Rex Stout

 

Champagne for One

(A Nero Wolf Mystery)

 

Pleasant.

 

This is anything but hardboiled crime – more like light musical crime. An odd genre that has a murder as the central plot device, but we’re all meant to be well aware that, as in cartoons, nobody really gets hurt: the victim will get up, dust themselves off, and be ready to be done in or doing-in in the next novel. The TV drama based around this series suits it perfectly, with the same cast taking turns in different roles throughout. Still it’s an enormously popular style, so safe in the knowledge that we’re deep in convention we can have a nice time playing in a situation that in reality would be awful.

 

While Stout never goes over the top (which is why I stopped at a B – I smirked occasionally but never laughed out loud), the characters and manor of dialogue are not too distant from a Wodehouse novel. Stout’s narrator is dryly humorous rather than ingenuously hilarious. He has his moments:

It is always a temptation to monkey with locks, and one of the best ways to test ears is to enter someone’s castle uninvited and, while you are looking here and there for something interesting, listen for footsteps on the stairs or the sound of an elevator. If you don’t hear them in time your hearing is defective, and you should try some other line of work when you’re out and around again.

Nice timing – it’s the sort of thing I’d expect to hear from John Clarke. The confident females we encounter sparkle in conversation, and most of the company is pleasant enough to be with. Stout makes the trip quite agreeable.

 

He puts himself under a bit of pressure with the frequent references to Wolfe’s ‘genius’ (I always prefer a writer to convince me of a character’s outstanding attributes by their actions and dialogue rather than expecting me to just take their word for it that they’re intelligent/funny/cunning or whatever), but part of the reason for this is he enjoys playing with the hierarchy and professional protocol of various detectives who enjoy sorting out their place in the pecking order, and need a grand master to aspire to.

 

This is not fantastic or powerful or stunning – but it was never meant to be. Stout was a prolific professional writer turning out another workmanlike product in his justifiably successful franchise – this is hardly his attempt at a masterwork, but it is a solid, enjoyable light crime novel.

 

January 2004