Murder by the Book (Nero Wolfe, #19)

By Rex Stout, David Handler

3,144 ratings - 4.12* vote

It wasn't Leonard Dykes's writing style that offended. But something in his unpublished tome seemed to lead everyone who read it to a very unhappy ending. Now four people are dead, including the unfortunate author himself, and the police think Nero Wolfe is the only man who can close the book on this novel killer. So the genius sleuth directs his sidekick to set a trap… an It wasn't Leonard Dykes's writing style that offended. But something in his unpublished tome seemed to lead

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Book details

Paperback, 246 pages
September 1st 1995 by Bantam

(first published October 12th 1951)

Original Title
Murder by the Book
0553763113 (ISBN13: 9780553763119)
Edition Language

Community Reviews

Bill Kerwin

The only people who know the contents of an unpublished novel (the author, the publisher's reader, the typist of the manuscript) have been murdered, the novel has apparently been destroyed, and Nero Wolfe is determined to discover why--despite the fact that neither Wolfe nor Archie has the slightest clue where to begin.

This is one of the more interesting features of the novel: what do detectives do when they don't even know where to start? How does a professional go blundering around, trying to shake something loose? Another interesting thing about our story is that Archie, in an effort to discover a clue, takes a trip to Los Angeles, and it is a pleasure to watch our amiable East Coast sleuth in Philip Marlowe country, walking down Chandler's mean West Coast streets.

This is one of Wolfe's best.


Inspector Cramer is a friend/archenemy of both Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. When he shows up at Wolfe's office asking for his opinion about a list of strange names found at a murdered man's place it comes as a great surprise for both detectives. Nero Wolfe does not feel like offering one, so pissed off Cramer leaves. Later on when a wealthy Illinois businessman hires the detective to find a murderer of his only daughter - it seems to be hit-and-run accident to the police - Nero Wolfe is the only person to see the connection between this case and Cramer's problem.

Nero Wolfe's lifestyle takes quite a lot of money, so his fees are very high. For this reason the majority of his clients are very wealthy people who are often not very nice. This is probably the first time in the series where I felt really bad for Wolfe's client loss. In the scenes his is present, the businessman really feels like a grieving father. He also looks really impressive in the last scene.

As a mystery the novel is good and really makes you wonder about the content of the book in title. This is the first time we see Archie Goodwin has to leave his usual place of action - New York - and come California and I really like his description of the West Coast (hint: it was raining non-stop during his visit so he was not fond of the place much).

4 stars is the final rating for the book which is quite on the level with the rest of the book in the series.


Reading a book can be fatal. Or in this case reading an unpublished manuscript. That is the premise of the 19th entry in the Nero Wolfe series. Three people have died violent deaths and it takes Wolfe to see the connection.

The story opens with a visit to Nero Wolfe's office by Inspector Cramer. The body of Leonard Dykes; a clerk with the law firm of Corrigan, Phelps, Kustin and Briggs; was pulled from the river. When the police searched Dykes apartment they found a list of names tucked in a book. The names are meaningless. They cannot locate anyone with those names. Cramer would like Wolfe's opinion. Does he have any ideas? After all Wolfe is a genius. All Wolfe can suggest is that they are aliases which is not something Cramer did not already know. Cramer stomps out in a huff and Wolfe returns to his 'London Times’ crossword puzzle.

Almost six weeks pass when a man, John R. Wellman, makes an appointment with Wolfe. He wants to hire Wolfe to find the person who murdered is daughter, Joan. She was the victim of a hit and run and a good daughter. To prove it he shows Wolfe a letter Joan had written to her parents. Joan had worked for a publisher where she would read manuscripts that had been submitted. In her letter home she told her parents the story of a manuscript she had rejected. The author, Baird Archer, had called her and wanted to hire her to discuss his manuscript and how he could improve it. The day after their "date" she died. Wolfe noticed that Baird Archer was one of the names on Inspector Cramer's list of names found in Leonard Dykes apartment.

This sets things in motion. The hunt for Baird Archer and the manuscript is on. Archie, and the police, descend on the offices of Corrigan, Phelps, Kustin and Briggs. Archie invites the secretaries to the brownstone on West 35th Street and Wolfe goes to Rusterman's. Archie also goes searching for whoever typed the manuscript for Baird Archer. He finds her but unfortunately it was minutes after she was thrown from a window.

There is the usual battle of wits between Wolfe and a crafty and intelligent killer. But is he any match for Nero Wolfe ... and Archie and Saul Panzer? Of course not. Wolfe, who for a time seems stumped finally sits back and pushes his lips in and out and then asks Inspector Cramer to have all the suspects come to his office where he will identify who the murderer is. A great entry in the series and in this one Archie flies to Los Angeles. Apparently a 10 - 12 trip when this was first published in 1951!


