Thursday, December 31, 2009

Black Orchids

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Black Orchids (Farrar & Rinehart, 1942).

The ninth Nero Wolfe book in the canon is Black Orchids, the first of several collections of short novellas. This one contains two mysteries by Rex Stout that originally appeared in shorter form in magazines, "Black Orchids" and "Cordially Invited to Meet Death."

Each of these stories is only about ninety pages long. While it was interesting to read adventures without the space for so many twists and turns like the novels do, I was still left a little unsatisfied by them. In both stories, the method of killing is just this side of utterly ridiculous, and neither really rang true to the series so far. Perhaps I'm being influenced by the Chandler that I am also reading, but it does seem out of place. When someone becomes angry or desperate enough to murder, it's usually a matter of arranging time to just shoot them down with impunity, rather than concoct an elaborate deathtrap. As Chandler pointed out, that's the hallmark of the Sayers-Christie school, the British approach to killing, and it feels a little out of place in the very New York world of Wolfe and Goodwin. The deathtrap in the lead story really is silly, and I'm not saying it brings the whole piece crashing down - after all, The Nine Tailors features one of the most implausible killings I've ever read, and it's still among my favorite novels - but it certainly jars a lot.

"Cordially Invited to Meet Death" was more entertaining. While "Black Orchids" and its cast of flower-fanciers and living mannequins has its charms, it's the bizarre whirl of Manhattan socialites and their menageries of hangers-on that proved the more charming of the two. I'm certain that one of the many novella collections I've yet to read will prove a better introduction to the characters than these stories, but it's an entertaining enough distraction.

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