The Red Box (Nero Wolfe #4) ★★★✬☆

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Title: The Red Box
Series: Nero Wolfe #4
Author: Rex Stout
Rating: 3.5 of 5 Stars
Genre: Mystery
Pages: 203
Words: 77.5K


From Wikipedia

Molly Lauck, a beautiful model, has died after eating a poisoned Jordan almond, and wealthy socialite Llewellyn Frost has hired Nero Wolfe to investigate the case. His true purpose, however, is to ensure that his ortho-cousin Helen is freed from the employment of Boyden McNair, the owner of the fashion boutique where Lauck died. He pressures Wolfe to leave his home and investigate the crime scene directly, producing a letter signed by the directors of the Metropolitan Orchid Show urging him to do so. Although highly reluctant, Wolfe eventually relents and travels to the boutique with Frost and Archie Goodwin.

Wolfe and Archie interview McNair, who is noticeably ill and distressed by recent events, and several of the models including Helen Frost. Although the interview is apparently unhelpful, Wolfe is intrigued when Helen indicates that she knew the contents of the chocolate box containing the candy that killed Lauck despite claiming to have never seen it before. Llewellyn Frost, who has romantic feelings for his cousin and believes that Wolfe intends to incriminate her, tries to terminate his contract with Wolfe. Outraged by Frost’s actions, Wolfe refuses to drop the matter without being paid his full fee, despite being pressured by both Helen’s mother Calida and Frost’s blustering father Dudley.

Intrigued by Wolfe investigating a crime scene personally, Inspector Cramer tries to find out what Wolfe has learned. Although Wolfe offers him little, he does suggest that Cramer and Archie gather the people of interest in the case and one-by-one offer them a chocolate from a box similar to that which contained the poisoned item that killed Molly Lauck. Making note of who selects what, Archie notes that Boyden McNair’s response is different from the others in that he initially goes to select a Jordan almond, as the victim did, but then reacts skittishly and chooses something else. Wolfe and Archie also learn that Boyden McNair displays a particular fondness towards Helen, apparently due to her resemblance to his own long-dead daughter.

Boyden McNair meets with Wolfe and confesses that, as the chocolate box had been intended for him, he believes someone is trying to murder him. Although he refuses to identify a suspect, McNair reveals that he has made Wolfe the executor of his estate and has willed to him a red leather box containing papers relating to a shameful incident in his past. Before he can reveal any more, however, he is killed in front of Wolfe and Archie by a poisoned aspirin. Although this voids Wolfe’s original contract, Helen hires Wolfe to locate McNair’s murderer.

Wolfe determines that the red box will most likely reveal the culprit, and orders it found. As executor of McNair’s estate, Wolfe sends Saul Panzer, Orrie Cather, Fred Durkin, and Johnny Keems to McNair’s cottage in the country to search the grounds for the box, with orders to keep the police out should they attempt to interfere. Wolfe learns that Helen is the heir to the Frost family fortune, which is held in a trust managed by Dudley Frost until her 21st birthday, but if anything were to happen to her it would instead go to Llewellyn Frost.

Later that night, the operatives at the cottage catch Perren Gebert, a family friend of the Frosts with designs of marrying Helen, trying to break in. Archie is sent to collect Gebert and bring him to Wolfe for questioning, but before he can the authorities arrive to search for the red box. Archie manages to prevent them from doing so, but is forced to surrender Gebert to their custody. While the police are unable to get any useful information from Gebert, Cramer reveals to Archie that Gebert has been receiving monthly payments of $1,000 from Helen Frost’s trust fund. The next night, after being released from custody Gebert is murdered with a nitrobenzene trap set in his car.

A package arrives for Wolfe that prompts him to summon the main players to his office. Once everyone has arrived, Wolfe reveals that he has discovered that Helen Frost is in fact Glenna McNair, the daughter of Boyden McNair. The real Helen Frost was the child who had died years before, but Calida Frost bought Glenna from the then-impoverished Boyden McNair and raised her as Helen in order to eventually control the inheritance. Bitterly regretting what he had done ever since, McNair proceeded to make his fortune, formed an attachment with Helen/Glenna and planned to reveal the truth to her, but Calida Frost killed him to prevent this. Perren Gebert was also murdered because he knew of the arrangement and had been blackmailing Calida, and also planned to marry Glenna.

Wolfe produces the red box that he claims holds the proof of his accusations. In fact, it is a mock-up containing a bottle of cyanide, which Calida Frost uses to commits suicide. The actual red box is eventually found in Boyden McNair’s boyhood home in Scotland with plenty of evidence to support Wolfe’s theories but, as Archie notes, “by that time Calida Frost was already buried”.

My Thoughts:

Nero Wolfe is “forced” out of his brownstone home and pretty much spends the rest of the book complaining about it. You’d think he’d been forced to eat his mother’s pickled brains or something, the way he carried on. Of course, that type of behavior is exactly what the author is going for in the character of Wolfe. While it’s annoying, it’s also gratifying to see. It makes Wolfe feel very real.

One thing I found very interesting was the interactions with Wolfe and Archie against the police. Several times the police try to enter the premises without a warrant and Archie pulls a gun on them and there are no repercussions. A man’s home really WAS his fortress, unlike today 😦

The mystery itself felt rather sordid and tawdry. Models, poisoned candies, leches, amorous minded cousins, it just left a light smear across my soul. I probably would have felt better if Archie could have killed someone with his gun, but as that didn’t happen, I guess I’ll just soldier on.

