George Kelley thinks The Golden Spiders is the best of the Nero Wolfe series, and Art Scott and Max Allan Collins also rate it highly, so I thought I'd reread it. I read the edition on the left, since that's the one I have.
After reading it, I find that it's never going to be my favorite (I'm sticking with The Doorbell Rang) for one reason.* The setup is a good one. Archie, a bit irritated with Wolfe, brings in a neighborhood kid as a potential client. The boy says he was running the old windshield-cleaning gag, starting first with the driver's window, when the driver, a woman wearing golden spider earrings, turns to him and says, "Call a cop." The kid doesn't like cops, so he goes to Wolfe, who also doesn't like cops. Soon the kid is killed by a hit-and-run driver, as is a woman who comes to Wolfe claiming to have been the woman in the car. She isn't killed before handing Wolfe a $10,000 check, however, and he intends to earn the money because he doesn't like it that people who come to him for help are being killed with impunity. Saul, Orrie, and Fred are called in, and the game's afoot.
What they uncover is a scam operating within a charity designed to help displaced persons, and it's a complex situation. Wolfe figures all out, of course, and he makes an assumption or two that wouldn't occur to most detectives. That's why he's so good. Archie has plenty of opportunities for wisecracks and flirts with attractive women. Both he and Wolfe irritate Inspector Cramer, and all the familiar routines are observed or mentioned. The food sounds great, although Wolfe is irritated with one particular meal, and that sets everything in motion. Wonderful stuff for the most part.
*MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT: What sets this book apart from the others in the series (at least in my view) is the level of violence, particularly in one scene set in a garage. Using a technique called "the crisscross," Archie tortures a man to get information from him. Archie calls it "stimulating" him. It's not the kind of thing I expected from Archie, but it works well and shows that Archie is a true tough guy. There's more than torture, too. There's even a shootout. A good one. Not the usual thing in a Nero Wolfe book, but done very well. Still, the torture scene didn't sit well with me, and while I liked the book a lot, it's not going to wind up in my Top 5.