Authors: Nero Wolfe
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Mystery & Detective, #Private Investigators, #Nero (Fictitious Character), #Political, #Private Investigators - New York (State) - New York, #Wolfe, #Mystery Fiction, #New York (N.Y.)
Might As Well Be Dead
A NERO WOLFE MYSTERY
Introduction by John Katzenbach
Might As Well Be Dead
Eleven years ago, wealthy Nebraska businessman James Herold gave his only son, Paul, a very raw deal. Now he wants Nero Wolfe to track Paul down so that he can make amends. But what if the young man doesn’t want to be found … and what if he’s the same P.H. who’s currently on trial for cold-blooded murder? It’s a case that will draw the great detective and his dedicated sidekick into a sticky web of deceit, one that will tax their resources to the utmost, and even cost them one of their own.
FEW YEARS BACK, perhaps a decade or so, I first heard the phrase “psychological suspense” used to describe a genre of books that had greater pretenses than could be accommodated by the plebeian moniker “mystery.” Generally speaking, these books are notable for characters who carry angst and automatic pistols and serial killers of ever-increasing depravity and ingenuity.
The distinction between the two descriptions, I suppose, is that “psychological suspense” novels are exercises where good guys and bad guys are clearly delineated from the get-go, even if the good guy isn’t quite so good and the bad guy is a whole lot worse than one could have imagined in any current nightmare. The reader can always trust that the bad guy will transcend bad so far that any weaknesses on the part of his good counterpart are quickly ignored. These novels very rarely rely on the traditional “mystery” form, where the reader, following the intuitive trail of the detective, discovers in a more subtle and often surprising way where evil truly lies.
Personally, I’ve always thought this attempt to gentrify one type of novel at the expense of another, bunk. All good novels of crime should be mysterious. Questions of where, when, how, and ultimately whodunit, are only underscored when the further element of whydunit is added to the mix.
Which brings me, in a roundabout fashion, to Rex Stout and his famous character, Nero Wolfe. These titles, being reissued now, are “mysteries” in the traditional sense of the word. There is a crime, or series of crimes; it is unclear who has or is performing them, or why; there is a solution, which intrigues us readers because it is clever, chilling, and often a window onto the weaknesses and frailties of humankind.
The psychological acumen that Stout brings to Wolfe’s solutions is far more sophisticated than that which is displayed in today’s common “psychological suspense” novels. Maybe a bit less bloody (perhaps), but immensely more subtle. Wolfe probes personalities until he uncovers the nasty vein that pulses beneath the surface, regardless of how well hidden it might be. In actuality, almost all the real “action” of a Nero Wolfe novel is cerebral.
This, of course, is necessary, because, after all, Nero Wolfe is the very definition of a man who relies on his head to fathom crime. He doesn’t venture out of doors. He resists the intrusions of modern life with a steadfastness that, in this day and age of fax machines, cellular telephones, and 112-station cable television sets, is admirable. He prefers his plants and his gourmet meals. No world-weary street-smarts for Wolfe. He employs people to develop those attributes. No, Wolfe exists solely for the chase, which takes place on a uniquely psychological landscape. He listens (a lost ability in these times). He assesses. He deduces. He intuits. He investigates with a draughtsman’s precision and a psychiatrist’s intellectual scalpel.
Consider, for a moment, the title to this particular mystery: “Might As Well Be Dead.” This is a familiar, if not common, phrase. It is usually spoken with a jocularity that implies that the speaker doesn’t take his or her thought completely seriously, for, in reality, it is an awful idea, that events could descend upon an individual with such harshness that their life now resembles the coldness that we assume death to be. So, the phrase, when uttered with a singular sadness and despair, takes on a frightening weight. And that is precisely what spirits Nero Wolfe into this tale.
Before it is over, there will be a few bodies littering the literary horizon, and many things will not be as they first appear. Guilt and innocence will change places a few times. Like the proverbial jigsaw puzzle, facts, events, suppositions and evidence will all coalesce in a clever, provocative way. A Nero Wolfe novel is something akin to watching a chess match, but one where the rooks and pawns are real characters, and the stakes are considerably higher.
It is all handled with wit and verve. In this era where it seems sometimes that body-count is more important than style and where a cruel bloodthirst seems to dominate contemporary crime fiction (alas, I am probably guilty of adding a few titles to the list that fit this description), the reemergence of Nero Wolfe, with his carefully nurtured and coddled plants and dangerous, ever-expanding waistline, is a welcome respite from the harshness that seems to have overtaken the genre—regardless of whether one wants to call it a “mystery” or a novel of “psychological suspense.”
OST OF THE PEOPLE who come to see Nero Wolfe by appointment, especially from as far away as Nebraska, show some sign of being in trouble, but that one didn’t. With his clear unwrinkled skin and alert brown eyes and thin straight mouth, he didn’t even look his age. I knew his age, sixty-one. When a telegram had come from James R. Herold, Omaha, Nebraska, asking for an appointment Monday afternoon, of course I had checked on him. He was sole owner of the Herold Hardware Company, wholesale, a highly respected citizen, and rated at over half a million—a perfect prospect for a worthy fee if he had real trouble. Seeing him had been a letdown. From his looks, he might merely be after a testimonial for a gadget to trim orchid plants. He had settled back comfortably in the red leather chair.
