Monday, May 26, 2014

Morsels of Murder: Rex Stout's Death Times Three (1985) Part Two: Frame-Up for Murder (1958)

Rex Stout's "Frame-Up for Murder," the second Nero Wolfe novella from Death Times Three (1985), exhibits some of the routine qualities of which Julian Symons complained concerning Stout's post-1950 work.

In this one a pretty young woman, Flora Gallant, wants to hire Nero Wolfe to find dirt on another woman, Bianca Voss, who has established an insidious influence over the business of her "illustrious dressmaker" brother, Alec Gallant.

From his office Wolfe talks to this woman, Voss, on the telephone, only to hear her scream out guttersnipe insults at him (mostly concerning his weight) before she seemingly is attacked and murdered. Investigating, Archie finds that Voss is indeed dead, having been bludgeoned and strangled.

There is a complicating element involving another woman, a very recently deceased actress named Sara Yare, which is reminiscent of Agatha Christie's Lord Edgware Dies (1933). In fact Stout, through Archie Goodwin, does not even attempt to pretend that we, the readers, are being fooled anymore by the mystery of the telephone call:

I will not explain at this point why Wolfe wanted to know if any of the subjects had known Sarah Yare and if so, how well, for two reasons: first, you have spotted it yourself; and, second, since I am not as smart as you are, I had not yet come up with the answer.

Including Flora Gallant, there are five suspects.  Wolfe identifies a killer, but, in truth, Stout could just as easily have made the culprit any one of four people (only one of the group is exonerated in an interesting way); there's not really a pleasing inevitability to the solution. While "Bitter End" (1940) is one of the best Wolfe novellas, not the same thing can be said of "Frame-Up for Murder," in my view; it has a rather perfunctory feel to it. I suppose I could call it "Lower End."

Good news though, the Wolfe novel And Be a Villain is one of the best, I think.  I'll have the review up soon, before I move to another author for Friday.


  1. Glad to see you tackle the great Nero Wolfe! I agree with you that this is not one of Stout's best stories; I agree with you and Mr. Symons that it has a routine quality. But I hope to respectfully disagree with you on a few points. First, I just don't understand why you're comparing this to "Three Act Tragedy"; all I can see is that both have actors. Here, though, Sarah Yare is completely offstage and there is no suggestion that the motive for murder is anything to do with the profession of acting (I'm being deliberately vague for the sake of people who haven't read Christie's novel); in fact this story is about alibis and how to establish them. My second point of respectful disagreement is that once the crucial point about the establishment of an alibi is made, there is only a single character who is not exonerated by the circumstances (again, spoiler-free language) so, in fact, it could not just as easily have been any one of four people. I agree that this is not, in your well-chosen phrase, pleasingly inevitable; but it's fair as written, I suggest.
    This story always bothered me because Archie displays three times, and at one point says in writing about himself, that he is a poor judge of character -- and elsewhere in the corpus, again and again, he is not. I found that disappointing. I've always also been disappointed by Archie's cruel description of Sarah Yare as an "alco", and the implication that her career was over forever. (In the modern age, Robert Downey Jr. has come back from heroin addiction, etc.) But what I did find delightful was the deduction that Wolfe makes from the use of the tiny word "gob". THAT is classic Wolfe, and hearkens back to (again, spoiler-free) a dinner he had one night with a young law student and his girlfriend in which the law syllabus is discussed.
    I can't defend this mediocre story, but I hope to suggest that it deserves a little bit more praise than you've allowed it. But thank you for bringing your considerable talent to Nero Wolfe, my "favourite fatty"!

  2. Noah, whoops, my mistake, I was thinking of Lord Edgware Dies!

    "in fact this story is about alibis and how to establish them."

    Yes. That was why I was trying to compare it to Lord Edgware Dies.

    What I meant about the selection of the murderer at the end was, Stout really could have made it any one of those four people. It could have been so easily changed around. I'm not suggesting it was unfair, just unsatisfying.

    Of course, to be honest, none of the four characters were interesting enough for it to matter anyway.

    When I said only one person is "satisfactorily exonerated," I meant exonerated in a way I found interesting (the psychological point).

    By the way, don't give me too much praise for "pleasing inevitability"--I think Scott Ratner may have said it first!

    One the whole I quite like Stout's output in the 1950s and early 60s.

  3. Aha! Okay, now I see what you were getting at, "Lord Edgware Dies". Gotcha. And I agree 100% that he could have believably made it any of those four people by arranging things accordingly and it would have been psychologically just as valid ... in fact he may well have picked the one I would least believe committed the crime. (Partly because Archie is so rarely wrong about people.) And that is unsatisfying. Also unsatisfying never to have a chance to look at Sarah Yare while alive and make up our own minds ... and having a central point so obvious that CRAMER gets it. Pfui. I rather like Stout best in the 50s and 60s, and I have a feeling you're about to do justice to one of my top three favourite Wolfe novels ... looking forward to that!