I am immensely chuffed to be able to bring to you today the results of the spoiler-heavy discussion between myself and the erudite and phenomenally knowledgeable Noah Stewart of Noah’s Archives on the topic of Rex Stout’s thirteenth Nero Wolfe novel, And Be a Villain (1948). Hefty spoilers follow, so read on only if you are a) prepared or b) a daredevil badass who takes no truck with your “rules”, man.
Always keen to explore different ways to talk about books as I am, there’s yet another format to this: Noah and I spoke about it as best we could — we’re in different continents — via Facebook’s messenger function and I’ve edited the conversation into hopefully readable shape below. Once again, spoilers follow pretty quickly and with little warning, so here’s your last chance to opt out. Or, for a slightly more immersive analysis, Noah has now put up his own take over at his blog.
Right, let’s get into it…
I’m Noah Stewart, in British Columbia, Canada, and I’ve been dealing with murder mysteries ever since about 1979 when I got a job at the first mystery bookstore in Canada, and my specialty is the Golden Age — usually 1920-1940 but occasionally 1900-1950 or so.
I’m JJ; I live in London and I’ve been reading classic crime and detective fiction since about 1999. And my specialty is also the Golden Age, broadly 1920 – 1950.
And we’ve arranged to be here today — you in England, me in Canada — to talk about the Rex Stout novel And Be a Villain from 1948, also published as More Deaths Than One in the UK.
Indeed we have. In full spoiler fashion, too, so be prepared for names to be named and details to be detailed.
Oh yes, very very IMPORTANT. We’re going to talk about whodunnit and name names. So did you read it as More Deaths Than One?
No, I have the Kindle edition as ABaV. I didn’t even know there was a vt.
I looked up the quotes from which the titles are taken.
ABaV is Hamlet, I knew that before going in…
Hamlet: “One can smile and smile, and be a villain”
But the UK title I think is even better: from Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol:
“For he who lives more lives than one, more deaths than one must die.”
Both of them actually refer to the murderer
but in different ways.
Okay, so straight up there’s an interesting point,
The epigram is presumably chosen by the author, one would assume.
But the essential idea behind those two choices is…wildly conflicting.
Well, here goes the no-spoilers policy. LOL. The murderer is Madeline Fraser, and she kills her blackmailer because she believes she’s been found out as the killer of her late husband.
And she’s a big radio star. So the two lives — there’s such a falsity about everyone sitting around that table pretending to like Starlite, the soft drink.
I mean, yes, she smiles and smiles and is a villain.
Is it Starlite in your book?
It’s Hi-Spot in mine…
Oh, Starlite in mine.
Come to think of it, I do remember Hi-Spot in the US Bantam edition, I think. I’m using a recent e-version.
Starlite, The Drink You Dream Of.
Did it become a real brand in the meantime?
Oh I suspect some clever-clogs editor just decided that something would sound more American to a British audience, or something.
That is less interesting but probably more correct.
Anyway — so we’ve just given away the basic plot.
Madeline Fraser is a big radio star and she’s being blackmailed.
So she invites the blackmailer on her chat show and feeds him cyanide…
But this is all set up aaaages in advance, it’s a very long-term plan.
There’s a whole bunch at the outset about the people who populate the radio show: her manager, her co-host, her sponsors.
All lovely red herrings.
I particularly liked how we were saved several chapters of establishment. You never witness the crime as the reader after four chapters of everything being played out for you, like Sayers or Marsh would do.
Oh yes, Stout is very good at that.
He drops Archie into situations BOOM and Archie has the gift of the gab.
Yeah, that pitch of Archie’s is…compelling!
Hahaha he’s SO good.
I should say that it’s my understanding that you have not read all the Wolfe books?
No, not even close. Maybe fifteen or so, and not for a long old time.
And I’ve read them all over and over.
I found a bunch secondhand when I was at uni, read most of them before I graduated.
And you didn’t get the bug? LOL
At the time I was very much into my modern American authors.
I actually bought them because I thought Stout was more contemporary than he turned out to be.
Ah, that’s the beauty of it. Wolfe and Archie (and Fritz and Theodore and Saul etc etc) never age, just that society changes around them.
Yeah, but I was more into Harlan Coben back then!
The first one, Fer-de-Lance is 1934.
And his last novel was 1975.
And there have been continuations since, haven’t there?
Oh, yes, many.
All by Robert Goldsborough, whom I hold in more esteem than apparently most.
Have you read all of those?
