I haven’t read many mysteries. It’s not a genre that normally appeals to my escapist philosophy of fiction. Yet as a writer, I have had some interest in hiding details from my readers until the opportune moment–and besides, I try to branch out once in a while.
This book was not quite what I expected. I had heard positive things about Rex Stout’s series before, and the first in that series has certainly been intriguing, but I’m not sure I want to continue with the series. In the simplest estimations, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are only the Americanized Holmes and Watson–one an eccentric, the other a more practical man. Wolfe’s ethical shortcomings are far removed from Holmes’, of course; where Holmes frequented opium dens and held to other vices, Wolfe is something of an agoraphobe–and, based on the ending of the book, that extends beyond weakness into true character flaw.
It was probably the ending that made me lower my rating from 4 stars to 3. The grand reveal of the final few pages was not our killer–no, he had been suspected since an early chapter, and confirmed a little more than halfway through–but was instead a facet of the character of our supposed protagonist, the great detective Nero Wolfe. This was not in keeping with what I had anticipated for a mystery novel, in that all the red herrings and false leads and unimportant minutia were put aside and overcome long before the end; it was also not what I expected from a book which, presumably, should make me cheer for the character after whom the series is named.
All that to say, I found it very difficult to appreciate Nero Wolfe, especially in the final pages of the book. Not that he is not a well-written character, or a well-rounded character (no pun intended), but that I simply do not like him. That would probably be okay, since we spend far more time with Archie Goodwin than with Wolfe, if I had liked Goodwin a great deal. If, say, Goodwin had been more like Watson–honorable, of strong character, and perhaps less… American–I could be entertained by the eccentric (if unethical) detective. (Goodwin is petty and short-tempered, heavily self-interested, and a bit of a womanizer, from what I’ve read.) Instead, I read a book in which I supported the ambitions of no one, and I was sated only with the conclusion to the mystery.
At any rate, the book is well-written. It includes mannerisms and turns of phrase appropriate to its age (first published in 1934), and there are even now some typographical errors among its pages, but the characters are complex (if a little unpleasant to me) and the plot entertaining.
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