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.