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Title: Too Many Women
Series: Nero Wolfe #12
Author: Rex Stout
Rating: 3 of 5 Stars
When a major engineering corporation conducts a survey into high employee turnover, a report is returned claiming that Waldo Moore, an employee recently killed in what was believed to be a hit-and-run accident, was murdered. The company president, Jasper Pine, approaches Nero Wolfe and hires him to find out whether this claim is true. Archie Goodwin is sent undercover as an outside consultant and assigned to investigate the stock department, where Moore worked, and is amazed to discover 500 beautiful women employed as secretaries and assistants.
Archie discovers that Moore was notorious among the employees as a lothario but had become engaged to Hester Livsey, a stenographer. He quickly identifies numerous possible suspects for Moore’s murder — in addition to Livsey, these include Rosa Bendini, who had enjoyed a dalliance with Moore; Bendini’s jealous estranged husband Harold Anthony; Gwynne Ferris, who had tried to seduce Moore but was rebuffed; Benjamin Frenkel, a supervisor who had developed feelings for Ferris and had been rebuffed; and Sumner Hoff, a hot-headed technical advisor who had gotten into a physical fight with Moore, which was believed to be over Livsey. As gossip begins to spread among the employees about Archie’s true mission, he begins to clash with Kerr Naylor, the eccentric and unpleasant department supervisor who lodged the initial report claiming that Moore was murdered.
During one confrontation, Naylor reveals that he knows Archie’s true identity, and that Moore had been given his job due to the intervention of Naylor’s sister Cecily, who is also married to Jasper Pine. Naylor and Cecily are the children of one of the founders of the company, and Naylor resents Pine being promoted over him. Naylor also claims that he knows the identity of Moore’s murderer, but when Archie reveals this in a report to the company directors he changes his story and claims Archie was lying. Cecily Pine meets with Wolfe, asking him to drop the investigation.
When an article about Wolfe’s investigation appears in the newspapers, Inspector Cramer confronts Wolfe in his office about what he knows. The increasingly heated and childish argument is interrupted by a phone call for Cramer; Kerr Naylor has been found dead, killed in a seeming hit-and-run accident in exactly the same manner and location that Waldo Moore had been found. The similarity of the deaths and the location remove any doubt that both men have been the victim of homicide. Wolfe had previously assigned Saul Panzer to shadow Naylor and, while Saul had lost the tail before Naylor’s murder, Saul managed to witness Naylor arguing with Hester Livsey hours before his death, with Sumner Hoff also present at the scene.
The company directors hire Wolfe to solve the murder of Kerr Naylor in addition to Waldo Moore. Archie hints to Livsey that he is aware of her meeting with Naylor prior to his death, and her suspicious reaction convinces him that she knows even more of the matter than she has let on. Archie persuades her to come to Wolfe’s office for an interview, but Sumner Hoff tags along, suspicious and confrontational towards both Archie and Wolfe. When Wolfe challenges them regarding her meeting with Naylor, both claim that they were with each other at the time, concocting an overly detailed story as corroboration. While the lie is obvious, it is also sufficiently unbreakable to completely stall the investigation.
Insulted by the transparency of Livsey’s lie, Wolfe concocts a plan to expose the truth. Archie stages a meeting with Livsey which, with Archie’s prodding, quickly results in the rumour spreading that Livsey knows the identity of the murderer. Livsey eventually cracks under the pressure and insists that she will reveal the truth to anyone other than Jasper Pine. Archie convinces her to accompany him to the brownstone for her protection, where Wolfe summons Cecily Pine by informing her that he knows who the murderer is.
When she arrives, Cecily Pine confirms Wolfe’s suspicions—the murderer was her husband, Jasper Pine. Pine and Livsey had begun a clandestine affair, but Pine had become increasingly obsessed with her. Although unbothered by the actual affair, Cecily had begun to worry that her husband’s obsession was threatening their comfortable lifestyle, and so persuaded Moore to seduce Livsey away from her husband. When Moore and Livsey ended up falling in love, Pine was driven to a jealous rage and murdered Moore. Cecily confided in her brother, and Naylor used the information to try and force Pine out of the company presidency and seize it for himself, but Pine murdered him.
Before the authorities can be notified, Wolfe receives news that Jasper Pine has committed suicide. Wolfe and Archie realise that Cecily contacted her husband before meeting Wolfe, and manipulated him into taking his own life. The investigation is closed, and Archie ends the novel by arranging a simultaneous date with Hester Livsey, Rosa Bendini and Gwynne Ferris.
I did not enjoy this as much as some of the other Nero Wolfe books I’ve read. A big part of it is that Archie gets involved with 3 different women and one of them is married and he knows it and it doesn’t change his attitude or behavior. The other part is that Wolfe is just crabby the whole time because of all the women and he’s not very brilliant at all in my opinion. Plus, the guy who kicks the whole thing off, Kerr Naylor, is the worst sort of jackass. I wanted to reach into the book and punch him until he pooped his teeth out. Thankfully, he’s killed, so I felt some satisfaction, even if it wasn’t me doing the killing.
Overall, this felt mediocre and neither Wolfe or Archie came across as interesting as they have previously. If this had been my first Nero Wolfe book I’d probably not pick up another. Thankfully, with this being #12 in the series, there’s a lot of good will built up by all the great books that came before to tide me over.
Definitely NOT the place to start your exploration of Rex Stout. He’s written much better Nero Wolfe adventures, so I’d recommend starting at the beginning. I’m just chalking this up to Stout having a mediocre writing day.