young lady whom Archie is championing. Instead of turning Priscilla over to the lawyer, he offers her two choices. Either she can pay him $10,000 for not turning her over to the lawyer while she enjoys a week in the south room, or she can have a head start until tomorrow morning, when he will talk to Perry Helmar, the lawyer. Priscilla chooses the head start, takes her bags, and leaves in a frosty temper.
The next morning, before Wolfe’s self-imposed deadline expires, Inspector Cramer arrives and informs Archie that two murders occurred last night. One was the murder of one Margaret Fomos, whose bag and keyring were missing. She worked as a maid at the home of Priscilla Eads. The other murder was that of Priscilla Eads.
I’ll try to tell you very little beyond this point; I think you’ll want to read this book, and I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment. Suffice it to say that when Wolfe learns that Archie is being questioned about Priscilla’s murder, he leaves the brownstone and travels to the police station to spring his assistant. You know it’s serious when Wolfe has to leave the house for any reason. I’ll say that one of the murders in this story brings Archie as close to being emotionally affected by his work as you will ever see him. And Wolfe performs one of the greatest feats of ratiocination in the corpus. Hell, anywhere in Golden Age detection, which I’ll speak about below. The story ends in a very satisfying way and Archie has an opportunity to discharge his accumulated emotional upsets with a display of his strength and physical prowess.
For years, that’s how I thought the book ended, rather abruptly but satisfyingly. Then I learned that there’s a final very brief chapter that ties everything together beautifully that appeared in the first edition and then was omitted from most paperback editions, probably accidentally. You can find it at this link provided thoughtfully by the Wolfe Pack, just one of the many reasons to be grateful to this fan organization’s diligence and scholarship.
Why is this book worth your time?
To begin with, if you’re at all interested in being entertained by detective fiction, this is a Nero Wolfe novel and you should have read it already. So there’s that. ;-) The Nero Wolfe corpus is of such a uniformly high standard of intelligence and good writing that I was unable to do my usual “five most favourite/five least favourite” — because I don’t have any least favourites. They’re all great books, and every five or ten years I re-read the corpus just to remind myself of what great books they are.
Is this my most favourite episode in the corpus? That takes a little explanation. Some years ago I was involved in an online colloquium about the corpus where people contributed e-mails to a round-robin discussion of each of the books in chronological order for three weeks. (Something not unlike the Tuesday Night Bloggers.) I volunteered to moderate a discussion of this particular volume — which may be better known to some under its British title, Out Goes She — and I can’t remember taking anything so seriously for a long while. I read and re-read that book exhaustively and produced an enormous amount of material about various of its themes, including the role of women in 1952 American society (touched on here in the business sense), the language of the book, Archie Goodwin as seen within the Romantic tradition, etc. I probably produced more words that week to prompt discussion than there are in the book! So it’s not perhaps my absolute favourite, but it is the one I know forwards and backwards.
This is not the most dramatic book Stout ever wrote, to be sure. Most Rex Stout fans have other books that they prefer, frequently ones like The Doorbell Rang or what’s known as the Zeck Trilogy. Honestly, I find those a little tiny bit overwrought. For me, Archie and Wolfe are at their best on a small, intimate scale, solving human problems for human beings; gangsters and government take away that intimacy and make the actions ring less true. This story has always rung very true for me, pretty much because it’s one of the few times that Archie actually cares about a female suspect. He flirts with them, he teases them, he romances them, but it’s clear that he regards their confidences to be Wolfe’s property and their favour to be entirely temporary. Here, Archie has a strange relationship with an attractive woman involved in the case because she is neurotic, and he seems to somehow understand her neurosis and be able to work with it where no one else can. They are forming the beginnings of an adult relationship that may actually extend beyond the confines of this volume … if it weren’t for the fact that she becomes the third victim. And Archie gives full rein to his full romantic self. Not romantic in the sense of hearts and flowers, but Don Quixote tilting at windmills.
This is Archie at his best. He feels his actions have put all the victims in danger, concatenating from his refusal to fight harder to hide Priscilla Eads in the south room for a week, and now he’s in a cold fury trying to make it up to the corpses by cooperating with the police. This is an Archie whom we do not often see. It has occasionally happened that his attractive female clients have been murdered before his eyes (Bess Huddleston, for instance); this is the one time he takes it to heart and allows his emotions to guide his actions. For me it’s a challenging moment in the corpus and one that shows Archie at an extreme. And yet the writing is so smooth and clear that it carries you along; the process for the reader is that we hear Archie’s interior monologue and his exterior interactions, and we realize what he’s not telling people (if we’re paying attention). You have to deduce what Archie is feeling, and not necessarily by paying attention to what he’s saying. I enjoy that process.
Another reason I like this book a lot is that, as I said above, Wolfe performs one of his greatest feats of deduction, worthy of John Dickson Carr or Ellery Queen. And again, it’s so beautifully written, and so clear, that you don’t realize how clever it is. It’s what I call a third-level clue format.
At the first level of such logic is what I’ll call the Murder, She Wrote solution. This is where Jessica notes, as the one and only necessary clue to solve the mystery, that one suspect says something that reveals knowledge that only the murderer can have; that structure repeats again and again in the M,SW archives. That’s a positive clue. For an example of level two, I’ve written recently about one of the Thin Man films, The Thin Man Goes Home, in which the murderer does something ordinary but the fact that it is done in an ordinary way reveals that he knows that the second victim is already dead. This is a negative clue; you have to realize what didn’t happen.
The present case is, for me, one of the few examples of level three, the equivalent of the logic that underlies a mystery at the level of Ellery Queen’s The Chinese Orange Mystery or John Dickson Carr’s The Crooked Hinge … telling you about it would spoil it, and for many readers it just sneaks right under their radar. Essentially the reader is operating under a misapprehension as to why and when something happens, and it’s only when Wolfe realizes what could have happened that he is able to solve the case. I have to add that this is not a locked-room mystery, or more than glancingly the same as the Byzantine murder plots that underlie Carr and Queen et al. What I’m saying here is that there is not really a central clue that is broken and thereby reveals the solution; instead Wolfe has to examine all the suppositions that underlie what is “known” about the case, and when he finds one that is not as assured as it seems, that that leads him to the solution. You and everyone else will overlook the supposition that is not what it seems, and that’s why this is so hard to solve. And Wolfe (with Stout’s connivance) makes it all look simple.
This is Wolfe at his best. He is grumpy and irascible here, but he also demonstrates a great deal of regard for Archie. Although I have to admit that Wolfe does actually leave the house quite often, this is one of the times that he does it in order to rescue Archie, and those are few and far between.
So: Wolfe at his best, Archie at his best, an intimate plot, an astonishing puzzle and a surprising solution. Definitely worth your time, and a good book with which to introduce people to the brownstone.