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Title: Triple Jeopardy
Series: Nero Wolfe #20
Author: Rex Stout
Rating: 4 of 5 Stars
3 novellas comprising:
“Home to Roost”
Benjamin and Pauline Rackell engage Wolfe to investigate the death of their nephew Arthur, paying him a $3,000 retainer. Arthur had begun to show increasing support for the Communist Party, but confided to Pauline that he had been recruited by the FBI to infiltrate the group’s New York organization. At a dinner party, he had brought out a pillbox from his pocket, set it on the table, and taken one of the vitamin capsules inside, only to die a few minutes later from cyanide poisoning. The other capsules in the box were found to be genuine and harmless. Pauline insists that one of the other five dinner guests must have learned the truth about Arthur and slipped the poisoned capsule into the box while he was not paying attention.
Archie visits both the local FBI office and Manhattan Homicide but is unable to get any useful information; at Wolfe’s request, he arranges a meeting with the Rackells and the dinner guests at Wolfe’s office. Of these latter five – Ormond Leddegard, Fifi Goheen, Della Devlin, Henry Jameson Heath, Carol Berk – only Heath is known to have ties to the Communist Party. Wolfe questions the group about the dinner party and the pillbox, not mentioning Arthur’s FBI status in order to avoid tipping them off, and inadvertently sparks a confrontation between Della and Fifi over Heath’s affections. Fifi says that Arthur told her he lied to Pauline about working for the FBI, a claim Pauline adamantly denies.
The next day, Archie engages Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin, and Orrie Cather to keep Heath under constant surveillance and arranges for the Rackells to see Wolfe again. Wolfe tells them that he is convinced there was an eyewitness to Arthur’s murder, and offers to find that person and get the truth for a fee of $20,000. Benjamin is unconvinced, but Pauline is eager to accept the offer, and Wolfe sends Archie to visit Della and Carol in their shared apartment that night. Della says that Carol has gone to a show, but Archie finds her hiding in a closet and listening in. After she leaves, he offers Della $10,000 to tell the police that she had seen Fifi switch the capsules; she does not immediately say yes or no, and he leaves to update Wolfe and Saul.
The next morning, both Inspector Cramer and FBI Agent Wengert visit the office to confront Wolfe. They have learned of Archie’s offer to Della and are furious, but Wolfe points out that their best course of action is to let him proceed, neither supporting nor opposing his plans. Archie gets updates on Heath’s movements throughout the day, culminating in a meeting with a woman in Central Park at which Saul is eavesdropping. Arriving at the location, Archie finds that the woman is Pauline and brings both of them to the office. With Saul’s corroboration, Wolfe determines that Heath arranged the meeting in order to persuade Pauline not to pay for Wolfe’s scheme to get Fifi convicted.
Wolfe reveals that his offer to the Rackells was meant to draw out the murderer, as he had no concrete evidence or witnesses. He accuses Pauline of Arthur’s murder, having become suspicious of her after she accepted his offer so quickly. She had seen it as a way to frame someone else for her crime and keep her own Communist leanings from becoming public. Wolfe pressures Heath into agreeing to tell him how much Pauline has contributed to the party, in order to keep himself from being associated with her criminal trial.
The next day, while Cramer and Wengert are going over the details of the case with Wolfe, Archie reveals that he knows who had been the real infiltrator sent by the FBI. It was Carol, who would have learned about the $10,000 offer from Della and was the only person who could have informed Wengert of it so quickly. Now that the case is over, she accepts Archie’s offer of a drink.
Returning to the brownstone from his morning errands, Archie finds two surprise visitors waiting for him on the stoop: Carl and Tina Vardas, both of whom work at the barbershop that Wolfe and Archie frequent. Jacob Wallen, a police detective, had visited the shop earlier in the day in order to question the employees as to their whereabouts on the previous night. After he had questioned Carl and Tina separately, they fled the shop for fear of being deported back to their native Russia, from which they had illegally made their way to New York City three years earlier. Archie puts them in the front room, tells Wolfe of their arrival, and goes to the shop.