“I guess,” he said, “I’d better tell you why I picked you.”
“As you please,” Wolfe muttered from behind his desk. For half an hour after lunch he never gets above a mutter unless he has to.
Herold crossed his legs. “It’s about my son. I want to find my son. About a month ago I put ads in the New York papers, and I contacted the New York police, and—What’s the matter?”
“Nothing. Go on.”
It was not nothing. Wolfe had made a face. I, at my desk, could have told Herold that unless his problem smelled like real money he might as well quit right there. One man who had made “contact” a verb in that office had paid an extra thousand bucks for the privilege, though he hadn’t known it.
Herold looked doubtful; then his face cleared. “Oh. You don’t like poking in a police matter, but that’s all right. I’ve been keeping after the Missing Persons Bureau, a Lieutenant Murphy, and I’ve run some more newspaper ads in the Personals, but they’ve got no results at all, and my wife was getting impatient about it, so I phoned Lieutenant Murphy from Omaha and told him I wanted to hire a private detective agency and asked him to recommend one. He said he couldn’t do that, but I can be pretty determined when I want to, and he gave me your name. He said that on a job like finding a missing person you yourself wouldn’t be much because you were too fat and lazy, but that you had two men, one named Archie Goodwin and one named Saul Panzer, who were tops for that kind of work. So I wired you for an appointment.”
Wolfe made the noise he uses for a chuckle, and moved a finger to indicate me. “This is Mr. Goodwin. Tell him about it.”
“He’s in your employ, isn’t he?”
“Yes. My confidential assistant.”
“Then I’ll tell you. I like to deal with principals. My son Paul is my only son—I have two daughters. When he graduated from college, the University of Nebraska, I took him into my business, wholesale hardware. That was in nineteen forty-five, eleven years ago. He had been a little wild in college, but I thought he would settle into the harness, but he didn’t. He stole twenty-six thousand dollars of the firm’s money, and I kicked him out.” His straight thin mouth tightened a little. “Out of the business and out of the house. He left Omaha and I never saw him again. I didn’t want to see him, but now I do and my wife does. One month ago, on March eighth, I learned that he didn’t take that money. I learned who did, and it has been proven beyond all doubt. That’s being attended to, the thief is being taken care of, and now I want to find my son.” He got a large envelope from his pocket, took things from it, and left his chair. “That’s a picture of him, taken in June nineteen forty-five, the latest one I have.” He handed me one too. “Here are six copies of it, and of course I can get more.” He returned to the chair and sat. “He got a raw deal and I want to make it square with him. I have nothing to apologize for, because at the time there was good evidence that he had taken the money, but now I know he didn’t and I’ve got to find him. My wife is very impatient about it.”
The picture was of a round-cheeked kid in a mortarboard and gown, with a dimple in his chin. No visible resemblance to his father. As for the father, he certainly wasn’t being maudlin. You could say he was bearing up well in the circumstances, or you could say he was plain cold fish. I preferred the latter.
Wolfe dropped the picture on the desk top. “Evidently,” he muttered, “you think he’s in New York. Why?”
“Because every year my wife and daughters have been getting cards from him on their birthdays—you know, those birthday cards. I suspected all along that my wife was corresponding with him, but she says not. She admits she would have, but he never gave her an address. He never wrote her except the cards, and they were all postmarked New York.”
“When did the last one come?”
“November nineteenth, less than five months ago. My daughter Marjorie’s birthday. Postmarked New York like the others.”
“Anything else? Has anyone ever seen him here?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Have the police made any progress?”
“No. None whatever. I’m not complaining; I guess they’ve tried; but of course in a great city like this they’ve got their hands full of problems and I’m only one. I’m pretty sure he came straight to New York from Omaha, by train, back eleven years ago, but I haven’t been able to verify it. The police had several men on it for a week, or they said they had, but now I think they’ve only got one, and I agree with my wife that I’ve got to do something. I’ve been neglecting my business.”
“That will never do,” Wolfe said dryly. Apparently he favored the cold-fish slant too. “And no results from the newspaper advertisements?”
“No. I got letters from five detective agencies offering to help me—of course the replies were to a box number—and quite a few, at least two dozen, from crackpots and impostors. The police investigated all of them, and they were all duds.”
“How were the advertisements worded?”
“I wrote them myself. They were all alike.” Herold got a big leather wallet from his breast pocket, fished in it, and extracted a clipping. He twisted in his chair to get better light from a window, and read:
PAUL HEROLD, WHO LEFT OMAHA, NEBRASKA, IN 1945, WILL LEARN SOMETHING TO HIS ADVANTAGE BY COMMUNICATING WITH HIS FATHER IMMEDIATELY. IT HAS BEEN LEARNED THAT A MISTAKE WAS MADE. ALSO ANYONE WHO SEES THIS AD AND KNOWS ANYTHING OF THE SAID PAUL HEROLD’S WHEREABOUTS, EITHER NOW OR AT ANY TIME DURING THE PAST TEN YEARS, IS REQUESTED TO COMMUNICATE AND A PROPER REWARD WILL BE GIVEN.