Murder by the Book
by Rex Stout

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

a Nero Wolfe & Archie Goodwin mystery

Viking: New York, 1951
216 pages

January 2010

A missing manuscript?

[Nero Wolfe, private detective:] "I have no information to withhold."

[Inspector Cramer, of Manhattan Homicide:] "Goddammit, you said you —"

[Wolfe:] "I said I have reason to think the two deaths are connected. It's based on information, of course, but I have none that the police do not have. The Police Department is a huge organization. If your staff and the Bronx staff get together on this it's likely that sooner or later they'll get where I am. I thought this would save you time and work. I can't be charged with withholding information when I know nothing that the police don't know — collectively."

Since the title rather hints at it, I don't mind telling you that Murder by the Book centers around a manuscript that may or may not exist; and whether or not it exists, is known or presumed to have some information worth murdering to keep, to share, or to suppress. So we necessarily have aspects of the publishing industry, all germane to the clever and well-fitted plot.

Murder by the Book is a superb example of the generally excellent Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin series of mystery novels. Rex Stout begins this one by bringing New York City Police Inspector Cramer in a reasonably affable and tactful mood (for him) to consult with Nero Wolfe about a body fished out of the East River, and to share a morsel of information with Wolfe and his active aspect, Archie Goodwin. At this early stage Wolfe can offer no help, and it is quite a while before we get to the exchange above.

Cerebration, wit, charm

Wolfe is a cerebral fellow, and part of the joy of reading these mysteries — as narrated to us by Archie Goodwin — is watching him not only wrestle with abstruse problems of detection, but match wits with criminals, accessories, bystanders, witnesses, and police: many of whom can be quite sharp. In this novel, we have almost an apotheosis of Wolfean conferences as he confronts a phalanx of lawyers.

Some neat Wolfean sayings herein. One specific to his handling of the case:

Wolfe flipped a hand. "Surely you don't credit me with a monopoly in mendacity?"

Another, a general rule for living rightly:

"A schedule broken at will becomes a mere procession of vagaries."

Archie Goodwin not only is entrusted with a critical task concerning the women possibly related to the case — rather throwing him into the briar patch — but also must venture far afield to Los Angeles. This trip gives Rex Stout an opportunity for a substantial rainstorm and hence some gentle fun at the expense of the perpetual-sunshine mythology of Southern California.

Murder by the Book is one of my favorites among Nero Wolfe novels, a series of high quality throughout.


© 2010 Robert Wilfred Franson

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