If I had to choose a single author as my favorite American writer, it would have to be Rex Stout, the creator of Nero Wolfe and, of course, Archie Goodwin. I can think of few other writers, especially American ones, who so successfully blended the classic puzzle mystery story and the particularly-American Private Eye story. Nor can I think of many who so successfully created a group of characters who grow and change from story to story. Many of us who regularly re-read these 33 novels and 39 novellas do so because we really like being in the company of those characters. I have reviewed several on this blog and on the Classic Mysteries podcast. One of the first of them to be reviewed was the three-novella collection, Three Witnesses. Here's what I had to say about them (as always, somewhat edited from the original):
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A murdered telephone operator, another man murdered after returning to life – and a black Labrador retriever who can prove the identity of a killer. Three separate cases, all solved by Nero Wolfe, and recorded in one book, called Three Witnesses, by Rex Stout.
As I have said before, I am an ardent fan of Rex Stout, Nero Wolfe and his eyes, ears and fists, Archie Goodwin. Rex Stout turned out six dozen Wolfe stories over his long career, and just about all of them are on my list of books to read and re-read regularly. Stout wrote many novellas about Wolfe and his entourage. Very often, these shorter works are more entertaining than the longer novels, because they are written more tightly. There is more action, crammed into a smaller amount of space. Where an obligatory second murder in a Wolfe novel sometimes feels as if it had been added just to pad out the book, the novellas tend to avoid such pitfalls. All the novellas eventually were gathered into books, usually with three or four of the shorter works combined into a single volume. Usually, they were grouped loosely, with a title that suggested a common theme. That’s the case with the three novellas that make up Three Witnesses.
In the first case, called “The Next Witness,” the witness in question is Nero Wolfe himself. Summoned to testify about a conversation he had with a potential client, now accused of murder, Wolfe finds himself in an impossible position: he believes that the prosecution’s case is – in his words – preposterous, and he doesn’t want his testimony to contribute to that case. So he – and Archie – walk out of the courtroom before Wolfe is called to testify. This, of course, puts them in contempt of court – and it means that Wolfe himself is going to have to solve the murder and do so without going home, where the police could find him and haul him back to court. Needless to say, he succeeds where the police have so obviously failed. But there’s another complication: how is he going to have the full story told in court, in such a way that the case against the defendant will be dropped and, at the same time, he and Archie will be able to avoid being held in contempt of court? Wolfe’s solution, of course, is quite ingenious and entertaining.
The second story in this collection, “When a Man Murders,” is harder to connect to the Three Witnesses title – there are a number of witnesses and potential witnesses here. But the problem is most unusual: Wolfe is approached by a man and his wife – or at least a man and the woman he thinks is his wife. The problem is that the woman’s first husband – who had been officially declared killed in action during the Korean War – has now come back. So the second husband and the twice-married wife want Wolfe or Archie to go speak to the husband and try to make a deal. Archie is sent to a hotel – and finds the first husband murdered. The police, of course, fasten on the second husband as the most likely murderer. Wolfe refuses to believe that the second husband could have committed the murder – and, as usual, he is able to solve the case – and he does so in typical Wolfean fashion, by forcing Inspector Cramer to bring all the suspects to Wolfe’s house for a showdown. Where, you may ask, are the witnesses? That’s part of the solution, so I leave them for you to discover.
But there is very definitely a single witness in the third story, called “Die Like a Dog.” The witness is a dog – a black Labrador retriever – who follows Archie home one day from what will later turn out to be a crime scene. Archie decides that bringing the dog home would be a fine joke to play on Wolfe – but the joke is on Archie, as Wolfe not only accepts but welcomes the dog. So when the police – in the person of Inspector Cramer – come looking for the dog, to see if he might be able to identify a killer – Wolfe refuses to turn over the animal. And so we find Nero Wolfe solving a murder on behalf of a dog – and, curiously enough, the dog does indeed turn out to be a most eloquent witness for the prosecution. I’m particularly fond of this one, perhaps because I also have a weakness for intelligent dogs – my daughter has a chocolate Lab – and the way the dog in this story is used, and the way in which he becomes a witness, is remarkably well done.
Those are the three novellas which make up Three Witnesses, and I think they’re a good way to enjoy Nero Wolfe. Each is relatively short – a pleasant hour or so of reading, with the ability to put the book down between novellas and do something else. As always, the stories are told in Archie’s marvelous wisecracking prose; at one point, for example, when he hears Wolfe answering a phone call downstairs in the house, he observes: “it would have been undignified to go to the hall, to the stair landing, and listen, so I did…”
The stories all date from 1954-1955, and Rex Stout was really at the top of his form. If you’re not familiar with Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, or you know them only from the various television shows about them, then Three Witnesses makes a good way to get to know them better. And if you’re already a fan, you’ll find much to delight you in these three novellas. Three Witnesses is still in print, and your favorite mystery book dealer should be able to help you find a copy quite easily.
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You can listen to the original podcast by clicking here.
Next week: Buried for Pleasure, by Edmund Crispin.