Several police officers, including Sergeant Purley Stebbins, are already there when he arrives, and Inspector Cramer arrives soon afterward. Wallen has been found dead in a manicurist’s cubicle, stabbed in the back with a pair of scissors. While waiting for a shave, Archie learns that Wallen had been investigating a hit-and-run accident the previous night in which two women were struck and killed by a stolen car, and he had carried that evening’s newspaper with him. He had used the cubicle for his questioning, and his body was found there some minutes after talking to the last of the employees. Since Carl and Tina fled the shop, suspicion falls on them first. Janet Stahl, a manicurist, claims in overly dramatic fashion that she killed Wallen, but Archie does not believe her.
Once his shave is finished, Archie returns to the brownstone and finds Wolfe eating lunch with Carl and Tina. Further questioning of the couple reveals that neither of them knows how to drive a car, which is enough in Archie’s mind to clear them of any guilt in the hit-and-run. They remember that Wallen had carried his newspaper flat as if it had just come off the newsstand, rather than rolled or folded up in his coat pocket, and had set it down that way on the table in the cubicle. Surprised by the arrival of Cramer, Archie moves them into the front room in order to keep him from finding them. Cramer is unconvinced that Archie’s visit for a shave was only a coincidence, especially since has never gone to the shop for only a shave, but cannot see how any of the employees could afford Wolfe’s fees. During the visit, Cramer learns from a phone call that Janet has been injured.
Returning to the shop, Archie finds Janet recovering from a blow to the head and willing to talk only to him. She again over-dramatizes the incident, claiming that Stebbins assaulted her, but Archie uses her theatrics to question her further about the timeline of the morning’s events. He calls in with an update for Wolfe, who soon surprises everyone by showing up for a haircut and asking for his usual barber, Jimmie Kirk. As Jimmie begins to work, Wolfe addresses the group with a list of assumptions he has made concerning the hit-and-run and Wallen’s death:
That Wallen found some object in the car to lead him to the shop
That he carried it with him when he entered the shop
That it was inside his newspaper
That the murderer found and either moved or hid it
That neither Carl nor Tina was the murderer
That the object is still inside the shop
That no proper search for it has yet been made
With prompting from Wolfe, including a suggestion to check the shop for Wallen’s fingerprints, Cramer realizes that the object in question must have been one of the magazines in the waiting area, which are labeled with the shop’s name and address. Janet remembers seeing Jimmie carrying one wrapped in a hot towel, as if he had been steaming it, and Jimmie dives for the magazines only to be tackled and arrested. He had jumped bail in West Virginia on an assortment of charges, including auto theft; while working at the shop, he had developed a habit of stealing its magazines, one of which he left in the car after abandoning it. Wolfe grumbles over the inconvenience of losing his barber to a murder charge.
In the final chapter, Archie suggests that Wolfe call in a few favors with Washington officials so that Carl and Tina can legally remain in the United States. Wolfe comments that he has been a naturalized citizen for 24 years.
“The Squirt and the Monkey”
Archie Goodwin takes an unusual assignment to help cartoonist Harry Koven recover a gun that has been stolen from a desk drawer in his home office. Harry, creator of the popular Dazzle Dan comic strip, intends to have Archie place his own gun—the same model as the stolen one—in the drawer, then open the drawer in the presence of the five people he suspects of the theft and watch their reactions. These five are Harry’s wife Marcelle, his friend Adrian Getz (nicknamed “Squirt” by Harry), his agent/manager Patricia Lowell, and strip artists Pete Jordan and Byram Hildebrand.