Well — two or three times each
Goldsborough was an advertising writer whose mother was an invalid and loved the Wolfe stories, so he wrote her one and one thing led to another and they published it. There are an even dozen, one of which I haven’t read.
Oh, well, there goes your weekend…
Hahaha very true.
Anyway the point is that — we talked about the micro level of the books.
The idea that in every single Wolfe piece, there is something about the daily routine of the brownstone, the relationship between Wolfe and Archie
the household and how it works,
the lunch menus, the name of the cleaner, what the furniture in the front room looks like.
Which, it strikes me now, could be literally any time-consuming hobby.
It makes no particular difference that it’s orchids, I mean. There seems nothing particularly Wolfeian about orchids
No, from what little we know of his background, most of which we know from The Black Mountain. I’m not sure why Stout picked that.
So there are little things that repeat over and over and over, like who gets to sit in the red leather chair, that don’t sound important until you’ve heard 60 explanations of who gets to sit in the red leather chair LOL.
Yeah, you wonder how much of that is stage managed off page, because Archie always knows even when Wolfe doesn’t deign to come down and talk to anyone until they’re all present.
Oh yes. Because he knows Wolfe’s ego makes him a showman.
Wolfe stage-manages the big reveal because he usually needs to convince his clients that he’s worth the huge sums he charges.
But is Archie always privy to the solution in advance?
Not at all. hardly ever, in fact, unless he grasps it himself.
But you think he’d spot a pattern at some point…!
LOL this is hard to explain. Archie knows that his job is (a) to find things out for Wolfe, and (b), perhaps just as important, make sure that Wolfe stays at work and doesn’t eat an entire sheep in a week.
So Archie colludes on presentations that make Wolfe look like the genius he is.
And Archie knows that Wolfe is especially interested in mystifying Archie. There’s a number of stories where he deliberately doesn’t tell him what’s going on.
Archie is his gadfly.
I seem to remember The Golden Spiders being like that. It was my first Wolfe and did not delight me for that very reason.
They have a very strange relationship. It doesn’t seem gay to me, but they are like an old married couple.
What I find especially interesting about that dynamic is how they are exceptionally unpleasant to each other at times — in this Archie describes himself “snarling” in Wolfe’s direction — but the tone is never as important as the words.
What they say is a big deal, but how it’s said makes no difference at all, if you follow me.
I think that’s very accurate.
Sometimes Wolfe deliberately hides information from Archie. For instance, Archie is in charge of the petty cash in the safe. If he sees that cash is missing, he knows that other detectives have been sent out to bribe people to get certain information.
But Wolfe doesn’t want to tell Archie he’s doing that.
There’s still that faith both ways, though — Wolfe knows Archie will do what he asks, and Archie always believes (in spite of what he may express) that Wolfe will solve it. A lot gets to remain unsaid that way. I like that.
Wolfe depends on Archie for verbatim recounting of conversations.
And Archie KNOWS Wolfe will solve it.
The reason Archie knows the lengths to which Wolfe will go is because of the third book in the Zeck trilogy, In the Best Families (the present volume being the first).
Now THAT one I won’t spoil — but it’s magnificent.
I remember it vaguely. Like most books I’ve read.
There’s a hint about it in this book, where Wolfe deliberately refuses to take on Zeck by mentioning his name to Inspector Cramer
Okay, so here’s a question about Zeck.
When Wolfe speaks to him on the phone in ABaV Zeck says “We’ve spoken twice before…” and then states two previous cases
Are they from previous books, do you know?
Yes, but that’s actually the first we hear of Zeck. Stout is making up backstory.
It’s worth it at the end of the trilogy.
It’s interesting because it points up that Zeck is the only actual organized criminal Wolfe ever goes up against even though his job is to catch criminals. None of Wolfe’s clients are involved with organized crime.
Is that uncommon in this era of American crime fiction, do you think? I get the impression that Marlowe and the Op had a lot of organised crime in their cases.
It leaves out the entire Black Mask school, and what we now call noir.
Even Perry Mason occasionally goes up against organized crime.
And Ross Macdonald, and Ross Thomas, and the Travis McGee dude.
But this is it for Wolfe. (Other than a story that features a gangster named Dazy Perrit, but that’s not about organized crime LOL). Though, come to think of it, at one point during WWII Wolfe tries to get black market food.
I think Wolfe is pre-eminent among private detectives who don’t take on organized crime. He solves family crimes.
Wolfe’s cases are all on a small scale. Even when they take place against large backgrounds, there’s usually only a handful or two of suspects. Like here. The studio is filled with people, but there’s only six or seven people who could have poisoned the soft drink.
