The Silent Speaker
by Rex Stout

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

a Nero Wolfe & Archie Goodwin mystery

Viking: New York, 1946
308 pages

Collins Crime Club: London, 1947
192 pages

collected in —

Seven Complete Nero Wolfe Novels

July 2010

Cardboard-scenery organizations

The Silent Speaker is somewhat less than satisfactory among Rex Stout's long run of enjoyable Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin series of detective novels. This is Stout's returning novel after years of government work during World War II, and perhaps he wasn't quite limbered up again. Certainly he still was thinking about his war work, because the antagonists in The Silent Speaker are not just individuals and families as usual, but two powerful organizations: the National Industrial Association (NIA) and its nemesis, the Bureau of Price Regulation (BPR).

Right at the beginning of the novel, a major official of the Bureau is murdered while getting ready to speak at a big meeting of the National Industrial Association. Wolfe and Goodwin mix into the high-profile case, and the two organizations' mutual hostility intensifies, bringing much official heat on our detectives and on the local police — particularly Inspector Cramer.

Stout's structural problem in the novel is what to do about these two big organizations? His solution is to keep them essentially at the level of cardboard: background scenes without depth. If he had gone into their internal machinery, economic, political, and social relevance, and so on, he necessarily would have been attempting an entirely different kind of novel. Something in the vast gap between Atlas Shrugged and The Vulture is Molting, likely a good effort somewhere in the middle. This would have been a notably longer book, but not "satisfactory" in Nero Wolfe's measure, not a Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin mystery novel.

So far as we clearly accept that the two organizations are cardboard scenery, the better we may enjoy the mystery novel. I was not able entirely to do this.

Footsore gumshoes, for nothing

There also is an important passage near the beginning of the story, where a series of actions as narrated and as later described by witnesses, remained obscure to me. Rex Stout of course is excellent at concealing clues in plain sight, but we always want the narrative to be clear no matter how witnesses may be dissembling: if characters are lying (this is a mystery, after all), still we should be able to visualize just what they're describing and if their accounts differ.

Later we have a search for a specific object, really laboriously undertaken and persisted in, while all along ignoring a reasonable possibility which was in fact the location. The later revelation by Wolfe, no matter how dressed up, could not compensate for the figurative hound-running along empty trails. I even thought of two additional motives for choosing the hiding place that was employed, but Stout picked up neither of these.

Characters versus cardboard

The characters in The Silent Speaker are perhaps hampered and flattened themselves by having to act their parts in front of cardboard scenery: they are below average for the series. Nevertheless, there are some flashes of wit, and an opportunity for Wolfe to slip wonderfully out of character — great fun to see.

The novel is presented as a double episode in the Nero Wolfe TV/DVD series, which gives us a little help with the organizational cardboard by opening with some World War II era stock footage of American industry. I think the confusion near the beginning remains, but the DVD version very nicely emphasizes the funny scenes mentioned above.

Overall I suggest placing The Silent Speaker (or the DVD version) rather far down on your list of the series to read or to watch.


© 2010 Robert Wilfred Franson

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