Monday, November 15, 2010

Death Times Three

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 Death Times Three (Bantam, 1985).

Here's the Rex Stout apocrypha; three short stories which, for varying reasons, didn't make it into the Nero Wolfe canon. Actually, there's a single, and very good, reason: they aren't particularly good.

"Bitter End" is the least of the three. It started life as a novel featuring a minor recurring Stout character named Tecumseh Fox and was rewritten for a magazine as a Wolfe and Archie story. The characterization and the style seem notably, and jarringly, different from what I came to know as Archie's voice. This feels like a second-rate imitation of Stout, with a flow so hesitant that I couldn't enjoy the story, which was about some quinine-tainted food.

"Frame-Up for Murder" is an expanded version of the short story "Murder is No Joke," but is not radically different from the prior version. If John McAleer's lengthy introduction did not expound upon the differences between the stories, I doubt that I would trust myself to detect them. Much more interesting is "Assault on a Brownstone," an earlier draft of what would become the terrific short story "Counterfeit for Murder." It's notably inferior to the final version, as Stout elected to swap murder victims, but fascinating to see how the events played out differently between the two stories. In the original, a really fun supporting character gets knocked off. In "Counterfeit," she sensibly lives long enough to aggravate and annoy Nero Wolfe. You can almost see the gears in Stout's head click into position as he realized what an opportunity he missed.

I found that last story quite fun from an "academic" viewpoint, but the honest reality is that "Assault" really is the poorer cousin to its final version, "Frame-Up" is, like "No Joke," Stout by-the-numbers, and "Bitter End" is just plain awful. I'm glad that these stories are out there for fans to study, but reading them as a coda to the canon is bound to disappoint. I really wish that I had read them before I read Stout's amazing final novel, A Family Affair.

No comments: