Book Review: And Be A Villain: A Nero Wolfe Mystery by Rex Stout

Title: And Be A Villain: A Nero Wolfe Mystery

Author: Rex Stout

Format: Paperback edition, Bantam Books

Published: 1961


I am most definitely a Nero Wolfe fan.  Rex Stout’s creation of Wolfe and Archie Goodwin makes Stout one of the legendary names in Private Detective fiction.  Even with that, though, not even Rex Stout can hit the bullseye every single time.  And Be A Villain proves that point.

When Archie informs Wolfe that the coffers will be empty once income tax is paid, Wolfe undertakes the most hateful thing he can imagine and actually seeks out work.  The latest news involves the death of a man, a publisher of a racing magazine, on a live radio program during the sampling of a soda by himself and other cast members.  Playing on the foibles of both individuals and companies behind the program, Wolfe offers to solve the mystery behind the man’s death for a sizable fee, one that is equal to and will take care of his income tax debt.

What follows is a fairly typical Nero Wolfe mystery, with Archie doing a lot of legwork, investigating all the guests on the program, including the charming hostess, as well as the victim, uncovering that all is not as it seems with the dead soda drinker. Or, with the soda said corpse drank.  Or, with …well, much of anything.

As Wolfe and Archie delve deeper, Wolfe takes on the attitude that much of the work that needs to be done should be and is already being handled by the police, so he relaxes to a degree and lets Inspector Cramer do the heavy lifting. This leads to a frustrated Archie Goodwin, but also results in the tying in of another, seemingly separate murder into the case as well as suspicion being cast around all parties equally.

It must also be noted that this is the first book in the what is referred to as the  ‘Arnold Zeck’ Trilogy.  Zeck appears as the ultimate foil to Wolfe, only by phone at this point, extremely politely warning Wolfe to not decide to be as industrious or successful as he normally is in this matter.  It is intimated that Zeck has called before in another matter years ago and Wolfe identifies him as a man who is most formidable and one he may one day have to deal with…permanently.

Even with the debut of Zeck, And Be A Villain falls short of Stout’s usually phenomenal work.  There is very little of Wolfe in this book, not so much in appearance as in Wolfe doing much of anything. Now, that is presented to the reader as a key point of the plot and a reason for Archie to fume, but I don’t read Nero Wolfe to watch Wolfe do nothing. Yes, there are many times he SEEMS to do nothing in other tales, but in all of them, there is an underlying plotting and thinking going on.  In this book, the point seems to be that Wolfe really is letting the police handle all the work until he absolutely can’t anymore.

Combine this lack of Wolfe being Wolfe with a rather lackluster mystery and a solution that is obvious halfway through the book and And Be A Villain rates three out of five pages. An average read and interesting because it’s Wolfe, but not much more.

This entry by Stout also loads three out of six bullets on my scale.  Enjoyable, but only because the characters and settings are familiar.  Won’t be a reload on this one for me.

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. mcclellanelias
    Apr 13, 2016 @ 02:02:36

    When Walter Mosley wrote The White Butterfly it was like he was off his game. His prose lacked some of the wonder and lyricism of Devil in a Blue Dress and A Red Death. There was a meanness that hadn’t been there before–and wouldn’t be there again until Blond Faith. Years later, I read he was going through a divorce when he wrote The White Butterfly. I can’t help but wonder if this book wasn’t Rex Stout’s tax bill.


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