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Title: The Red Box
Series: Nero Wolfe #4
Author: Rex Stout
Rating: 3.5 of 5 Stars
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”.
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.