Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Silence for the Murderer!

When are you guaranteed that an after-dinner speaker won’t be dull? Why, when he drops dead, of course, having gotten himself murdered! It’s what happens to Cheney Boone, head of a federal agency called the Bureau of Price Regulation (BPR). And while its opponents, such as the National Industrial Association (NIA) are rejoicing, Nero Wolfe sets out to find the killer.

This is for the excellent reason that Nero Wolfe’s bank is not particularly pleased to have him as a client at the moment... With the funds stretched to their limits, Archie pesters his boss until Wolfe accepts a high retainer from the NIA to discover the killer. How nice of the NIA— but the real motive for the hiring is that the NIA wishes to find the killer ASAP and stop the discrediting rumours about the organization.

These men are “big fish” who do not tolerate being badgered or anything of the sort. Even Inspector Cramer seems powerless against them, and when a second murder occurs right outside of Nero Wolfe’s brownstone, a new cop is brought onto the case with a vision for “disciplining” Wolfe. He even forces the great man to leave his brownstone!

But this book actually contains more of an actual investigation, and the puzzle has got to be one of the finest in the Stout canon. Wolfe and Archie do banter occasionally, and they interact with the police in a very different way, but these for once seem to take a backseat to the plot. It’s a good one. All the clues are there and the killer is well-hidden.

All you need to do is add Archie Goodwin. I love this character and his interactions with Wolfe. Through Wolfe and Archie, Rex Stout managed to marry the hardboiled and armchair detectives into a single book, and they play off each other perfectly. Archie has one particularly brilliant line in this book that exemplifies the kind of dialogue you can expect from Stout: “I might as well have tried to explain to a man dying of thirst that the water was being saved to do the laundry with.” While Stout was no plotting master, his dialogue skills were always impeccable and that brought his characters vividly to life. So when, as in this book, he came up with a good plot, the result is a wonderful, wonderful read.

But let’s bring the focus back to Nero Wolfe. The Silent Speaker has got some of Wolfe’s finest moments. When the final page rolls along, Wolfe graciously accepts a fee far higher than the one originally offered to him and manages to look like the humblest person on God’s Good Green Earth. You can feel his fury at being forced to leave his brownstone and you know he’s up to something near the end of the novel when he—oh, but perhaps I won’t say what he does. But suffice to say that it’s a wonderful treat you should discover for yourself. I look forward to seeing the late Maury Chaykin act it out in A&E’s adaptation of The Silent Speaker as part of their brilliant Nero Wolfe TV series.

Overall, what more can be said? Stout is always a delight and in The Silent Speaker the plot is one of his best. Wolfe and Archie’s interactions are worth their weights in gold— and those who’ve read these books know just how large a man Wolfe is! All in all, I’d consider The Silent Speaker one of the series’ small masterpieces. The well-constructed plot gains a lot from the characters and their interactions and I can honestly say I loved it from cover to cover.


  1. Must read it again. You are so right about Stout's plots not being the finest thing in his books. I have forgotten most of this one, including the fact that the victim is the head of the Bureau of Price Regulation. I think my sympathies might be with the killer. (OK, just kidding.)

  2. Barzun and Taylor liked this one a lot as I recall. Some of the Wolfes I enjoyed as puzzles are Some Buried Caesar, And Be a Villain, Prisoner's Base (British title I rather like--Out Goes She) and my personal fave, Gambit.

  3. Oh, and I agree about Archie--one of the best characters in mystery fiction. I fine Nero kind of a pain, but of course it's his interaction with Archie that makes it.

  4. I aagree completely with the comment about Archie. Let's face it: Wolfe has very few endearing qualities. Readers tend to tolerate him only because Archie - whow we DO like and respect - quite obviously likes and respects Wolfe.

    I think one of the reasons why the A&E series works - at least in the episodes I've seen - is that the writers had enough sense to simply take Archie's narration and let Timothy Hutton voice it off-camera. It's a perfect sampling of that sparking wit. My two cents.

  5. Les, I was so disappointed they didn't get the third season; it was a very enjoyable series on the whole, though I had to get used to so many recurring actors (it was like a traveling company).

  6. I find that touch one of the series' many charms. I like it a lot (of course).

    As for Wolfe/Archie, JDC surprisingly liked Wolfe far more than Archie if his essay "The Grandest Game in the World" is to be believed. Wolfe is always most impressive solving the case, but when it comes to doing the legwork, Archie is the star of the show.

  7. One of my favorite Wolfe books, though when I remembered it I thought it wasn't. Then I reread it and of course, it turned out to be terrific.

    I reread almost every Wolfe book this year and will probably do the same next year. What can I say? I'm a fanatic. :)

    Though I find much about Wolfe to like. Over the years he has endeared himself to me in some strange way.

    However, it took me many reads to find Archie acceptable as other than just a wise guy.

    Now, of course, I appreciate him more than I can say.

    With age, comes wisdom. :)

    Enjoyed reading your review.

  8. I don't recall which story found Archie going off and forming his own agency for a short time. But it was a great example of why the characters work so well together and not quite as much when they're apart.

  9. I am currently researching the Office of Price Administration (the real-life equivalent of the fictional BPR)- it's very interesting how controversial the organization really was.