On the subject of the studio, I find the lack of description interesting.
So, say, Max Afford in The Dead Are Blind spends three chapters telling us all about the newfangled radio studio extravaganza;
Here you’re told “There’s an audience too far away, a fridge somewhere, and a table”
Aah yes. It’s how Stout tells you it’s not important.
If Stout shows you something, it’s important to the plot.
I mean, in 1948 they must have known what a radio studio looked like, I guess.
Again, like with the opening, there’s that lack of ornamentation.
These are really short books, all of them. Dare I say Hemingwayesque in their lack of description
No, not Hemingway. There’s jokes.
Ahaha yes, that’s true. Well, Archie is such a good character
Stout caught his voice and never lost it.
I love the lack of precision in so much of what Archie says at times when any normal person would also be imprecise.
So, when he goes after Nancylee and her mother and is waiting outside the hotel for them, the line is something like “I was stood by some sort of bush with no leaves on it.”
It’s just beautiful.
“Ten minutes later, a little before seven, I was standing by some kind of a bush with no leaves on it, keeping an eye on the oceanfront entrance of the Ambassador.”
Someone else — I want to say Robert Crais, though he’s not a contemporary — would have the genus of the bush listed and categorised. Any normal person just sees a bush with no leaves.
In Chapter 21, Archie is braving the doorman again at Madeline Fraser’s building
now, this wouldn’t make sense unless you know Archie well — “… the distinguished-looking hallman wasn’t a particle interested in what I said my name was, and he steeled himself to betray no sign of recognition.”
Archie is saying that he is a small-scale celebrity — he gets his picture on the front page of the paper all the time — and the hallman MUST have recognized him.
When in reality he just didn’t recognize him, and Archie knows it.
Or when Mrs Michael first turns up:
“From Wolfe’s expression it was plain, to me, that he didn’t like her. As for her, it was a safe bet she didn’t like anybody”
Ah, is this the lady with the dirty neck? The doctor’s wife?
The same. Who moves Wolfe so much in sympathy for her husband that he breaks out the good brandy.
It’s lovely, those two chapters. The information they contain could have been gotten across in a sentence — Wolfe needs to know how the blackmail scheme works. Instead he first creates the horrible wife and then the suffering husband.
And they’re wonderful, you KNOW them, and then they vanish.
What particularly works for me is how Wolfe doesn’t get it his own way.
She has that moment where she’s canny enough to feign poor memory
And he’s stumped, he has to agree to her terms.
Those little victories on the other side do go a long way to enriching them as people,
LOL and then he nails her. Same with Nancylee Shepherd
And, yes, ol’ Nancylee.
He lets her slide by saying she doesn’t remember once, but the second time, WHAM.
Did you think Nancylee seemed like a realistic person?
I found it interesting, on the subject of Nancylee, that she both is and is not well captured in that way.
She’s mostly shown through language.
So, you get the teenage crush-worship on one hand, which means they try to isolate her from Madeline Fraser.
But then, for suspense, she’s at the apartment for the second poisoning when there’s no real reason she’d be there.
And it produces what to me is the only false note in the whole narrative
And nothing is ever made of her declaring the Meltettes unsafe before Koppel dies…
The line where Nancylee says that eating the Meltettes might be dangerous, let me do it.
Hahaha we threw THAT out the window about 40 minutes ago LOL
She wouldn’t have said that, and she wouldn’t have done it, and she shouldn’t be there.
Or since she did and was, why does no-one question that?
Yes! Why does no one question that Nancylee thought the Meltettes might be poisoned and they actually were?
Gideon Fell would’ve been all over that,,,
But Archie says, “It was only a romantic kid being dramatic, and all she rated from that bunch, if I had read their pulses right, was a laugh and a brush-off…”
And Wolfe trusts what Archie says about why people do things.
But I think you agree with me that it’s a false note.
Yeah, true enough; goes back to that earlier point about the trust between the two of them.
And then Nancylee makes a dive for the box of Meltettes!! Honestly, they should have just thrown her to Inspector Cramer as a diversion LOL
It’s probably the one point that doesn’t work for me in this; everything else is smooth and nicely constructed, and that just adds…nothing
But at that point, Wolfe actually has only one candidate for murderer.
When he sends Archie there with the faked note, he knows it has to be either Madeline Fraser or Deborah Koppel, because Deborah’s name is on the subscription but it was for Madeline Fraser’s benefit
Also, on that point, about the blackmailing: the murder of Orchard and Beula Poole.
Is it ever really explained why Madeline believes that killing them will be the end of it?
