Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Silent Speaker

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 The Silent Speaker (Viking, 1946).

I always enjoy reading books written in the 1940s for the way they depict contemporary life, and routines interrupted by the war. There's a slight, but nevertheless jarring impact when the story suddenly includes, say, armed guards atop a dam in Chandler's Lady in the Lake. Then there's Rex Stout's The Silent Speaker, the first Nero Wolfe novel to be published after the war, when US industry was still "hampered," I suppose they'd say, by the government's strict price controls.

It's actually a neat little mirror of what's going on in Wolfe's brownstone. With the war over and Archie returned to civilian life, there's nothing our heroes would rather do than get back to work and make a little money. So would the captains of American industry, who don't appreciate the government dragging its feet in getting price restrictions lifted. So when a representative of the Bureau of Price Regulation ends up beaten to death with a monkey wrench just before he was to give a major speech to those captains of industry, Wolfe and Archie have dozens of potential killers to consider. Naturally, the narrative quickly reduces the number of suspects to only about nine or ten really interesting characters, particularly Phoebe Gunther, who immediately makes a case for herself in Archie's heart.

After finishing the book, I read that the producers of A&E's A Nero Wolfe Mystery adapted it in two parts. I was already thinking what a terrific two-part teleplay this would make, as right about halfway through the book, Wolfe has made one of his usual assemblages of relevant parties, with Archie diligently taking notes, when Fritz interrupts to get Archie's attention. One invited guest never made it to the brownstone; Fritz has found her body out front, beneath the street level and the entry stairs. It's just a deliciously mean twist to the story, which is never less than enthralling. Certainly, this is a novel which I will delight in rereading once I make it through the canon in a year or so's time. Recommended.

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