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Title: Black Orchids
Series: Nero Wolfe #9
Author: Rex Stout
Rating: 4 of 5 Stars
Millionaire orchid fancier Lewis Hewitt has hybridized three black orchid plants in his Long Island greenhouse. Nero Wolfe is wild to have one, so he and Archie Goodwin visit New York’s annual flower show, where Hewitt’s orchids are on exhibit. One of the other exhibits features a daily performance by a young couple miming a summer picnic. The woman, Anne Tracy, attracts the attentions of Archie, Hewitt, and a young exhibitor named Fred Updegraff.
During Wolfe’s visit to the show, Anne’s picnic partner Harry Gould is killed, shot in the head by a gun concealed in the foliage. The gun’s trigger is attached to a long string that reaches to a hallway well behind the exhibit.
After a little inquiry, Wolfe shows Hewitt how his walking stick was used to pull the string and fire the shot that killed Gould. Hewitt is horrified by the prospect of the publicity that would ensue should his part in the shooting, however indirect and unwitting, become known. Wolfe offers Hewitt this arrangement: in exchange for all three black orchid plants, the only ones in existence, Wolfe will solve the murder and deliver the criminal to the police, without publicly disclosing Hewitt’s connection to the crime. Hewitt terms it blackmail, but submits.
Earlier, Archie had noticed a woman waiting in the hallway behind the exhibit, at around the time that the murderer would have been deploying the string. He now finds her in the crowd that’s gawking at the murder scene. Archie steals her handbag, removes it to the men’s room, searches it for identification, and learns her name (Rose Lasher) and address. He returns the handbag to her – all without Rose or anyone else noticing.
The police want to know more about her and, finishing their questions, they let her go — but surreptitiously follow her. The police lose her trail but Archie knows her home address, where she has been living with Harry Gould. He arrives at Rose’s apartment just as she is about to flee the city, and takes her to Wolfe’s house. There Archie searches her suitcase and finds some printed matter that Rose cannot or will not explain: a clipping of an article by Hewitt on Kurume yellows,[a] a plant disease that is fatal to broadleaf evergreens; a postcard to Rose from Harry, postmarked Salamanca, New York (in the western part of the state); and a work order from a garage, also in Salamanca.
Wolfe gets Rose to discuss some of Gould’s unsavory qualities. Wolfe learns that although Gould was employed as a gardener, he suddenly acquired a bank account containing several thousand dollars[b] and what Miss Lasher terms “a big roll of bills.” From his general awareness of horticultural events, Wolfe knows that an attack of Kurume yellows devastated a plantation of a new hybrid of broadleaf evergreens, about eighty miles west of Salamanca and owned by Updegraff Nurseries. The same disease has affected the exhibit in which Anne and Gould were featured; W. G. Dill, one owner of the company sponsoring it, had asked Wolfe to investigate the source.
Weighing all this information, Wolfe assembles the principals in the fumigation chamber of his plant rooms. He accuses Hewitt of conspiring with Gould to infect the plantations of rival growers, and of killing Gould after the latter began to blackmail him. When a telephone call comes in for Hewitt, Wolfe sends Dill to answer it instead, closes the chamber door, and informs the rest of the group that Dill, not Hewitt, is the murderer. Dill is later found dead in the plant rooms, having turned on the flow of fumigation gas with the intent to kill everyone inside the chamber; however, Wolfe had anticipated this action and diverted the gas to fill the plant rooms instead.
Wolfe tells Cramer that Anne had previously confirmed his suspicions of Gould’s and Dill’s activities. He keeps the black orchids, but Cramer is unimpressed by their appearance, saying that he prefers geraniums. The orchids have a cameo role in the second novella in this collection, “Cordially Invited to Meet Death.”
Cordially Invited to Meet Death:
Bess Huddleston arranges parties for New York society. She has been in contact with Wolfe once before, when she wanted him to play the detective at a party that would feature a mock murder; Wolfe declined to participate. Now, she comes with one anonymous letter in hand and a report of another. They were not sent to her, nor do they threaten her directly: rather, one was sent to a client and the other to a member of the circle in which her clients move. The letters imply strongly that Miss Huddleston has been gossiping about her clients’ private lives.
