Before I Die
by Rex Stout

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

a Nero Wolfe & Archie Goodwin mystery

The American Magazine, April 1947

collected in —
Trouble in Triplicate

All Aces

May 2010

Ganglords and gunplay

"Before I Die" is a murder-mystery novella, with markedly more active gunplay than most of the others featuring Rex Stout's reclusive-genius detective, Nero Wolfe, and his active-principle partner, Archie Goodwin.

In this story Stout set himself a challenge a little off his beaten track of erudite detection. What if we mix gangsters with guns into the Wolfe/Goodwin mix? Specifically, truly dangerous New York City gangland leaders who don't mind using guns themselves, and have more gunmen at their beck? Perhaps there is more than amateur-murderer potential for violence here.

Now let us suppose that one of these tough ganglords, Dazy Perrit, wants to hire Wolfe for a delicate business. Perrit is being blackmailed. Archie Goodwin can hardly believe it:

I goggled at him. The idea of Dazy Perrit being pestered by a blackmailer was about the same as Billy Sunday being pestered by an evangelist trying to convert him.

Nero Wolfe's vast, if cultured, appetite in a time of meat shortage may prove the sweetener that encourages Wolfe to take on Dazy Perrit as a client. Even as a client — especially as a client, as Archie sees all too clearly, Perrit may not be a tolerable or even livable match for Wolfe's eccentricities. As Wolfe attempts to terminate their office conference for his self-mandated time with his beloved orchids, Perrit blocks his path, and Archie gets ready:

"Where you going?" Perrit asked in a tone which implied that no conceivable answer would be acceptable.

I stood up too, my hand leaving my pocket with the gun in it — that is, in my hand. That may strike some as corny, but it was instinctive and the instinct was sound. I got around town some and was fairly well informed, and so far as I knew no serious argument with Dazy Perrit had ever been settled with any tool but a gun; and up to then Perrit had done all the settling, either personally or by staff work. With what he had already spilled I could see nothing ahead but one fine mess, and ... if he had so much as poked a finger at Wolfe's central bulge I would have dropped him.

It's not a complex plot, but Stout does a good job in "Before I Die": one of the fairly rare stories that demonstrates that it is possible to have an entertaining story done well, even with some authorial light-heartedness, about some truly and seriously bad criminals. In science fiction, James H. Schmitz's novella "Lion Loose" is a favorite of mine in this hard-to-target niche.

Since this is a story within a continuing series, we may reasonably forecast that Wolfe and Goodwin will somehow find a way to maneuver among these violent ganglords while managing their detective work superbly. But how — ?


© 2010 Robert Wilfred Franson

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