Friday, February 22, 2013

Forgotten Books: And Be a Villain -- Rex Stout

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.

12 comments:

pattinase (abbott) said...

I think I read every book of his back in the seventies. He was a memorable character and most of his tics and traits were in place for the first time, I think.

Joe Barone said...

Oh, my. I did love Rex Stout. I still read one of the Nero and Archie books once in a while.

George said...

Art Scott and Steve Stilwell read these Nero Wolfe books endlessly. Like you, I read all the books. But it took me a year or so to read the entire series.

Bill Crider said...

Art Scott and Steve Stilwell, who occasionally drop in here, are the kings of Stout re-readers.

RkR said...

I liked this one a little better than you did, I think. I read most of them in the 70s, started re-reading them about 8 years ago at the pace of about 4 or 5 a year,but this time in order. Still great fun! For anyone not having read one yet, starting with Fer de Lance is a good introduction, and Too Many Cooks is a personal favorite.

Bill Crider said...

While they might not be the best books in the series, my favorites are GAMBIT and THE DOORBELL RANG.

Yvette said...

Oh, I had no idea that the Mysterious Press was going to re-print the Nero Wolfe books in e-form. Great news! (I would wish for trade paperbacks, but you can't have everything.)

Though I own many of the paperbacks and re-read them all the time, it's nice to think that others who are, perhaps, not familiar with Wolfe, will discover him through the ease of the e-book.

Arnold Zeck was Wolfe's Moriarity, or so I like to think of him. :)

I have an anthology called, TRIPLE ZECK in which the Zeck novels are bunched together. A treat.

Bill Crider said...

Otto Penzler might be doing the books in trade paper, too. I should check.

Cap'n Bob said...

A few years ago someone (Ballentine?) was reissueing the series in order in trade paperback, two novels per book. I reread a few of them then, and read the series during the 1980s.

Todd Mason said...

The fine cable tv series of late didn't hurt. I tend to think of Wolfe and Goodwin as the best heirs, even the 2.0, of Holmes and Watson.

Dick Lochte said...

I spent an afternoon with Rex Stout at his home a very long time ago. Ostensibly it was for an interview for the Chicago Daily News, but, after devouring all of the Wolfe books including the Tecumsah Fox and Dol Bonner novels) I just wanted to meet the guy. For someone who had not considered making a career of crime fiction writing, it was, as they say, a life-altering experience.

Bill Crider said...

He's one writer I'd love to have met. I helped John McAleer a tiny bit with his bio of Stout, and that was a big thrill in itself.