She wants Wolfe to put an end to the smear campaign – if it continues, her monied clients will no longer trust her and will not hire her to arrange their parties. Miss Huddleston has two employees, an assistant party arranger named Janet Nichols and a secretary named Maryella Timms. Both have access to a box of stationery of the same kind used for the letters. The letters are typewritten, and appear to Miss Huddleston’s eye to have been typed on one of her typewriters. Wolfe tells Miss Huddleston to have Miss Nichols and Miss Timms come to his office.
They do so, and arrive at a moment when Wolfe and Fritz are discussing another attempt at cooking corned beef. This has long been a problem in the brownstone’s kitchen, one never satisfactorily resolved. Miss Timms hears about the dilemma and barges into the kitchen to help. Wolfe is so impressed by Miss Timms’ expertise that he later allows her to link arms with him, and writes to a professor at Harvard concerning chitlins and corned beef.
Apart from the culinary, though, Wolfe obtains no useful information from Nichols and Timms, and sends Archie to Miss Huddleston’s house and place of business to investigate further. There, Archie is bedeviled by a playful chimpanzee, two pet bears and an alligator. He also meets Miss Huddleston’s brother Daniel, her nephew Larry, and Alan Brady, an MD who has been spending time with Janet Nichols. Archie does not get much further at the house than Wolfe did in his office, but he has cocktails on the terrace with the various players. As the butler is bringing more drinks, the chimpanzee startles him and a tray of glasses crashes to the ground. Most of the broken glass is cleaned up, but Miss Huddleston’s foot is cut by a shard and, because of the presence of the animals, Dr. Brady treats the cut with iodine.
Less than one week later, Miss Huddleston is dead, having undergone an excruciatingly painful and drawn out death from tetanus. That, as far as Wolfe is concerned, ends his involvement, but Daniel Huddleston makes a nuisance of himself with the police: he believes his sister was murdered. Daniel is insistent enough that Inspector Cramer comes to Wolfe looking for information. Wolfe has none for him, but after Cramer leaves he drops Archie an exiguous hint: he thinks there is one thing that Cramer should have done during his investigation, and wonders if it has rained during the past week.
This collection of two novellas was perfect. Twice as much Wolfe and Archie is twice the fun. It is the essence of Stout’s writing that we get here. Even though this is number 9 in the series, I would recommend this to someone who wants to get a taste for Nero Wolfe (no, not that way. I don’t promote canniblism on this blog after all!) as you’ll get two stories to see if the setting and writing works for you.
While I wouldn’t want to live in the time period of Wolfe and Archie (I just realized, I use Nero Wolfe’s last name for him but Archie Goodwin’s first name for him. I wonder why?), I would be dead of my diabetes after all, I REALLY like how the author has Wolfe and Archie knowing their rights as citizens and forcing the police to abide by said rights and the police do it. They exist to solve the crime, not prevent it, and they take that job very seriously. What’s more, both Wolfe and Archie expect that, and nothing more, from the police. They’re not cowering in the brownstone waiting for somebody else to do everything for them. They take a whole heaping load of responsibility on themselves and don’t whine and complain (well, Archie does, but that goes with the job I think) and write letters to the editor, etc. Reading about mature people is refreshing, and it’s sickening that it’s refreshing too.
The writing is as good as ever and once again, I would highly recommend this book if you want to experience Rex Stout’s writing and to see if Wolfe and Archie will be your cup of tea. With two stories, you’ll know for sure one way or another by the end. And you don’t need to have read any of the previous books to understand anything here (I think). Stout does a good job of making each book stand on its own two legs. And there is only ONE perspective, Archie’s. I’d poke this book into John Gwynne’s eye if I could and make him eat dirt on the strength of that alone! (for those not in the know, Gwynne tends to have about 100 perspectives in his bloated novels and none of them are actually important or necessary)