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Title: Over My Dead Body
Series: Nero Wolfe #7
Author: Rex Stout
Rating: 4 of 5 Stars
Nero Wolfe is approached by Carla Lovchen, a young fencing instructor and illegal immigrant from Montenegro, on behalf of her co-worker and fellow “alien”, Neya Tormic. Neya has been wrongfully accused of stealing diamonds out of the coat pockets of Nat Driscoll, a wealthy student at the fencing studio where she and Carla work. However, Wolfe reacts with unusual hostility to Carla’s presence, storming out of the room and refusing to even consider her request.
After Carla leaves, Wolfe realises that she had an ulterior motive for visiting him; she has hidden a letter inside a book in Wolfe’s office. The letter, written in Serbo-Croatian, empowers Princess Vladanka Donevich, a Croatian aristocrat, to secretly negotiate with a foreign power over the rights to Yugoslavian forestry interests. When Carla returns, once more demanding Wolfe’s help, she shocks both Wolfe and Archie with a revelation — Neya claims to be Wolfe’s long-lost daughter, and has an adoption certificate as proof. Although skeptical, Wolfe admits that he adopted an orphan girl during his military service in Montenegro but lost contact with her during the political upheavals following the First World War. Nevertheless, Neya’s arrest would prove an embarrassing scandal for Wolfe, and he agrees to assist her.
Archie is sent to the fencing studio to investigate and meets Neya. Soon after, a British student at the studio named Percy Ludlow claims that Neya was simply recovering cigarettes from his coat, which is similar to Driscoll’s. Archie is surprised when Neya seems more confused than relieved by Ludlow providing her an alibi, but the matter is quickly resolved when Driscoll arrives, sheepishly confessing that the diamonds had never been stolen in the first place; he had simply forgotten where he had left them.
Wolfe asks Archie to bring Neya to him, meaning that Archie is present in the studio when Percy Ludlow is found dead, killed with an épée. Although the studio’s swords are blunted, the murderer has stolen a device called a cul de mort that can be attached to one, turning it into a deadly weapon. As the police arrive, Archie discovers that his coat has been tampered with; suspecting that the murderer has planted the cul de mort on him, he slips away and heads back to the brownstone, where he and Wolfe confirm his suspicions.
Neya Tormic is initially the main suspect in Ludlow’s murder; she was his fencing instructor and the last person seen with him. Although another student, Rudolf Faber, has provided her an alibi, it is weak. Her guilt seems to be confirmed when Madame Zorka, a mysterious Manhattan couturière who also studies at the studio, calls Wolfe claiming to have seen Neya plant the cul de mort. Although Zorka threatens to call the police, Wolfe calls her bluff by summoning her, Neya and the police to his office to reveal what has happened. Madam Zorka disappears, but Neya confesses that she did plant the cul de mort on Archie, claiming that it had already been planted on her and she merely panicked.
Inspector Cramer, already annoyed by Wolfe and Archie’s intrusion into the case, is further aggrieved when powerful interests begin to interfere with his investigation. Ludlow is revealed to be a British agent on confidential business, leading Wolfe to suspect that he was investigating the Yugoslavian forestry deal. His suspicions are confirmed when Rudolf Faber visits his office, claiming to be acting in Neya’s interests; when Archie and Wolfe both leave the office, Faber instantly tries to locate the letter in the book it was left in.
Donald Barrett, a banker and fencing student, approaches Wolfe also claiming to be acting in Neya’s interests. Barrett is the son of John Barrett, one of the partners of the firm involved in the deal, and Wolfe realizes that he is responsible for Madame Zorka’s disappearance. As the firm’s involvement with the deal is illegal under American law, Wolfe threatens to expose them unless Barrett produces Zorka. Capitulating, Barrett takes Archie to a love nest where he is housing Zorka. Wolfe attempts to question Zorka but she is apparently heavily intoxicated and incoherent. Wolfe eventually allows her to remain in the brownstone so that she can sleep it off, but when Archie goes to wake her the next morning he discovers she has slipped out via the fire escape. She is later found and brought back, where Saul Panzer reveals he has discovered her true identity – she is actually Pansy Bupp, a farm girl from Iowa who reinvented herself as Zorka in the hopes of achieving more success.
Neya demands the letter from Wolfe, who refuses to surrender except it with Carla as she was the one who hid it. Archie is sent with Neya and the letter to the apartment the two immigrants share, but when they arrive they discover Rudolf Faber murdered on the floor. Carla has fled, seemingly guilty, but Archie discovers that the police have managed to trace her to an office building where Nat Driscoll’s business is located; Driscoll is sheltering her. Archie contacts Carla and convinces her to come to Wolfe’s office, sneaking her away from the police by disguising her as a hotel bellboy.
Wolfe apparently surrenders the letter to Neya Tormic, who leaves with a police escort. Once she has gone, Wolfe reveals that Neya is actually the murderer; she is the Princess Vladanka, posing as an immigrant as cover for her deal with Faber. Ludlow uncovered her true identity, prompting Neya to murder him out of a panicked impulse. Faber discovered this and began to blackmail her for more favourable terms, leading Neya to murder him as well. The letter Wolfe gave her was actually a note informing her that she was no longer his client. Infuriated, Neya slips her escort and returns to attack Wolfe, but is killed when Wolfe cracks a beer bottle over her head in defense. Later, Wolfe reveals to Carla that he has realized that she is in fact his adopted daughter, and offers to support her in America.
This was a novel of international intrigue, politics and such. That aspect of this story was fine but it didn’t keep me glued to the pages. It did, however, have the advantage of allowing me to consider the writing itself.
In my last review of Nero Wolfe, Some Buried Caesar, I mentioned what a wordsmith the author, Rex Stout, was. But I was too busy enjoying that story to really be thoughtful about it. Here, I had the time. I think that for the most part, Stout transcends the genre and ascends to being a Great Writer. He allows his characters to be themselves. I’ve never felt that Wolfe or Archie or any of the other characters were simply a “type” to fill a void. In the same way, Stout doesn’t overdescribe the scenery and drag unnecessary words onto the page. He sets the scene, he doesn’t bore us to death with describing just what town he bought the paintbrush that he used to paint the door of the bathroom cupboard on the second floor of the yellow house of a tertiary character. At the same time, Stout isn’t so stingy with his descriptions that you feel like an 8 year old’s watercolor took the place of a Bob Ross masterpiece.
Technical skill isn’t enough though. The computer programs we have today can turn out technically correct stories. Not quite full novels, but even I could kluge something together. But a wordsmith has that something extra, just like some athletes have that innate skill. Stout doesn’t just use the technically correct word, but the word that flows with all of the others. A word can have several shades of meaning, which can be influenced by the words that came before or come after. It all depends on exactly what the author wants to convey, not just informationally, but emotionally as well. Words are weighted and just like Bob Ross knows exactly which shade of green to color his broccoli trees, so too does Stout know exactly what word to insert.
While I am not artistic, at all, I can appreciate those who are AND those can do things correctly. Combine both and you have a Word Smith. I salute you, Rex Stout. I enjoy your books.