Arriving at the Kovens’ house, Archie is escorted to a room with a blazing fireplace; the heat is for the benefit of Rookaloo, a pet monkey kept in a cage in this room. After Archie puts his own (unloaded) gun in Harry’s desk drawer, Harry becomes indecisive about his plan and asks for time to gather his courage, during which Archie meets the other five and learns of various tensions between them. Several hours later, once Harry is ready to proceed, he and Archie re-check the drawer only to find that Archie’s gun has been switched for Harry’s. Archie subsequently finds Getz lying dead in Rookaloo’s room, shot in the head, and Rookaloo is holding Archie’s gun (now loaded) and shivering in a draft from a now-open window.
When the police arrive, Archie makes a full statement and is then arrested by Inspector Cramer for violating the Sullivan Act, since he had been carrying Harry’s gun at the time and did not have a permit for it. Cramer’s decision is based on Harry’s untruthful account of the day’s events, in which he claims that he only invited Archie to discuss the idea of introducing a detective storyline into Dazzle Dan. Wolfe’s detective license is suspended; he secures Archie’s release on bail the next day—for both the weapons charge and a material witness warrant that has been sworn out against him—and files a $1 million slander lawsuit against Harry for damaging his reputation.
Wolfe has the past three years’ worth of Gazette issues delivered to the office, and Lon Cohen briefs Archie on various grudges that Harry and the others have against Getz, who turns out to be the owner of the Kovens’ house. Later that day, Wolfe and Archie have a hidden tape recorder installed in the office, with controls in the kitchen. Wolfe searches through the Dazzle Dan strips in the Gazette and takes interest in two characters, Aggie Ghool and Haggie Krool, who have a severely lopsided business relationship that favors Aggie. When Patricia stops by the office, Wolfe questions her about portrayals of a monkey in the strip—first depicted maliciously, then suddenly made to appear sympathetic. Patricia admits that Jordan and Hildebrand have very different opinions about Rookaloo, explaining the shift, and also says that she gave it to Getz, who in turn left it in Marcelle’s care without asking her. Patricia denies Wolfe’s statement of a rumor that the idea for Dazzle Dan originally came from Getz.
That night, Wolfe gathers the principals in his office and allows Cramer to attend as well, on the condition that he remain silent and observe through the office peephole for the first half-hour of the meeting. Wolfe secretly records a portion of the conversation, then plays it back in order to leverage information out of the group. The Aggie/Haggie characters represent the uneven split between Getz and Harry, as indicated by their initials (A.G. and H.K.); Getz, the strip’s actual creator, took a 90% share of the strip’s revenues and allowed Harry only 10%. Marcelle reveals that she had tried to persuade Harry to stand up to Getz and denounces him for never having the courage to do so. She tries to blame Harry for the murder, but Wolfe points out that her disdain for Rookaloo led her to open the window in the hope that the draft would kill it—a mistake that proves her guilt. Cramer places Marcelle under arrest, with Wolfe’s admonishment that he would have been able to close the case much sooner if he had believed Archie’s statement.
I really enjoyed these 3 novellas. I don’t know if I actually enjoyed these more than previous Wolfe novella collections or if I’ve just accepted that a good story can still be had in 60 pages. Whatever the reason, I had zero hangups this time around. For which I am thankful.
I absolutely love Archie and Wolfe’s interaction with the police. It is almost always adversarial yet they still all acknowledge the professionalism of the other. Of course, even here we can see how power wants to accumulate more power to itself. The cops are constantly pushing for more power, to deal with the bad guys better, but at some point if they got their wish they’d become 3rd world thugs. Also Archie and Wolfe both fully know their rights and the limits and protections of those rights. How many citizens today in America can factually layout why they can do what they think they can (or why they legally can’t)? Sadly, not nearly enough.
This was one of the times that I was tempted to read another Wolfe book right after this and bedamned to my reading schedule. I just wanted MORE. But not giving in to my literary cravings is what keeps me loving these Wolfe books. If I gave in, I’d get tired and burned out (unless I was Fraggle and read the whole series 3 times in a row in like a year or something totally cray-cray). While my reading rotation is highly personalized, it is that way because it works. I haven’t had a reading slump in years and I want to keep it that way. So with regret but determined, I put Wolfe away for another month or so.