The Second Confession (Nero Wolfe, #15)

By Rex Stout, William G. Tapply

2,683 ratings - 4.14* vote

When a millionaire businessman hires the sedentary detective to snoop on his daughter's boyfriend, Wolfe finds himself caught in a labyrinthine case involving drugged drinks, murderous debutantes, and a gangland boss. When a millionaire businessman hires the sedentary detective to snoop on his daughter's boyfriend, Wolfe finds himself caught in a labyrinthine case involving drugged drinks, murderous debutantes, and a gangland boss.

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Book details

Paperback, 256 pages
May 1st 1995 by Bantam

(first published September 6th 1949)

Original Title
The Second Confession
0553245945 (ISBN13: 9780553245943)
Edition Language

Community Reviews


It started innocently enough. A millionaire asked Nero Wolfe to get a proof his daughter's boyfriend is a member of US Communist Party (we are talking about McCarthyism era here when people were afraid of Communists - replaced by terrorists these days - and were sure they eat babies for breakfast). This is a typical conflict between the fathers and sons (daughters) where the father does not approve his potential son-in-law and the daughter dates the guy just in spite.

Nero Wolfe - or Archie Goodwin to be exact - soon finds the needed proof, but the great detective will shortly have to use his abilities in his preferred area of crime - murders. It does not help any than his arch-enemy called Mr. Zeck decided he does not like Wolfe's investigation methods and that the latter should be taught a lesson.

I belong to a generation which luckily did not see the whole McCarthy vs. Evil Communists farce. It was highly amusing to see the whole fear and mistrust it created despite the fact that this is not a historical book by any stretch of definition of the genre.

As usual, Archie's witticism and his interactions with Nero Wolfe shine. By the way, this time Wolfe is forced to lift himself from his favorite office chair and go outside - an event happening so infrequently I can count the number of times it actually happened on the fingers of one hand. He did have to make some sacrifices of his routine life.

This review is a copy/paste of my LeafMarks one:

Bill Kerwin

This first-class Nero Wolfe entertainment is the second of his three encounters with his own personal Professor Moriarty, Arnold Zeck.

Wolfe finds himself opposing Zeck once again when he is hired by business tycoon Sperling to investigate his prospective son-in-law Rony (a Zeck associate) whom Sperling believes may be a member of the Communist Party. Zeck is of course displeased, and soon nobody or no thing--not even Wolfe's precious orchids--is safe. Mercifully, the two masterminds soon come to share an interest in discovering a murderer, and so their battle to the death must wait until In the Best Families, Stout's next book.

The plot is rich and diverse, involving Agatha Christie style scenes in Westchester, sudden bursts of machine gun fire, and the 1948 Henry Wallace for President campaign. And the plot twist that gives this book its title is both clever and satisfying.


