AUGUST MURDERS: NERO WOLFE – THREE WITNESSES

AUGUST MURDERS:

NERO WOLFE

THREE WITNESSES

BY REX STOUT

a review

Rex Stout was an American writer most famous for his detective fiction. He is best known for his creation the armchair detective Nero Wolfe and Wolfe’s able assistant Archie Goodwin. The two of them were featured in 33 novels and 39 novelettes spanning the years 1934 to 1975. Rex Stout received the Mystery Writers of America’s Grand Master Award in 1959. He passed away in 1975. He is missed.

REX STOUT

Nero Wolfe is a fictional detective. He is brilliant, obese, eccentric, arrogant, and totally fun to read. In his own words here is a brief biographical sketch of the armchair detective.

“I suggest beginning with autobiographical sketches from each of us, and here is mine. I was born in Montenegro and spent my early boyhood there. At the age of sixteen I decided to move around and in fourteen years I became acquainted with most of Europe, a little of Africa, and much of Asia, in a variety of roles and activities. Coming to this country in nineteen-thirty, not penniless, I bought this house and entered into practice as a private detective. I am a naturalized American citizen.”

– – Nero Wolfe in FOURTH OF JULY PICNIC (1957)

Although not directly stated in any of the stories Rex Stout said Nero Wolfe’s age was 56. Author John D. Clark theorized that Nero Wolfe is the offspring of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler – “The Woman” from A SCANDAL IN BOHEMIA. William S, Baring-Gould took up the idea as well and it is also implied in the works of Nicholas Meyer and John Lescroart. There is no mention of this in the stories however there is a painting of Sherlock Holmes hanging on the wall over Archie Goodwin’s desk.

NERO WOLFE

Archie Goodwin is Nero Wolfe’s assistant and the narrator of all the stories. He functions much like Doctor Watson in the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Archie is a licensed private eye in his own right and in his own way is brilliant. He is also a bit of a ladies man and good with his fists.

“There wouldn’t have been the slightest excuse for my missing the exact spot for a dead kidney punch, and I didn’t. Air exploded out of him, and he crumpled, not sprawled, but in a compact heap. Then he sort of settled to get comfortable.

His attractive wife took a couple of steps towards him, stopped to look at me, and said, ‘I’ll be damned.’

‘You will if they consult me.’ I told her emphatically.”

– – Archie Goodwin in Chapter 4 of WHEN A MAN MURDERS (1954)

WILLIAM SHATNER AS ARCHIE GOODWIN IN 1959

THREE WITNESSES is a collection of Nero Wolfe novelettes written by Rex Stout and published by Viking Press in 1956. The book contains three stories all of which first appeared in THE AMERICAN MAGAZINE. The three stories are:

  • THE NEXT WITNESS (1955)
  • WHEN A MAN MURDERS (1954)
  • DIE LIKE A DOG (1954)

Each of the stories in this collection has some kind of witness although not necessarily to the actual murder.

THE NEXT WITNESS

Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are in court scheduled to appear as witnesses in a murder trail with Leonard Ashe as the defendant. Ashe had attempted to hire Wolfe so their testimony has a slight bearing on the case. After listening to the testimony of other witnesses, Wolfe becomes convinced that Ashe is innocent. But he and Archie are supposed to testify for the prosecution. They therefore leave the courtroom, putting themselves in contempt, and set out to prove Ashe’s innocence by finding the real killer. And they better do it before the judge throws the book at them.

This is a fun story and shows Nero Wolfe and his best and at his worst. He is at his best because only Nero Wolfe could sit in a courtroom listening to testimony and figure out that the defendant is innocent.

He is at his worst because Nero Wolfe never leaves his home and hates going outside. He is the ultimate armchair detective since he never does his own legwork. However, in this story not only has he been forced by a subpoena to leave his house but once he walks of the courtroom he is in contempt and cannot go home or he will be arrested. Heavens, for once Wolfe is forced to do leg work.

I love this story because it is such a departure for Wolfe and it is my favorite of the collection.

WHEN A MAN MURDERS

Sidney Karnow inherited a great deal of money from his parents. Feeling a need to serve his country, shortly after marrying Caroline he joined the army and fought in Korea where he was declared killed in action. Years later, Caroline meets, falls in love, and marries Paul Aubry. The problem is Karnow turns up alive and kicking. He hadn’t been killed but was instead captured and later escaped. This puts Caroline and Paul in a bit of a pickle. First, their marriage is now void. Second, she had spent most of her inheritance from Karnow in setting up her new husband in business. They decide to offer what is left of the inheritance, and the business, to him in exchange for a divorce so they can remarry. This is not the sort of case Nero Wolfe usually handles but he lets Archie go with them to speak to Karnow. Only Karnow turns out to be shot dead. Now it’s murder and Nero Wolfe and Archie are in the middle of it.

I get a kick out of Archie Goodwin and he shines in this story. Anyone who thinks he is a simple sidekick doesn’t understand Rex Stout. Yes, his narration of the stories allows him to ask all the questions we need answered. But in many ways he is the catalyst for the stories and does as much as Wolfe, maybe more, to stir the mix. 

DIE LIKE A DOG

An irate would be client storms out of Wolfe’s home and mistakenly takes Archie’s raincoat. Wearing the would be client’s coat, Archie goes to his address to get his own coat back but finds out there has been a murder in the building. Not wanting to get involved he leaves but not before petting a big black Labrador who takes an instant like to him and follows him home. Archie lets him in the house thinking this would be a good chance to irritate Wolfe only it turns out Nero Wolfe is a dog lover and naming the dog Jet wants to keep him. But then things get complicated when it turns out the murdered person in the building was the guy who owned the dog. Wolfe and Archie find themselves dragged into a murder investigation because of their new dog.

Okay, I’ll admit I’m a dog lover. I’ll even confess I once owned a Labrador. This story appealed to my sentimental side. As if I didn’t love Nero Wolfe as it is his being a dog lover cemented him in my affections.

THREE WITNESSES is considered by Nero Wolfe fans and detective aficionados as the best of the collections of Rex Stout novelettes. Stout himself admitted that this collection included his favorite short story but he never said which one it was. Most fans think it’s the one with the dog. I think it is the first one with the trial. However, we will never know.

I suppose you can tell by now that I am a huge fan of Rex Stout and Nero Wolfe. Because of that my partner The Mustache gave me this book and I am grateful that he did. I loved reading it and it now has a treasured place in my book collection – right between my Bible and my collection of Playboy magazines. I am just kidding people do not get upset.

If you have never read a Nero Wolfe story I recommend you start with the best and pick up a copy of THREE WITNESSES. You can find it on Amazon. If you’re a fan of Nero Wolfe but haven’t read anything in a while you can use this book as a reintroduction. If you don’t like Nero Wolfe then why the heck are you reading this post? Go find some Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, or Erle Stanley Gardner.

In our rating scale I give this book four and a half gray geeks because it is that good.

I would like to thank all of you for letting me share with you my love for this book, this character, and this author.  That’s all for now. Please take care of yourselves and be safe. The danger is still real so please put on your masks and gloves and be the super-hero you always knew you were.

MAURY CHAYKIN AS NERO WOLFE AND TIMOTHY HUTTON AS ARCHIE GOODWIN

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