Sunday, 15 June 2014

Penguin no. 1106: Over My Dead Body
by Rex Stout

I knew the picture was Miltan because Carla Lovchen took me across and introduced me to him and his wife. He was small and thin, next door to a runt, but wiry-looking, and had black eyes and hair and a moustache which pointed due east and west...His wife, in spite of her New York clothes and her 1938 hair-do, looked like one of those coloured pictures in the National Geographic entitled 'Peasant Woman of Wczibrrcy Leading a Bear to Church.' At that, she was handsome if you like the type, and she had shrewd eyes.

Archie Goodwin portrays his employer as indolent, corpulent, and mercenary; for while it is hinted that Nero Wolfe was once a young man with romantic inclinations, he is such no longer. The mature Wolfe is rotund, uninterested in exercise, and dedicated to remaining debt-free.

And unusually for a private detective, his principal passion is the cultivation of orchids, and to this end he houses thousands of plants upon the top storey of his home, visiting them by means of a private elevator. His daily timetable seems conditioned on the need, or perhaps the desire, to tend to these orchids, and so he is only available to clients at fixed times and at a fixed location, and even then only when his bank balance requires it. Nero Wolfe is quite willing to turn prospective clients away when his financial situation allows him to, and to charge rather heftily when it doesn't, and so the case described here serves as something of an exception, in that he takes it on when he is sufficiently solvent to have no need of it, and he doesn't charge anything for his services.

But the fixed hours remain immutable. And although his presence elsewhere is requested a few times, and demanded at others, he doesn't leave his home even once during this story. He seems very much an armchair detective, sending out one of his employees in search of anything he should require, whether information, a document, a delivery, or an audience with a witness. Typically, these tasks fall to his confidential secretary Archie Goodwin, who must often invoke quite a degree of ingenuity in ensuring that his employer's requests are fulfilled. And so it is Archie who narrates this story - describing his adventures and complaining about his employer's impositions, while delivering his views on the appearance of everyone he meets. It is his blunt assessments and his sardonic sense of humour which makes the story such a pleasure to read.

A young and attractive Montenegrin woman knocks upon Wolfe's door with a story that her friend, a fellow emigrant, has been threatened with arrest because of the disappearance of some diamonds. The one thing Archie makes perfectly plain at this stage is that he is not overly keen on foreigners, while Nero Wolfe seems even less enthusiastic.  Archie thinks of turning her away, while Nero Wolfe does so; having spent his youth in Yugoslavia, he intends to have nothing more to do with Montenegrin women. But the young woman returns the next day with evidence which suggests that her friend may be Wolfe's daughter, a child he adopted when she was only three years old, and whom he hasn't seen since.

Misses Lovchen and Tormic are recent arrivals in the United States, and via the intercession of a wealthy, though perhaps not disinterested, benefactor they have found work in a New York studio which specialises in instructing wealthy citizens in fencing and dancing. It is clear that this work cannot be their only interest, however, as the pair behave in a way which suggests they have much to hide: their names are assumed and they will not reveal their true ones, they are obsessed with the need to deliver a document to a party whose identity they will not reveal, and they are soon mixed up in a couple of murders, with one man dying around the time Neya Tormic is known to have been fencing with him, and another found dead a few days later in the apartment they share.

It becomes clear that whatever their activities amount to, they are clearly of some international importance, for Inspector Cramer, who is charged with solving the case, finds his efforts stymied at a diplomatic level. His solution is to camp himself in Nero Wolfe's living room, confident that he will solve the crime for him. And in the end this is what happens, for while Nero Wolfe may be reluctant to leave his home, it is remarkable just how much of the crime brings itself to him.

First published 1940. Published in Penguin Books 1955.


  1. Currently reading:
    Penguin no. 37: The Pilgrim of a Smile
    By Norman Davey

    You've been reading this for a very long time- so good you can't put it down or so bad you can't keep going?

  2. Just noticed review a few weeks ago- apologies!

    1. I feel somewhat chastened, because I have been tardy in updating the widget, while also surprised to learn that anyone pays attention to what I have in my blog's sidebar. Right now I am reading, and enjoying, Penguin no. 1011 The Story of Ragged Robyn by Oliver Onions. I'll try to organise myself to photograph the cover and update the widget.

  3. I've heard of Rex Stout but never read him. This sounds delightfully intriguing -- time to give him a whirl, perhaps? Thanks.

    1. This is the only one I've read, Harriet, but I did enjoy it.



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