COUNTDOWN: Mid-20th Century North American Crime
BOOK 77 (of 250)
A note by a reader inside the front cover of this library copy says, "Nearly all Stout's books on Nero are great but there are a few stinkers: this one one of them! It's LOUSY." What kind of low-life 1) writes notes on the pages of a library book and 2) reviews the book on the inside cover and 3) uses the term 'lousy'? I'd say it's a person with a terrible vocabulary and probably having a bad day, but that doesn't excuse vandalizing public property. For posterity (because everything one writes on the internet is here forever and ever) I'd like to say the person who vandalized the Delray Beach City Library copy of "Second Confession" by Rex Stout is a 'lousy' person. And rude. And to that person: Karma can be tough although I wish no harm to anyone. But I can't control the universe.
HOOK - 3 stars: "I didn't mind it at all," our visitor said gruffly but affably. "It's a pleasure." He glanced around. "I like rooms that men work in. This is a good one". The chairman of the board of the Continental Mines Corporation is visiting Nero and Archie for help to investigate a man the chairman's daughter is seeing, a suspected communist.
PACE - 3: It's tough to set aside a Stout/Nero novel. These novels aren't blazing reads like Mickey Spillane's Hammer novels, but they certainly glue themselves into your universe for a day or 2.
PLOT - 3: Like the title says, there is a confession to a murder when the suspected communist is killed. And, yes, there is a second confession with some very good twist along the way. Early, Archie puts some kind of sleeping powder in somone's drink but winds up drinking it himself. It's a warning from Nero's arch enemy, Arnold Zeck, to stay out of the case, and when that doesn't work, the glass house on top of Nero's brownstone is destroyed, along with thousands of Nero's carefully groomed orchids. And that's a line crossed that infuriates Nero so much that Nero actually leaves his brownstone home and conducts his investigation elsewhere.
CHARACTERS - 4: Nero and Archie are great. Arnold Zeck never makes an appearance, but he makes his presence known. James U. Sperling (chairman) wants his daughter, Gwen, to be separated from suspected communist Louis Rony. Archie ingratiates himself into the Sperling home and find's himself invoved, semi-romantically, with Sperling's older daughter, Madeleine. Then there are the Emersons: Paul and his wife, Connie. Connie makes the moves on Rony and Paul doesn't much care. Today, I think an author would blatantly have Paul making the moves on Webster Kane (family friend), or perhaps on Sperling's third off-spring, the good-for-nothing James Jr. Nero has his own, personal investigative team and I like the way Stout describes them. For example, "Fred moved like a bear, but Orrie like a cat."
ATMOSPHERE - 4: Oh, it's good enough when all the action, the thinking, the resolution, takes place in Nero's fabulous brownstone (probably worth 8 figures or so these days) but Stout moves the action, Nero included, to Sperling's Country House Manor near Chappaqua. And if you're a fan of Dame Agatha Christie's Country House classic murder mysteries, you're gonna love Sperling's place: massive with terraces, a pool, various wings, grounds to be explored, huge bushes in which to hide (and find) a dead body, or maybe just one practically beaten to death. This is a luxurious location read. Set yourself up for a mini-vacation in your favorite reading chair and you won't be disappointed.
SUMMARY: No, absolutely not, this book isn't 'lousy.' It's pretty good, actually, and my overall rating is 3.4. Stout is one of the smartest 'murder mystery' writers I've encountered.

Stacie Haden

I just can't get enough Nero Wolfe. I may mourn when I've completed the series.

New York City, 1949


I’ve been reading the Archie Goodwin mysteries (as I call them because it's the quality of Archie’s narration, not Wolfe’s deductive skills or idiosyncrasies that make the series great) at a rate of about two per year for some time, and I'm up to the 15th book. Apparently Rex Stout wrote his first Nero Wolfe book at 47 (a hopeful thought) and then dashed off a couple a year until he died in his 90s. So I figure I’m reading them at about the same rate as he produced them, and am hopeful I will still be around when I'm in my 90s to make it to the end. The Second Confession is an excellent addition, but it has several things that make it particularly worthwhile:

First, Archie’s narration here is excellent. He’s usual wise ass self and gets in the appropriate amount of jabs on Wolfe. He does something, however, in narrating this book that I don’t remember him doing. Unlike his model, Dr. Watson, whom Conan Doyle keeps clueless as a narrative device to allow Holmes to narrate important explanations, Archie is smart as a whip and usually knows what Wolfe is thinking. Here, however, he breaks down and addresses the reader directly to say that he is lost, “I am perfectly willing to hold out on you so as to tell it in a way that will give Wolfe’s stratagem the best possible build-up, as you may know by this time, but I’m now giving you everything I myself had at the time . . . You know all the I knew.”

For fans of the genre, the plot is a classic locked room mystery, or locked estate in this case, with the twist that we are not sure for a while if the death was murder or an accident.

The book is also rare in that Wolfe sallies forth. Yes, he makes a rare trip, not related to gastronomy or orchids, away from the brownstone in pursuit of solving the case.

