Friday, September 3, 2010

Champagne for One

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Champagne for One (Viking, 1958)

I'm past the halfway mark in reading all of Rex Stout's novels and stories about Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, and this might be the first to really leave me unsatisfied, although it still has much that would interest a contemporary reader. In this one, the police would love to quickly close a case in which a woman known to be suicidal seems to poison herself at a party, except that somebody has alerted Archie, with his superhuman powers of observation, and he's been watching her like a hawk and insists that she had no opportunity to take any cyanide.

I'm not sure what part of the story rubs me the wrong way, but it might have something to do with the introduction of the poison. I watched the TV adaptation of it and reread the relevant section after finishing the book and I'm still confused by it. We'll chalk that up to my own poor reading skills, but it really does seem convoluted. Otherwise, this one still seems pretty dry, with Wolfe almost detached from the events and never really either engaged or engaging, and no sense of danger or menace from any of the action. There's a great scene where Archie and Saul, working individually, tail a couple to a restaurant and bust them in the act of covering up something, but this leads to a plot twist that has been rendered dull by the passage of time and countless subsequent uses in fiction.

In its favor, however, there's a really interesting look at society's morals from more than fifty years ago, with the rich well-to-dos of New York culture taking a special interest in those poor, unfortunate unwed mothers, and a strangely condescending attitude towards helping them re-enter society. While this is very much one of the most dated books in the series, it's certainly a curiosity on this front. Recommended, without much enthusiasm, for readers following the series, but certainly not any newcomers.

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