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Title: Some Buried Caesar
Series: Nero Wolfe #6
Author: Rex Stout
Rating: 4.5 of 5 Stars
While on their way to a rural exposition in upstate New York to show orchids, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are involved in a minor car accident. On their way to a nearby house to phone for help, they are threatened by a large bull but are eventually rescued by Caroline Pratt, a local golf champion, and her acquaintance Lily Rowan. The house and bull belong to Thomas Pratt, Caroline’s uncle and the owner of a large chain of successful fast food restaurants, and he has purchased the bull—a champion Guernsey called Hickory Caesar Grindon—in order to barbecue it as part of a publicity stunt.
While Wolfe and Archie enjoy Pratt’s hospitality, they meet several of Pratt’s family and neighbours—Jimmy Pratt, Pratt’s indolent nephew; Monte McMillan, the original owner of Caesar, who sold the bull to Pratt after falling into financial difficulties; Clyde Osgood and his sister Nancy, the children of Pratt’s neighbour Frederick Osgood; and a New Yorker named Howard Bronson, who is apparently a friend of Clyde. There is tension between the Pratt and Osgood families due to a bitter rivalry between Thomas Pratt and Frederick Osgood, and when tempers flare Clyde makes a bet with Pratt that the latter will not barbecue Caesar. As Pratt is already paranoid due to the hostility of local farmers opposed to his plans to cook Caesar, Wolfe offers Archie’s services as a guard for Caesar in exchange for a comfortable stay at Pratt’s house. During his watch that night, Lily Rowan shows up to keep Archie company, and together they discover Clyde’s body, gored to death in the pasture.
The local authorities assume that Clyde was simply gored by Caesar during an attempt to sabotage Pratt’s plans, but Wolfe believes that Clyde was murdered; the bull’s face was cleaner than it would have been had he fatally attacked Clyde. His suspicions are shared by Frederick Osgood, who knows his son to be an experienced cattle-man who would not have made the amateurish mistakes that would have caused his death had the bull been responsible. The elder Osgood consequently hires Wolfe to learn the identity of the murderer and agrees to house him in comfort for the duration of the investigation. Archie is also hired by Caroline Pratt to prevent what she believes to be Lily Rowan’s attempts to seduce her brother Jimmy.
In a meeting with Waddell, the local district attorney, Wolfe proposes that the murder weapon was in fact a digging pick that the murderer used to fake the attack, having first knocked Clyde out and dragged him into the paddock. Waddell, who has a petty rivalry with the elder Osgood, is skeptical but is nevertheless convinced to reopen the investigation. However, before the investigation can proceed far, sudden news comes that Caesar has died suddenly of anthrax. In order to prevent it spreading, this means that the bull will be automatically cremated. Wolfe dispatches Archie to either delay the cremation or take as many photos of the bull as possible before this, but Archie arrives too late to do either.
After interviewing Nancy Osgood, Wolfe learns that Bronson is in fact a New York loan shark who has been shadowing Clyde in order to ensure he receives $10,000 that Clyde borrowed to cover his gambling debts. When confronted by Wolfe and Archie, Bronson confirms this, but is vague and unhelpful when questioned regarding Clyde’s death, leading Wolfe to suspect that Bronson knows more than he is saying. Out of respect for Nancy Osgood, Wolfe has Archie recover the promissory note Bronson was holding over Clyde by force, but warns the loan shark to be careful.
The next day, Wolfe’s orchids win numerous prizes at the exposition, defeating a hated rival in the process. While following some of Wolfe’s instructions, Archie discovers Jimmy Pratt and Nancy Osgood in a secret rendezvous; the two are lovers, but have kept their relationship secret from their feuding parents. By chance, during their confrontation Archie also stumbles upon the body of Howard Bronson, gored with a pitchfork and hidden under straw. He manages to conceal the body and returns to Wolfe with the news. But when the body is discovered, Archie is detained by Captain Barrow, the bullying local head of the state police, and is imprisoned by the authorities as a material witness when he refuses to reveal what he knows.
The next day, Wolfe secures Archie’s release with the promise to that he knows who the murderer is and will soon expose him to the authorities. To Archie, Wolfe admits that despite knowing the murderer’s identity, the evidence that will enable him to prove it has been efficiently destroyed. Nevertheless, based on his memory and official records from the local farming authorities, Wolfe draws some sketches of the bull that he and Archie encountered and uses them to confront Monte McMillan. Wolfe has deduced that the bull that Thomas Pratt purchased and intended to barbecue was not, in fact, Caesar at all. The champion bull was killed in an anthrax outbreak that decimated almost all of McMillan’s herd, and the bull that was passed off as Caesar was in fact Hickory Buckingham Pell, a similar but inferior twin. Facing financial ruin, McMillan sold Buckingham as Caesar for an outrageous sum, but due to his experience with cattle Clyde realised the deception and was planning to expose it to win his bet. McMillan thus murdered Clyde to silence him, and later killed Bronson when the loan shark, realising that McMillan was the murderer, tried to blackmail him.
Although Wolfe admits that McMillan has covered his tracks well and is unlikely to be convicted of murder, the evidence Wolfe has manufactured is sufficient to convict McMillan of fraud, which would expose and ruin him nonetheless. Accepting defeat, McMillan reveals that he has infected himself with anthrax and agrees to write a confession out for Wolfe before dying. Months later, Archie records the case, revealing in the process that Jimmy Pratt and Nancy Osgood are engaged to be married and that he has begun a friendship with Lily Rowan, who has returned to New York.
First off, I am giving this the Best Book of the Year tag. This is the first time I felt a book was good enough to get that tag this year. I haven’t been paying that much attention to this kind of thing and when I don’t pay attention it tends to slip under the radar. With the end of the year fast approaching, that is always a wake up call for me.
Plus, I just had a rollicking good time for the entire book. Archie particularly made me laugh and smile again and again. In one instance, when he’s thrown in jail more reasons of clashing of wills between Wolfe and the police, he organizes a Union and elects a president and treasurer, etc and writes up a bunch of rules that they are going to submit to the Warden. It was pure cheek and was done simply to annoy the Warden. It was done in Archie’s easy going but tough way that you just had to enjoy it!
There is also the confrontational frission between Wolfe and his client. He warns the client to not hire him but that if he does X,Y and Z will happen. Sure enough, they do and Wolfe lambastes the client for complaining about them when he, Wolfe, had already warned him. At first glance Wolfe appears to be an arrogant jackass but when you take into account who we see him interacting with, it’s no surprise and the real wonder is that Wolfe hasn’t become a complete misanthrope to everybody he meets.
Finally, I enjoyed Archie’s romantic sparring with Lily Rowan. They both have no longterm use for the opposite sex or at least to push the idea of marriage as far down the road as possible and as such make great foils for each other. I don’t expect them to get married though and I even wonder if we’ll see Lilly again in future books or not. So far I don’t remember any recurring young women. As long as Archie doesn’t turn into some sort of cad, I’ll be ok with the trend though.
Overall, I just have to sit back and marvel that Rex Stout is such a wordsmith. To make characters like Wolfe and Archie, to craft scenes like the one near the beginning when Wolfe is stuck on top of a boulder while an angry bull stalks around the pasture, it just makes me glad that I did decide to read this series. Good stuff.