This is something I wanted to talk about too.
It’s tricky, what Stout does here.
And that is kind of a weak point.
I know the whole setup is explained in general terms, but there’s a leap of I guess reasoning that doesn’t quite connect.
She knows she’s giving the money to Cyril Orchard, though.
And then when Beula Poole says, “You can pay me the remainder of the subscription,” we GATHER that Madeline just went and blew her brains out, but nobody really seems to care.
Yeah, that’s…just left.
And if Madeline had a gun, why didn’t she kill Orchard a different way than on her own live radio program — did she think it would be good for ratings?
Perhaps — and I’m reaching here — but perhaps they already had lots of sponsors lined up (16 offers, IIRC) and she was using the chance to scare one off and make even more money…but that’s pure surmise.
Yes, and those 16 potential sponsors are finally what gives it to Wolfe, he says so.
Or rather, in the blow-off in Chapter 23, he says:
“After you left I sat in this chair twelve straight hours, with intermissions only for meals, using my brain on you. If I had known then that before the day was out sixteen other products were scrambling to take your Starlite place, I would have reached my conclusion in much less than twelve hours, but I didn’t. ”
That’s when Wolfe does the “lip thing”.
When Wolfe sits and pushes his lips in and out, Archie knows he’s working.
He does the lip thing in about Chapter 14 figuring out what to do about Zeck, and then in chapter 20 he solves it after those 12 hours. And to be honest, it should be apparent to everyone at that point whodunnit. It’s quite clear.
Is there ever a realistic attempt to foist it onto someone else?
Or are we just kept in the dark with zero suspects, do you think?
I think that’s why Madeline subscribed to the tip sheet in Deborah’s name.
But no, it’s just a big mystery.
First we think it’s Cyril Orchard who’s the intended victim, but nobody has a motive.
Then we figure that it’s a mistake and was aimed for Madeline Fraser, but nobody has a motive (and people have motives to keep her alive and making lots of money).
That, incidentally, is very Three-Act Tragedy.
Oh yes indeed.
Stout’s not really big on the merry-go-round of suspicion, is he?
No, that’s quite accurate
Usually how he solves cases is, he gathers all the suspects at the beginning in his office, he watches and listens to them and figures out who is hiding something, and then he sends Archie out to interact with everyone about what they’re hiding.
And the killer makes a mistake — or, frequently, commits another murder, and that’s what does it.
As you say, they’re short books!
Mostly the killer delivers him/herself to Wolfe on a platter.
Here, it’s the killing of Deborah. Wolfe knows that the blackmail scheme finally hit someone who really did what they’re being accused of, so it has to be either Deborah or Madeline — they’re the only ones who really have money, other than the sponsors.
So when Madeline kills Deborah to shut her up, game over. There are no reasonable suspects except Madeline.
Here, Wolfe TELLS us early on that Madeline’s husband/Deborah’s brother had died of cyanide poisoning.
Yeah, that’s genius.
No big deal but it makes things clear later. And Stout is such a dazzling writer, he just makes you forget he said that.
And it’s dealt with so naturally, too:
“Oh, there could be some nonsense about my husband dying mysteriously…”
Yes. People investigate whether Cyril Orchard had anything to do with the brother…delightfully misdirected.
I’m curious, do you like this book more now after we talked about it?
I do, yeah. I remembered liking it from my first reading,
But then having read it I was a little “Errr, that seems thinner than I remember…what the hell are we going to talk about?!”
I remember really enjoying the Zeck books, because I was surprised there was a carry-over from one to the next.
Well as you can tell, I think Wolfe is a superb character and the books are very nearly all excellent
Quite a few of the Wolfes run together for me, and I’m shabby on the details here, but I liked picking this one to talk about on account of the wider arc.
There’s other carryovers too. The story of Marko Vukcic … Wolfe’s daughter — they both get wound up in The Black Mountain, but they went on for decades
So, yeah, I would recommend this. I find Wolfe slighter harder work than most GAD fans probably do, however.
I think his prose is deceptively simple.
I mean more the structuring.
You’re spot on above about the form of the stories,.
Yes, Wolfe books have a pattern with variations
He’s phenomenally easy to read, but the books don’t distinguish themselves unlike Carr or Christie…
Except the earliest ones, where Stout was still finding the pattern.
But I think half the reason Stout had Madeline kill the guy live on radio is because it was such a great story hook.
Otherwise, why should she? It’s just crazy dangerous.
Yeah, especially as she’s so adept at shooting people, too.
Mind you, she’s a celebrity.