COUNTDOWN: Mid-20th Century North American Crime
BOOK 38 (of 250) AWARD: Favorite Book about Books
Books about books are usually disappointing: the book inside the book is most often non-existent so we can't reference it or find it anywhere. And that book is usually one in which some kind of big secret of the universe is revealed and scholars the world over are looking for it. But we never actually find/get to understand that book/that secret, so this sub-genre is usually disappointing to me. But Stout subverts this genre by presenting 1) a random book on a shelf that contains an odd list of names; and 2) a book entitled 'Put Not Your Trust' and 3) a real book from which 'Put Not Your Trust" is a quote. Stout not only reveals the book but readers can research that book. Oh, how Stout delivers on his promise to give us a murder by the book.
HOOK - 4: First of all, the title itself grabbed my attention. The opening line goes: "Something remarkable happened that cold Tuesday in January." I'm not one for being a fan of openings with weather, but by the end of the first page we have a murder to investigate. And books to study.
PACE - 3: If you've read a Wolfe/Stout novel, you know there will be much talk about orchids, food, and beer. These objects seemingly would bring the story to a screeching halt, but these elements are always part of Wolfe's world, and Stout knows how to employee these elements as part of the story.
PLOT - 5: An author writes a book that may or may not reveal illegal goings-on at a law firm. But for me to say another word, other than "Brilliant", would be criminal. I'll add "mind-bending." And "ingenious".
CAST - 4: As always, Nero is a miracle of massiveness, physically and mentally. We have his side-kick Archie and their cook, Fritz. Then there is Nero's three runners: 'Saul Panzer, small and wiry, in his old browwn suit; Fred Durkin, with his round face and spreading bald spot...and Orrie Cather with his square jaw and crew cut, looking young enough to still be playing pro-football." Not to mention the gardener who lives on the roof with the orchids. Most often, one will fine 7, yes 7, men together for long periods, not a lady in sight. Makes one wonder.
But as Archie says to Nero, "You have a low opinion of women and-now let me finish-anyhow, you don't want them around." Perhaps Nero surrounds himself with thousands of magnificent orchids as substitutes: he himself weighs about 300 pounds and perhaps feels he is unattractive to the ladies. (I digress...)
ATMOSPHERE - 4: Nero's New York townhouse is fabulous and always nice to visit. Here, too, we have law offices with slabs of marble everywhere. Then there is the glass house on the roof, sweaty and swampy.
SUMMARY - 4.0. At one point, Archie finds himself in a trick situation that could result in a death. He starts talking and "a rattle came from the drum, and the band slid into a trot," as Archie talks his way through and out of a bad moment. I really enjoy Stout's writing. And about Nero's brilliance, Nero says to the cops as he wraps up the story/mystery, "...that would mean that I have exposed a murderer and forced him to a reckoning without a scrap of evidence against him." Which is exactly what happens. A smart work, all around.

Chaplain Walle

This is an excelent adventure of murder and intreague. Mr. Nero Wolfe solves the crime without even doing a bit of work. Of corse, Archy Goodwin does all the leg work for his Master.


I love all the Nero Wolfe books I've ever read. Archie's voice is an amazing blend of smarts and charm. I admit that I guessed the murder wrong, even though I've read it before, but while I love the mystery aspect of Stout's books, it's Archie's voice and the character interactions that really make them shine.


This was a reread, a palate cleanser after the rush of Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom, because:

1. There is never a bad time for Nero Wolfe, and
2. It's the rainy season in Los Angeles (January 18-28, roughly)

This book is one of my favorites in the series. It's sharp, it's got the usual moments of humor, it's got great Wolfe-Archie interplay (and for the Archie/Saul shipper in me, there's a terrific moment when Archie explains that Saul would totally be the best US President ever if you just upgraded his wardrobe), it's got a loathesome and intelligent villain, and it has one of my favorite female characters in the series. (Yes, I...I have a list.)

That female character is the redoubtable Mrs. Potter, a woman Archie admires for her brain and her sense of humor. She's great, and she never misses a trick. And she lives in Los Angeles. (And I guess Stout visited in January, because when Archie goes to LA to talk to Mrs. Potter, it's pouring.)

This is definitely one of the books on the Wolfe short list, and it wouldn't be the worst place to start with the series, either.


This one often gets called one of the best Wolfes, but for me it's too uneven. First 100 pages are kind of snoozy (even with three murders) and oddly paced, and the scene with Archie and the "girls" from the office was a little dated and annoying. But Archie's trip to LA (where it rains the whole time), the scenes with Mrs. Potter (more than Archie can handle/understand), and the climactic scene with the murderer confronted by the client are all terrific. Lotsa orchids in this one.

Pamela Shropshire

I think this is definitely one of the best Nero Wolfe novels. It’s right in the sweet spot, published in the early 1950s, when both Wolfe’s and Archie’s characters were fully realized and the supporting characters were all securely set into their respective roles.