Arnold Zeck, Wolfe’s Prof. Moriarity, and one of the great characters in the series makes a brief appearance. Wolfe calls Zeck the only person he truly fears, not because Zeck can hurt him, but because he, Wolfe, fears what Zeck may force Wolfe to do to in order stop him. Unfortunately, unlike his previous appearance in And Be a Villain, there is too little Zeck; and he’s almost a red herring.

Finally, the book, written in 1949 during the first freeze of the Cold War, takes as a plot device person(s) secretly being a member of the Communist Party and going lengths to keep this concealed. It's an interesting glimpse into 1949 attitudes as reflected by the various characters. Stout himself was a vocal member of the Old Left and a target of both Hoover’s FBI and the House Committee on Un-American Activities seems to come down on both sides in this book. He interestingly has Archie and Wolfe take it for granted that the American Communist Party is taking direction from Moscow (something not confirmed until the opening of the Soviet files in the 90s) and then turns around and has Wolfe request in lieu of payment from his client the removal of a blowhard anti-Communist from his radio show. In short, Wolfe (and perhaps Stout) doesn’t take a political stance in the book, but takes the strong view that he doesn’t like liars, murderers, blowhards, or rich Chairmen of Boards who obstruct justice.


By 1949, Rex Stout had written fifteen crime novels featuring the homebody gardener/detective Nero Wolfe, and the no-nonsense series was a reliable source of entertaining puzzles.

The Wolfe books make good use of the body-mind split concept, with Wolfe—-an obese man who uses an elevator to go from floor to floor in his home—-pondering cases mentally at home while his younger assistant Archie Goodwin performs the legwork and all necessary seductions. The Second Confession, however, breaks from form by sending Wolfe out his office—-for awhile at least.

Hired by the owner of a mining company to prove that the man his daughter is dating is a Communist, Wolfe is accidentally drawn into the sphere of Arnold Zeck, an underworld kingpin (and the only man Wolfe fears.) Zeck’s idea of sending a message is having one his goons machine gun $40,000 worth of damage into the detective’s orchid garden. Wolfe, however, does not retreat. He is bound by honor not to drop a case until it is solved. But when the subject of his investigation, the boyfriend/potential Communist is found dead and an associate of Wolfe’s client makes a dubious confession to a hit-and-run, Wolfe finds himself fired by the mining magnate only to be hired by the shadowy Zeck to look into the death.

The case takes Wolfe and Archie into the upper reaches of the American Communist Party, as Wolfe tries to smoke out information by writing and sending to a newspaper a fake “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” style document that is supposedly the minutes of a meeting of Communists plotting to influence the 1948 Presidential Election.

Though the Communists in the book are portrayed negatively, Rex Stout was himself the target of J. Edgar Hoover’s anti-communist crusade, earning himself a thick file that the FBI attempted to keep sealed even a dozen years after the author’s death.

The Second Confession is appropriately lean and fast-paced. It is quite satisfying, though the storyline with the underworld overlord Zeck are clearly a set-up for a coming book, 1950’s In the Best Families.


another adventure for Archie and Wolfe. Although this time Wolfe leaves the brownstone

Pamela Shropshire

Another delightful case solved by Archie and Wolfe, one that actually required Wolfe to leave the brownstone house and venture into the wilds of Westchester county and the realm of DA Cleveland Archer.This time, Wolfe has been hired by a very successful capitalist to uncover the identity of a Communist very close to him - the only problem is that he has the wrong Communist in his sights. Plenty of Archie’s flirtations and Wolfe’s obscureness.


I've read a few of these now after the Pulp Fiction Goodreads group introduced me to the splendid character of Nero Wolfe when they chose "Fer De Lance" as a monthly read one month.
This was by far my favourite so far - Wolfe's mysterious nemesis, Arnold Zeck adds a lot to the series.
This had a clever storyline albeit a bit dated now with its then current Communism related theme (Rex Stout himself was implicated by McCarthy).
I'm going straight on to the final book in the series featuring Zeck, In the Best Families.