Well, most of the Perry Mason plots are great hooks that make no sense in real life…
True. I definitely agree. But gee they’re great hooks LOL
Anything else about this one you wanted to raise?
Well — we didn’t talk about the role of women.
Or the macro level, where Wolfe talks about taxes.
But we have to leave something for the imagination of the reader LOL.
Nor Wolfe’s dog-earing of book pages,
I had one wider general point about this sort of crime fiction.
I’m interested in the point where — with regards to the police force — a certain amount of seniority automatically equals incompetence.
I get you.
It’s a weird motif.
The trope of the stupid policeman
But the stupid SENIOR policeman, though.
Well, Stout established that Wolfe hates to work, and one way to get him to work is to make him angry. So the NYPD are frequently confrontative and abusive.
Cramer and the others are all jake…
Yes. Well, they hate Wolfe because he gets the publicity.
As here, when he threatens to solve the case live on radio before they know whodunnit.
One of the best bluffs in my recent reading, incidentally
And yet it just kind of goes away. I suppose the blow-off was sufficient in the last chapters.
Imagine what it would take to set that up and then cancel it at a moment’s notice.
Maybe he offered them a discount on 1948 $20,000.
Ahhh!! Yes, I DID want to mention that thanks for reminding me:
When people are subscribing to newsletters that in 1948 cost $10 a week,
Especially as the banks appear to be under threat herein, too…
And taxation is also a bugbear in the US as it was in the UK
If you look at what Wolfe actually SAYS, though, he doesn’t begrudge the taxes
When Anderson gives Wolfe the cheque to quit the case
Archie makes a comment about “whether the bank stays solvent or not”.
Wolfe doesn’t trust banks so Archie is constantly running down to certify cheques.
So, as someone who has read these multiple times, there must be rather more joy in spotting these common threads than in having them spelled out to you book after book…
It’s like a joke you get to construct yourself.
Or being in on the inside joke.
Sometimes Archie says things that are the opposite of what he means, but he’s being ironic.
And you have to work it out.
You feel like very few authors would trust their readers to, ahem, plot it themselves in this regard.
Well done working that title in there!
If there was a “bowing” emoji I’d use five of them.
Well, you know, Stout was an odd writer. He never revised. He wrote one draft, the end.
And, frankly, he had a poor memory.
There’s all kinds of running mistakes in the books because he couldn’t keep the continuity in his head.
That must drive the fan clubs crazy,..
There are names that repeat over and over through his books.
Like Vawter. There are like five characters in 40 years named Vawter.
Or James Moriarty and his brother…James.
Well, some people do that sherlockian thing where they come up with elaborate stories to explain where Dr. Watson got shot — in this case, Wolfe’s personal history. He had a daughter, we know, but we don’t know by whom.
Maybe there’s a Knoxian theory about Archie, too, then…
Oh, there’s even slash fiction.
William Baring-Gould, I think it was, devoted a chapter of a reference book to refuting the concept that Wolfe and Archie were lovers — and to my knowledge no one had raised it.
No, I lie. It wasn’t Baring-Gould, it was a lesser writer with a wild hair.
Archie is obviously what I’d call an enthusiastic heterosexual.
There’s the line here about “not wasting my eyesight on women over thirty” or something similar. Aaah, the enlightened age…!
Ah yes. Even though he’s an older dog near the end of the series, he still likes them young.
Well, maybe he’s compensating for something.
How shall we wind this up?
I think I would assign this as one of the top ten Nero Wolfe novels, but not in the top five.
I, alas, am not well-versed enough to comment. But I’d be interested in that top five…
off the top of my head —
A Family Affair.
A Right To Die.
The Golden Spiders.
The Doorbell Rang. [Editor’s note: there was then a very long pause here]
The Black Mountain.
Yikes. But I have two personal favourites that should be in the top ten also, Champagne for One and Prisoner’s Base.
Note that this doesn’t include the volumes of shorter works.
Stout is one of the few short-story/novella writers I’ll read — but I like the novels better.
At this point things degenerated into a discussion on the relative merits of Erle Stanley Gardner’s short fiction, as well as the output of John Sandford (we have eclectic tastes…). It was an absolutely great time, but it’s not really relevant to the above, so this seems to be a good place to stop. So, whaddaya think of the above, this book, Wolfe in general, the incompetence of senior policemen, the name-change of the drink…or anything else that occurs from this? It was a huge amount of fun chatting about a book in this way — something I don’t think either of us had done before — and I’m massively grateful to Noah for getting involved, but now we throw it open to you.