Champagne for One
by Rex Stout
  

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

a Nero Wolfe & Archie Goodwin mystery

Viking: New York, 1958
184 pages
  

Collins Crime Club: London, 1959
192 pages

March 2010

  
High society and unwed mothers

In Champagne for One, Rex Stout allows Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin to mix into a clash of subcultures joined by charity: high (rich) society and unwed mothers. As usual among Rex Stout's generally excellent Nero Wolfe series of detective novels, there is an engaging cast of suspects, witnesses, police, and bystanders — and our two detectives investigate and eventually (if figuratively) bash these disparate heads together as they attempt to discover the why and how of a murder.
  

Archie Goodwin gets a phone call out of the blue from an old acquaintance, inviting him on short notice to a small but fancy dinner party put on by the fellow's aunt, who is patroness of a home for unwed mothers. The annual party helps several of these young women to be reintroduced to polite society starting at the top, since a matching number of respectable young men of good social standing also attend. Not exactly Archie's sort of thing, but he's flexible, and of course presentable:

If I hadn't had my full share of ego I might have also have been curious as to why he had picked on me, since we were not chums, but of course that was no problem. If your ego is in good shape you will pretend you're surprised if a National Chairman calls to tell you his party wants to nominate you for President of the United States, but you're not really surprised.

Nero Wolfe also is aware of the annual parties, but is less impressed at the whole idea:

"I remember, yes. Buffoonery. A burlesque of hospitality. Do you mean you are abetting it?"

Nevertheless, Archie has decided to attend.
  

Tact — discretion — refinement?

Archie is in arch form when the patroness, Mrs. Robilotti, shortly calls with her formal invitation. She remembers Archie from a criminal investigation a couple of years earlier, not favorably:

[Goodwin:] "... I accept the invitation as a favor to your nephew. Thank you."

[Mrs. Robilotti:] "Very well." A pause. "Of course it is not usual, on inviting a diner guest, to caution him about his conduct, but for this occasion some care is required. You appreciate that?"

"Certainly."

"Tact and discretion are necessary."

"I'll bring mine along," I assured her.

"And of course refinement."

"I'll borrow some." I decided she needed a little comfort. "Don't worry, Mrs. Robilotti, I understand the set-up and you can count on me clear through to the coffee and even after. Relax. ..."
  

A murder in view

Unfortunately one of the young women dies at the dinner party, apparently poisoned, and — adding investigatorial insult to innocent demise — in full view of Archie Goodwin. It should be a simple problem for a sharp detective who actually is on the scene, but the circumstances all seem so straightforward that its solution is challenging and subtle. Champagne for One works very well in print, and is nicely presented as an episode in the Nero Wolfe TV/DVD series. An fine mystery novel, and Archie's talents as man-about-town and delver into feminine psychology are put to what we may call the champagne test.

  

© 2010 Robert Wilfred Franson


  
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