Prisoner's Base
by Rex Stout

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

a Nero Wolfe & Archie Goodwin mystery

Viking: New York, 1952
186 pages

British edition as —
Out Goes She

Collins Crime Club: London; 1953
192 pages

July 2010

Warning: major plot spoilers in the following review.


A triple failure by Wolfe & Goodwin

A major part of the delight in reading Rex Stout's mysteries starring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin is the competence of the protagonists. Each man is a brilliant detective in his own way, and as a team they are wonderful. Aside from Wolfe's erudition and ratiocination, and Goodwin's charm and bravery — we could list more qualities and eccentricities for both — is their melding into a team and into the business household which is the setting for much of the team's activities.

In Prisoner's Base, this all falls apart. The destruction of the novel's plot is irremediable; but in fact, without the book-length turmoil in their teamwork, and glaring incompetencies both by Wolfe and by Goodwin, there would have been no murders to relate, hence no plot and no story.

What do we mean by incompetence here? We know our fictional detectives are neither omniscient nor omnipotent: they do make mistakes, and we do not expect perfection. We do, however, expect them to do more than reasonably well at their profession. If not always correct, at least they never should appear stupid to the reader.

1st mistake: refusing a base to a woman in danger

A likeable young woman comes to the Wolfe-Goodwin brownstone house and wants a hideout for a week. She is willing to pay a handsome rent. Our detectives shortly learn that she is an heiress about to come into a corporate fortune, that there are corporation people in New York City desperate to find her, and there is an ex-husband in Venezuela with a claim on her fortune.

Wolfe expels her. She is murdered later that night.

3rd mistake: advising another woman in danger to leave a base

Skipping ahead. Another likeable young heiress, a friend of the first one, is striving to keep clear of all the corporate business. She is in her own apartment, herself now at risk of imminent mortal danger. She discusses the situation via telephone with Archie Goodwin.

Archie advises her to put down the phone and quickly leave her apartment. She is murdered before she gets out her door.

2nd mistake: willful blindness

Now we circle back to a lapse I scarcely believed when I read it, well before the consequences were revealed.

Nero Wolfe is having one is his famous omnium-gatherum high-pressure conferences of suspects in his office, where he tries to pry useful facts or even incriminations out of them. Archie is prepared for trouble: he is carrying both a gun and a blackjack. He intervenes physically a couple of times to quell upsets, although he doesn't have to shoot or sap anyone.

During a break before the conference adjourns, Wolfe is out of his office briefly. Archie is refilling drinks for the roomful of suspects:

When everyone had been attended to at the bar, I propped myself on the edge of Wolfe's desk and closed my eyes and listened to the little hum they were making. ...

[In case you missed the point, he keeps at it:] I squeezed my eyes tight, concentrating ....

Yes. Attending while armed to a room full of murder suspects being interrogated, Archie closes his eyes. This leads directly to a murderer being in a woman's apartment later that night: see 3rd mistake, above.

Most unsatisfactory

Prisoner's Base is not the nadir of the series, it being worsted by Too Many Women (1947), as if ghost-written in poor imitation of the series books: wherein Archie is not a companionable man-about-town but a thoughtless womanizer. Near the beginning the experienced New York City detective is struck speechless by discovering that a big Wall Street headquarters has a big room full of young-woman clerks; and then it goes downhill.

If Prisoner's Base were my first foray into the Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin mystery series, I would have been hard to convince to read another. We haven't even gone into the fact that a related third murder (not discussed above) has a clear motivation, as difficult not to see as an armadillo on a footstool — everybody misses it anyway throughout the book until everything is wrapping up. There are good points here, there are good scenes, there are good characters who usually move at a good pace — but the novel is a failure. For completists only.


© 2010 Robert Wilfred Franson

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