Death of a Doxy
by Rex Stout
  

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

a Nero Wolfe & Archie Goodwin mystery

Viking: New York, 1966
186 pages

February 2010

  
Murder close to home

Mystery novelists in search of a plot are often tempted to entangle their hero — or hero's wife or sidekick or childhood friend — in a personal connection to a crime, even making one of these a murderer or at least a prime suspect. The detective's personal involvement does not necessarily make for a better class of plots, and I think often rather drags down the story.

Granted this prejudice, I must say that Death of a Doxy is a mystery of precisely this type, and is a superb example of how to do it well.

Death of a Doxy is one of Rex Stout's generally excellent Nero Wolfe series of mystery novels. The first chapter plunges straightaway with Wolfe's main field operative and right-hand man, Archie Goodwin, into a crime scene that he had not anticipated, him being present by a maneuver of another of Wolfe's assistants, Orrie Cather. Goodwin is very quick on the uptake, and doesn't like the various consequences of what he's found. It appears rather too clearly that Orrie has murdered a girl, his girlfriend. Whether he did or not, Goodwin, and shortly and inevitably Wolfe, have a problem suddenly right in front of them. Did Orrie kill her? And what should they do about it?
  

Erudition

These novels have delightful leavenings of the learned (via Wolfe) and of learning (via Archie), but (perhaps not coincidentally) as Death of a Doxy's mystery problem is closer personally to our detection firm than most, so the novel's tone is slightly more than usually erudite, as set in the second chapter, when Goodwin is due to attend a party at the home of his occasional but enduring girlfriend, Lily Rowan:

[Wolfe:] "I thought you had an engagement."

[Goodwin:] "It's for one o'clock, and I may skip it. The lunch will be all right, but then a man is going to read poetry."

"Whose poetry?"

"His."

"Pfui."

"Sure. I think Miss Rowan knew he was hungry and merely wanted to feed him, but then he said he would do her and her friends a big favor and she was stuck. He calls it an epithon because it's an epic and it takes hours."

A corner of his mouth was up an eighth of an inch. "Serves you right."
  

Character

So the uncomfortable problem of Orrie Cather is set. At the beginning of the third chapter, Nero Wolfe and his team have to decide what to do about Cather's plight. Wolfe convenes a conference with Archie Goodwin and his other frequently employed field operatives Saul Panzer and Fred Durkin. Wolfe first brings up the possibility that Orrie is guilty:

"It is not merely a question," he said, "of devising an effective defense. If Orrie killed that woman to prevent her from interfering with his private plans, I am not obliged to thwart the agents of justice and neither are you. Sympathy with misfortune, certainly, but not contravention of Nemesis. Mr. Parker is a competent lawyer, and it can be left to him."

And then Wolfe gives masterful thumbnail characterizations of Orrie, Fred, and Saul:

"But if he didn't kill her I have an obligation I can't ignore. I am constrained not only by his long association with me but also by my self-esteem. You must know that I have no affection for him; he has frequently vexed me; he has not the dignity of a man who has found his place and occupies it, as you have, Fred; nor the integrity of one who knows his superiority but restricts it to areas that are acceptable to him, as you have, Saul. But if he didn't kill that woman, I intend to deliver him."
  

Death of a Doxy is neatly constructed with superb characterizations across the board. An excellent novel of detection, and just as good upon re-reading.

  

© 2010 Robert Wilfred Franson


  
Death of a Doxy (2002), directed by Timothy Hutton, is the filmed version as a double-length episode in the Nero Wolfe TV/DVD series from A&E Television. The ensemble cast does their usual fine job with recurring or episode-unique roles. The double length provides ample time for the plot and character details.

Kari Matchett plays both types of role in this film: Lily Rowan (as she does in a couple of other episodes), but only a few minutes' worth. She also plays the critical part of Julie Jaquette, an effervescent nightclub chanteuse; and clearly has fun doing so.

As fine to watch as to read. — RWF
  


  
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