A gentleman from Illinois named Mr. John Wellman hires Wolfe to investigate his daughter’s murder. This leads to a triple-murder investigation. The first death was of a man named Dykes who worked at a prestigious law firm that had recently recovered from a scandal; their best trial lawyer had been disbarred for bribing a juror. The second death was Miss Wellman, who had been run over by a car. The third death, which occurred after Wolfe began his investigation, was of a young female stenographer who was pushed from her office window. This last was a particularly difficult pill for Archie to swallow; he arrived at her office not more than two minutes after she was killed.

During the investigation it becomes necessary for Archie to fly to California to visit Mr. Dykes’s sister. This encounter provides a comedic and romantic sidebar. Archie is well known as a connoisseur of women, and his ideal is a slender but curvy woman less than 30 years old; whether blonde, brunette or redhead doesn’t matter, but it’s stipulated that she must be unattached. Nonetheless, here’s how Archie introduces Mr. Dykes’s sister, Peggy Potter:

She stood far enough off so that I would have had to make three good bounds to grab her, and it is only fair to say that it might have been worth the effort. She was three inches shorter, some years older, and at least ten pounds plumper than my ideal for grabbing, but with her dark twinkling eyes in her round little face she was by no means homely.

The relationship between Archie and Wolfe is endlessly fascinating. Wolfe sometimes treats him as equal, a partner and fellow detective; sometimes he treats Archie as a not-too-bright son. Archie feels that part of his job is to annoy, prod and agitate Wolfe, and he diligently performs that task as often as needed; he chides Wolfe for laziness and for being too rigid in his schedule and for being too fond of his food; and yet, he wallows in praise from Wolfe.

I phoned Wolfe at 3:23 from a booth in a drugstore somewhere in Glendale. It is always a pleasure to hear him say ‘Satisfactory’ when I have reported on an errand. This time he did better. When I had given him all of it that he needed, including the letter written by Dykes that I had in my pocket and the one written by Mrs. Potter that I had just put an air mail stamp on and dropped in the slot at the Glendale Post Office, there was a five-second silence and then an emphatic ‘Very satisfactory.’

And when Archie returns to New York and finishes his report, Wolfe says, ‘It is satisfactory to have you back,’ which is Wolfe-speak for ‘I missed you, good job.’ Later, after a visit from the lawyers involved in the case, Archie gets impatient:

Suddenly I blew up. I sprang to my feet and roared, ‘G____m it, go to work! Think of something! Do something!’

Without opening his eyes, he muttered, ‘And I said it was satisfactory to have you back.’

I noted while reading that one of the female characters, a secretary at the law firm, was named Helen Troy. I was somewhat disappointed that it was a mere bagatelle; I had hoped such a suggestive name would be a clue.

Of course, Wolfe solves the case, with one of his famous confrontations with all the people involved with Inspector Cramer and Sergeant Stebbins present. After this climax, Stout ends with a light note. Archie calls Mrs. Potter to tell her her brother’s murderer was found guilty at trial.

There was just a chance she might fake indignation, or she might be coy, or she might even pretend not to know who it was. Nothing doing. She was still her – too short, too plump, and too old, but the one and only Mrs. Potter. . . What the hell, I thought, in another twenty years Bubblehead [Archie’s name for Mr. Potter] may be dead, and age and contours won’t matter much, and I’ll grab her.

5 stars.


When Inspector Cramer calls on Nero Wolfe to for help on the unsolved murder of law clerk Leonard Dykes, Wolfe can't contribute much. However, things heat up again a few months later when a grieving father hires Wolfe to investigate the hit-and-run death of his book editor daughter, and the detective quickly finds a link between the two cases.
With that, the chase is on for Wolfe and the police as the murders appear to be tied to an unpublished novel; anyone connected to it dies. During a canvass of the city’s typists and stenographers, Archie Goodwin narrowly misses saving a woman hired to transcribe the manuscript. 
As Wolfe and his operatives probe into the murders and the manuscript, the more the investigation reveals secrets beneath the surface of the dead clerk's law firm.
When Wolfe and Archie waded through questioning of the firm's lawyers (including one recently disbarred) and its entire secretarial pool, at times I lost track of who was who, but the story heated up again in the second half as new clues popped up. Circling ever closer to the true culprit, Archie travels to the West Coast to set a trap as he meets the sister of the dead law clerk, who proves to be the key to breaking the case. Stout does a good job of keeping the readers guessing throughout, but when Wolfe lays it all out, we're drawn to an inevitable conclusion. 
While the novel drags somewhat in its first half during the scenes with the plethora of characters from the law firm, it's still a good, solid read. Three stars.
Favorite word in this Nero Wolfe novel: "rigmarole." 
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