Sunday, June 1, 2014

On the Hi-Spot: And Be a Villain (1948), by Rex Stout

"Those things she calls Sweeties!  Pfui!"
         --Nero Wolfe, And Be a Villain (1948)

The first installment of Rex Stout's Arnold Zeck trilogy, And Be a Villain (1948), barely has Arnold Zeck in it at all, which can be a plus or minus, depending on how one feels about the whole idea of having a master criminal in the Wolfe series. Anthony Boucher thought the Zeck affair was tiresome, as I recollect, but many others have liked it.

During the course of Wolfe's murder investigation in Villain, he finds himself nosing into one of Zeck's criminal enterprises, provoking Zeck to make Wolfe a personal phone call, warning the plus-size sleuth of potentially dire consequences.

Wolfe foreshadows the third book in the Zeck trilogy in this conversation with Archie:

"I tell you nothing because it is better for you to know nothing.  You are to forget you know his name."

"Like that."  I snapped my fingers, and grinned at him.  "What the hell?  Does he eat human flesh, preferably handsome young men?"

"No.  He does worse."  Wolfe's eyes came half open.  "I'll tell you this.  If ever, in the course of my business, I find that I am committed against him and must destroy him, I shall leave this house, find a place where I can work--and sleep and eat if there is time for it--and stay there until I have finished.  I don't want to do that, and therefore I hope I'll never have to."

Well, stay tuned!  In the meantime, Wolfe is able to arrange matters in Villain without having a real confrontation with Zeck.

How is the Zeckless part of the novel?  Pretty terrific, actually.  One of the thing I like a lot about the Wolfe series in the post-WW2 era is his portrayals of corporate America.  In Villain Stout amusingly depicts the world of corporate-sponsored radio, here in the form of Madeline Fraser's popular chat show, sponsored by the soft drink company Hi-Spot and the, to Wolfe particularly egregious, candy bar company Sweeties (it's too bad, with the popularity of the television series Madmen, that someone can't take another stab on TV at the wonderful mid-century world of New Wolfe; the Maury Chaykin-Timothy Hutton series is much missed).

Here Hi-Spot is on the spot, because one of the guests on Madelyn Fraser's show has died after sipping their soft drink during the show (during the break Fraser and her guests are all to drink Hi-Spot and comment on how wonderful and refreshing it is). This time someone flavored it with cyanide.

Poisoning, in my opinion, often brings out the best in detective novels (see Agatha Christie and John Rhode, for example), the mechanics of the poisoning often proving quite wonderfully intricate and tricky. Villain does not disappoint in this regard.

I found the narrative engrossing as well as amusing.  The whole problem really does feel like a chess game, with Wolfe probing for weaknesses in his opponent's (i.e., the murderer's) defense.  He makes a series of brilliant moves throughout the novel and wins the game.

Wolfe does battle with a bobby soxer
If chess problems boor you, there's always the byplay among the characters.  There is one rather poignant episode with one character in the book, but for me the stand-out in this novel (aside from Nero and Archie of course) has to be irrepressible, sixteen-year-old Nancylee Shepherd, enthusiastic organizer of "the biggest [Madelyn] Fraser Girls' Club in the country."

From the evidence of the novel, Stout must have had a great time depicting this forties bobby soxer.  His own daughters were, I believe, fifteen and eleven when Villain was published. The exchanges between Nero and Nancylee are priceless.

Surely And Be a Villain is one of Rex Stout's best pieces of detective fiction. My only complaint is with the Maan Meyers introduction to the Bantam Rex Stout Library edition of Villain, wherein the husband-and-wife writing team give Wolfe's frequent derisive exclamation "Pfui!" as "Phui."

To that I say, yes, pfui.  Double pfui even.


  1. One of my favourites in the corpus, and I too was fascinated by Nancylee not only for the skill with which she was depicted but the primitive form of social power which she wielded. The characters are interesting, the background is detailed and lovingly portrayed, Archie and Wolfe are entirely themselves (always a good thing), the murder plot is complex and subtle, and the identity of the murderer should be a surprise to most. "Most satisfactory" is the highest form of Wolfean utterance and so I give this a "Most satisfactory."

  2. I added a bit to allude to the episode with the doctor with his wife, rather poignant I thought. Yes, Stout caught an interesting social moment with Nancylee and the Fan Club--one still very relevant, if not more, so with social media. I'm sure the Nancylees of today are blogging and the like.

    This really is one my favorite mystery novels. Enjoyed this time around as much as I did six years ago when I first read it.