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Title: The Silent Speaker
Series: Nero Wolfe #11
Author: Rex Stout
Rating: 4 of 5 Stars
Cheney Boone, the Director of the Bureau of Price Regulation (BPR) is beaten to death with a monkey wrench shortly before a speech he is to deliver at a gathering of the National Industrial Association (NIA), a prominent conglomeration of big business interests. Considerable antagonism exists between the two parties, and the public begins to hold the NIA responsible for Boone’s murder. This attracts the attention of Nero Wolfe, who is facing financial ruin, and with the help of Archie Goodwin he launches a scheme to manipulate the NIA into hiring his services to find the killer.
Wolfe arranges a meeting between the principal witnesses to the case—Boone’s widow and niece, acting BPR director Solomon Dexter and researcher Alger Kates, the NIA executive committee, and select members of law-enforcement including Inspector Cramer and Sgt. Purley Stebbins. The meeting soon degenerates into chaos and bickering, but Wolfe is intrigued by the absence of Phoebe Gunther, Boone’s private secretary and the last person to see him alive, and orders Archie to bring her to him for questioning. Archie finds Phoebe at an apartment owned and occupied by Alger Kates and, after a flirtatious battle of wits, persuades her to meet Wolfe. Phoebe claims that she was given a leather case full of confidential dictation cylinders shortly before Boone’s death, but has misplaced them.
The next day, Wolfe receives a telegram informing him that surveillance of Don O’Neill, the chairman of the NIA’s dinner committee, will have to be suspended—surveillance that neither he nor Archie ordered. Archie therefore follows O’Neill to Grand Central Station, where O’Neill retrieves the leather case from the parcel room, and intercepts him. Faced with the choice of going to the police or to Wolfe, O’Neill is forced to surrender the case, which contains ten dictation cylinders. It becomes clear when listening to them that none of them are the real confidential cylinders, however. When Wolfe calls another meeting of the principal witnesses, Phoebe once again fails to appear—but this time, her body is discovered by the front step of Wolfe’s home, brutally bludgeoned with a length of rusty pipe.
It is clear that Phoebe’s murderer is one of the principal witnesses, and that this person is likely to have also murdered Boone. After nine of the ten cylinders are discovered in Phoebe’s apartment, both Wolfe and Inspector Cramer become convinced that the missing cylinder is key to the murder, but political pressure forces Cramer’s superiors to replace him with Inspector Ash. Ash issues a warrant for Wolfe and Archie and tries to bully information out of Wolfe, leading to a violent confrontation in the police commissioner’s office. Although Wolfe stubbornly refuses to assist Ash, once the warrants are vacated he reveals why the cylinder is so important—on it, Boone identifies his own murderer. Phoebe, a passionate BPR supporter, intended to reveal it once the NIA had been damaged as much as possible by the controversy over Boone’s death, but managed to alert the murderer that she was aware of his identity and was killed for her silence.
After a meeting with Boone’s widow, where she confirms that Phoebe did indeed possess the cylinders, Wolfe takes the unprecedented step of terminating his contract with the NIA and returning the group’s $30,000 fee. As this removes the protection he has received through the status of his clients and will begin a barrage of police and media interest in him, he fakes a mental breakdown in order to hold the police off and buy time until the cylinder is found. Before the police can expose his deception, Wolfe realises that the only place Phoebe could have hidden the cylinder and known it was safe was Wolfe’s own office. He thus has Archie, Fritz and Theodore search the room for the cylinder, where it is found concealed in a bookcase. When played, both Wolfe and Cramer are vindicated; the murderer is revealed to be Alger Kates, who was bribed by Don O’Neill to pass on confidential BPR information and was exposed on the cylinder as a traitor. Having heard the cylinder, Phoebe discovered his guilt but revealed her knowledge to Kates when after pressuring him to return numerous items, possessing sentimental value to Boone’s widow, that were stolen from the corpse to fake a theft.
The novel ends with Archie confronting Wolfe, having realized that Wolfe staged the cylinder’s discovery and in fact knew it was in his office the whole time. He is simply unsure of whether Wolfe waited so long for “art’s sake,” or simply to ensure that he could collect a $100,000 reward offered by the NIA instead of the $30,000 fee. Wolfe does not disagree with either hypothesis, but suggests another motivation: having come to respect Phoebe Gunther’s intelligence and determination, Wolfe decided to continue as far as possible her objective of causing damage to the NIA. In gratitude for saving his career, Inspector Cramer timidly gives Wolfe an orchid for a gift.
I took a small break from Rex Stout. It is good to be back with Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, really good.