I’ve come to realize, over the last couple of months that reading a very long series has to be handled differently than a trilogy or even a single digit series. I have 47 Nero Wolfe books available. That is simply too many to plow through even with my excellent reading rotation. I experienced this with Shakespeare and have been on the lookout for signs of “series burnout” with other double digit series. So I think I’m going to divide this up into 10 book chunks and take a break between chunks. That allows me to prevent series burnout AND has the added benefit of making sure my rotation doesn’t get clogged up with big series so that I can’t get to the smaller stuff. That all really isn’t about this book, but how I read is an integral part of the whole Book Experience and now you are wiser for it. Not as wise as Solomon, but wiser than you were before you read this.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

37 thoughts on “The Red Box (Nero Wolfe #4) ★★★✬☆

  1. Good idea to take a break every now and then. I love the Nero Wolfe stories but I wouldn’t want to read them all together. I’m working through the Maigret books now and that’s not so bad because they’re pretty short.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. 10 books seems to be the upper limit and I’d prefer 6 or 7. I’ve already started dividing up longer series on my tbr this was. I had some serious burnout with the Brother Cadfael books when I plowed through all 20+ of those and I do not want a repeat of that!

      What are the Maigret books? Author or character?


      1. Maigret is a police investigator in France. There were 75 Maigret books I think by a Belgian author named Simenon (he was really prolific and wrote something like 500 novels). They’re just being published now in new English translations by Penguin.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Really good choice to break up the series, especially if (like Nero Wolfe) it‘s one that follows a particular formula or (like Maigret) many of the installments have the same sort of setting (seedy, no matter whether in the provinces or in Paris, and no matter whether high society or working class … I find there‘s only so much I can take of that sort of atmosphere at any given time). No wonder you burned out with Cadfael — I‘m a huge fan as you know, but even I have never tried to read all of them in one go!

    For that matter, I’ve also never tried to read the Wolfe books in order and I still haven‘t read „The Red Box“. It may be a bit early to ask, but do you think further into the series (say, a quarter ways in or at the halfway point) this book is still going to stand out to you as particularly memorable? I‘m asking because I‘m beginning to notice that the plots of the less remarkable installments are beginning to run into each other in my memory (the same thing is probably going to happen with Maigret at some point). So now I‘m chiefly trying to pick books that I have a reasonable expectation will continue to stand out to me individually for some reason.

    Btw, I’ve reviewed two Maigret novels so far (fairly typical, except that in the second one Maigret is on vacation instead of being expressly called upon to investigate). The first review may operate as a bit of an introduction to the series as a whole, too:

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks 😀 I feel like Cadfael was an experiment after the fact and it was a miserable failure. But it taught me a lot, even if it took me almost 5 years to learn the lesson (ie, break up long series into chunks). I suspect I would have enjoyed Cadfael a lot more if I’d been aware that I needed to do that.

      I think I’m reading Wolfe in publication order? Honestly, so far they’ve been standalone enough that I wouldn’t notice if I got things out of order. As for standing out, I am completely the wrong person to ask. I can barely remember the previous books. If you were to spring a book title on me, chances are pretty good I would remember that I read it but that would be it. I’d have to go read my review and THEN it would all come back. But that is happening with almost all the books I read now, not just the mystery genre.

      Thanks for the links. I think I’ll probably be adding some Maigret to my tbr.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, I‘ll be curious what you‘re going to make of Simenon‘s writing. He‘s definitely different from both the American and the British crime writers of his day, although — in his non-Maigret (standalone) books even more than in the Maigret series — he‘s very „noir“ in both outlook and style.

        As for Wolfe, your experience seems to be similar to mine!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I checked out a Nero Wolfe from the library not long ago and was thinking of giving the series more attention.

    I own basically the entire 87th precinct series by Ed McBain on kindle after it went on super sale a few years ago. The ones I didn’t buy (because they weren’t yet available) have been released, and everything is available through the Kindle Unlimited library. I’ve also been thinking of giving that series more attention.

    The problem that I have is that my attention wants to go in about fifty thousand different directions, and there are not enough hours in the day, week or month.

    I need to retire, so I can read like it’s my JOB. :0)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Is the 87th Precinct series a mystery series or more of a cop procedural series?
      With my fading interest in Fantasy, I’m always on the lookout for more reads 😀

      For me, the lack of continual reading time simply means I weed out authors and series much faster than I used to. And I don’t experiment nearly as much either.

      Back when covid first shut things down, I had most of a month off and even though I read a LOT, I couldn’t do it day after day. It became a job and I didn’t like that feeling 😀


      1. It’s more of a police procedural. It is extremely long-running – the first book was published in 1956, the 55th and last in 2005. The thing I am most intrigued in is seeing how McBain handles the changes in the investigative process over that 50 year period.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, when I first saw how many volumes were in the series I was simply astounded. It must take some serious imagination to come up with that many different ideas 😀

      I suspect finding the right balance will take a couple of years as I find what works and what doesn’t. I kind of like that doing that though, so it will be a learning experience instead of a frustrating one 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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