All the Nero Wolfe’s I’ve read (only four so far) have been good, but I was very fortunate to have, without any planning, read what you could loosely call the ‘Zeck’ trilogy in order. Loosely because while Wolfe’s nemesis Arnold Zeck is first mentioned in ‘And Be A Villain’, and more forthrightly in ‘The Second Confession’, neither of these books centres on Zeck, but largely stick to the standard solving of a separate mystery formula, although it is an added bonus to have Wolfe working around the sinister master criminal. Let me strongly advise you NOT to start your Nero Wolfe experience with ‘In the Best Families’: much of the pleasure of this superior tale is in knowing the conventions of the series before Stout has the fun of bending them.
‘In the Best Families’ lets us enjoy all sorts of unconventional behaviour. It’s like one of those specials in a long running TV series where for one night they step outside the norm – but think more of, say, the success of the singing Buffy episode (I haven’t seen it but fans tell me it’s good), rather than, um, the Brady Bunch in Hawaii. Having got to know Archie and Wolfe so well, it’s delicious to have them hurled about in this episode. I mean, other characters have this sort of thing go on all the time, but for Nero Wolfe to behave this way!
The typical pleasure of a Rex Stout mystery is the urbane wit, enjoyable jousting, and workable crime plot. Here, instead, we have drama and danger. Stout has been so controlled (or safe) with Archie and Wolfe for so long, this departure has a wonderful impact. We get a parallel universe – what would Archie do without his guru? We get to see the unflappable Wolfe monstrously discomforted.
I can’t say I was overwhelmed by the climax – the sting had way too many chances for bungling for me to give stunned acknowledgement to the machinations of the unarguable ‘genius’ of Wolfe (although his first phone call is a triumph). But the fun I’d had on the way more than made up for this. This one isn’t merely competent, it soars.