by Rex Stout

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

a Nero Wolfe & Archie Goodwin mystery

Viking: New York, 1962
188 pages

collected in —

Seven Complete Nero Wolfe Novels

May 2010

Erudite flare-up

It is an uncommon novel that begins with a principal character burning a dictionary, but that is the opening of Gambit, as Archie Goodwin announces to Nero Wolfe the arrival of a prospective client:

Without turning his head Wolfe let out a growl, yanked out some more pages and dropped them on the fire, and demanded, "Who is Miss Blount?" ...

[Goodwin]: "... she has an appointment with you ... Besides, how about the comments I have heard you make about book burners?"

[Wolfe] yanked out more pages. "I am a man, not a government or a committee of censors. Having paid forty-seven dollars and fifty cents for this book, and having examined it and found it subversive and intolerably offensive, I am destroying it." He dropped the pages on the fire. "I'm in no mood to listen to a woman. Ask her to come after lunch."

Well, Archie manages to persuade Wolfe without too much trouble, so he (and we) get to meet the prospective client, and the plot properly begins.

But before we mention the plot, what about that dictionary being burned piecemeal in the front-room fireplace? The big expensive book is Webster's New International Dictionary, Unabridged: the infamous Third Edition which was new when the novel appeared. Word-lovers interested in the Dictionary Wars may know of the reaction against Merriam-Webster for their perceived betrayal of standards from the reliable benchmark Second Edition (1934) to the diffuse anything-goes Third Edition (1961). That's a topic for elsewhere at Troynovant, but Wolfe's reaction to the Third Edition allows Rex Stout a nice illustration of both the eccentricity and integrity of his great detective. In fact, I rather empathize about that dictionary.

Chess byplay

Gambit concerns a murder at a New York City private chess club. Though the plot falls below the median of Nero Wolfe series in complexity, there are plenty of instances of the series' characteristic wit, and there's even a little about chess. In chess, gambit is a technical word:

gambit, an opening in which one player offers to give up material, usually a pawn, sometimes a piece or more, in the expectation of gaining a positional advantage. ... the word is derived from the Italian gambetta, a wrestling term for tripping up the heels, and was first used in its chess sense by Ruy Lopez in 1561. ...

David Hooper & Kenneth Whyld
The Oxford Companion to Chess

According to Murray, Ruy Lopez used the term gambit only for one specific opening, but described it more generally. Murray says:

Another result of this visit [to Rome] was that Lopez learnt a slang (originally a wrestling) term of the Italian players, and was afterwards instrumental in giving the word an international currency. This is the word gambit,, of which Lopez tells us in his chess work:

It is derived from the Italian gamba, a leg, and gambitare means to set traps, from which a gambit game means a game of traps and snares, and it is used to describe this Opening because of all the Openings which Damiano gave, this is the most brilliant and trappy.

H. J. R. Murray
A History of Chess

And with that second move in the little gambit of our review, we will leave you to enjoy the moves and countermoves in Rex Stout's Gambit.


© 2010 Robert Wilfred Franson

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