A long time ago, probably something like 50 years now, I realized that I'd never read any of the Nero Wolfe novels by Rex Stout. I thought it was time I did, so I went to look for one. In those days, the Rex Stout section of most used-book stores held a long line of volumes, and I grabbed the one at the head of the line, And Be a Villain. Flash forward to the present, when not long ago I was in a thrift store and saw several volumes of the Wolfe Series. I couldn't just leave them there, so I bought them. One of them happened to be And Be a Villain, and I figured it would be appropriate to reread it.
I think we call all agree that the cover of this 1979 edition is pretty bad. It's at least related to a scene in the book, but you have to look closely to be sure. I do kind of like the back cover portrait of Wolfe, though. (The artist isn't credited.) By the way, the writer of the blurb on the back cover clearly hadn't read the book.
The book was originally published in 1948, and Stout didn't do any updating. Which I think is a grand idea. Part of the fun in reading older books is the obscure references and the obsolete technology. The setting of the first murder is a radio broadcasting studio, and one of the guests on a morning talk show (a very different thing from current radio talk shows) is poisoned during the program. Nero Wolfe is just about broke, so Archie Goodwin badgers him into taking the case.
During the course in the investigation, Wolfe receives a phone call from the mysterious Arnold Zeck. When I read the book, I had no idea who Zeck was (nor did readers of the book in 1948, as it was, I believe, Zeck's first appearance). I didn't know about a lot of things that I learned of as I read: Wolfe's yellow pajamas, his routine with the orchids, the kind of meals he had (thanks to Fritz Brenner), what a fine narrator Archie was, and on and on. I must have liked all of that and more, as I went on a Wolfe binge, returning to the store and picking up several more books. When I read those, I was hooked for good and went looking in that store and others for all the books I didn't have. I got them, and I still have them, beaten and battered as many of them are.
Rereading this one, I've come to the conclusion that it's not one of Wolfe's better cases, but it's great fun just the same. I'm not sure I read the books for the mystery, anyway, but for Archie's narration and the familiar characters and details. I'm glad I picked it up back in the '60s, and I hope that the Mysterious Press' recent decision to reprint all the Wolfe books in e-book format will make sure that Stout isn't a forgotten author.