Authors: Rex Stout
Tags: #Mystery, #Crime, #Thriller, #Classic
Nero Wolfe 42 - Death of A Doxy
The world is much changed since the first Nero Wolfe mystery was published in 1934. We recovered from the Great Depression, fought a World War, eradicated polio, engaged in another, colder war, invented rock music, and put a man on the moon. We became hip, struggled to include the disenfranchised, marched for peace, and learned, painfully, that we ' and our leaders ' sometimes had feet of clay. It is remarkable that for four decades Rex Stout was able to craft and sustain his series in the midst of this whirlwind of change, his readership growing each year. Even after Stout’s death in 1975 readers haunted bookstores in hopes of a continuation of the chronicles of those inhabiting the old brownstone on West Thirty-fifth Street. The appeal is broader than mere nostalgia. Stout’s perception of human nature (and, by extension, Wolfe’s) is closer to the mark at times than all our pop psychology. The plots are serpentine enough for the most cerebral reader. And there is action when action is required, not gratuitous but, as Wolfe would say, satisfactory.
Granted, some of Archie’s expressions now seem a little dated; no one refers to women as doxies anymore. (In fact, the lines between those women and us have faded and all but disappeared.) If the series is to be criticized at all, it seems most likely that it would, in our atmosphere of political correctness, be accused of blatant sexism. Wolfe’s attitude toward women, after all, is quite clear. He is uncomfortable with them. He doesn’t trust them: “When [women] stick to the vocations for which they are best adapted, such as chicanery, sophistry, self-advertisement, cajolery, mystification, and incubation, they are sometimes superb creatures.” Yet, and this is fascinating, Wolfe’s reaction to Julie Jaquette in Death of a Doxy demonstrates anything but sexism.
Death of a Doxy is, on the one hand, classic Nero Wolfe. Orrie Cather, occasional legman for the great detective, is in hot water. Orrie is being held for the murder of Isabel Kerr, a showgirl he has been seeing, and Wolfe, viewing it as a personal obligation, takes the case, albeit reluctantly. The water is muddied by evidence that the woman was attempting to blackmail Orrie with proof of their trysts. Additionally, Isabel’s sister, Stella Fleming, seems more interested in avoiding scandal than in seeing her sister’s killer brought to justice.
On the other hand, it is with Julie Jaquette, Isabel’s best friend, that we observe a rare phenomenon. At the conclusion of their initial interview, Wolfe says, “I have the impression that your opinion of our fellow beings and their qualities is somewhat similar to mine.” And then he does something almost unprecedented in the Stout oeuvre: “He got to his feet. He almost never stands for comers or goers, male or female. And he actually repeated it. ‘I wish you well, madam.’” From Wolfe, this is more than a compliment; it is a lavish tribute. Later, when Julie’s life is threatened and she takes refuge in the old brownstone, she spends two hours with Wolfe in the plant rooms among the orchids. Need it be said that Stout is subtle, that orchids have long been held as a symbol of sexuality, that the image of Wolfe and Julie Jaquette in the hot, humid plant rooms for two hours with all that rich dark soil and all those orchids is particularly evocative'And when she comes down she is calling him Nero! Of course, nothing happened, because later Julie complains to Wolfe, “You get on my nerves because you haven’t got any.” Or did it happen on a purely subliminal level, the kind of seduction, after all, to which Wolfe would be most susceptible'And did he later rebuff her'This is not the misogynistic Nero Wolfe we’ve come to know and love.
It is clear that what Nero Wolfe is afraid of concerning women is in himself. Wolfe says in Over My Dead Body, “I used to be idiotically romantic. I still am, but I’ve got it in hand.” And later in the same book, “I have skedaddled, physically, once in my life, from one person, and that was a Montenegrin woman.” In Too Many Cooks he says, “Not like women'They are astounding and successful animals. For reasons of convenience, I merely preserve an appearance of immunity which I developed some years ago under the pressure of necessity.” If Wolfe has issues with members of the opposite sex, isn’t he, in this regard at least, little different from most of us'That he takes his fear to the extreme of an aversion is merely consistent with his grandiose nature, and that he can state the reasons for this aversion strongly and literately is not, de facto, sexism. We, however, from our superior perspective of 1995 enlightenment, can recognize his foolish position for what it is, for we ourselves are above it, right'Speak up, I can’t hear you!
In any event, if you’ve read Death of a Doxy before, welcome back. If not, you’re in for a treat. As Nero says, I wish you well.
Sandra West Prowell
Death of A Doxy Rex Stout
I stood and sent my eyes around. It’s just routine, when leaving a place where you aren’t supposed to be, to consider if and where you have touched things, but that time it went beyond mere routine. I made certain. There were plenty of things in the room ' fancy chairs, a marble fireplace without a fire, a de luxe television console, a coffee table in front of a big couch with a collection of magazines, and so forth. Deciding I had touched nothing, I turned and stepped back into the bedroom. Nearly everything there was too soft to take a fingerprint ' the wall-to-wall carpet, the pink coverlet on the king-size bed, the upholstered chairs, the pink satin fronts on the three pieces of furniture. I crossed for another look at the body of a woman on the floor a couple of feet from the bed, on its back with the legs spread out and one arm bent. I hadn’t had to touch it to check that it was just a body or to see the big dent in the skull, but was there one chance in a million that I had put fingers on the heavy marble ashtray lying there'The butts and ashes that had been in it were scattered around, and it was a good bet that it had made the dent in the skull. I shook my head; I couldn’t possibly have been such an ape.
I left. Of course I had to use my handkerchief on the doorknob, inside and outside, and I used a knuckle on the button that summoned the do-it-yourself elevator, and also, in the elevator, on the 1 button. I dabbed the 4 button, which I had pushed coming in, with my handkerchief. There was no one in the little lobby down below, and since I had been gloved when I entered I didn’t have to bother about the knobs of the outside door. As I headed west, toward Lexington Avenue, I turned up my overcoat collar and put my gloves on. It was the coldest day of the winter, with a gusty wind.
I don’t try to do any hard thinking while I’m walking, you bump into people, but anyway it didn’t even call for guessing, let alone thinking. What was needed was asking, and the person to ask lived on the second floor of a walkup on 52nd Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. Since this was 39th Street, thirteen short blocks up and four long blocks crosstown. My watch said 4:36. Getting a taxi at that time of day is a career, and there was no hurry. He was on a job. I walked.
It was one minute to five when I entered a phone booth in a bar and grill on Eighth Avenue and dialed a number. When Fritz answered I asked him to buzz the plant rooms, and after a wait a growl came: “Yes?”
“Me,” I said. “I’ve run into a snag on this personal errand and I don’t know when I’ll be back. Probably not in time for dinner.”
“Are you in trouble?”
“Can I reach you if a need arises?”
“Very well.” He hung up.
He was being tolerant because I was on a personal errand, none of his business. He hates to be bothered when he’s up with the orchids, and if the errand had been for him he would have said I should have told Fritz.
Outside again, half a block west, cold-faced but with the blood going good, I entered a vestibule and pushed the button marked Cather. After two more pushes there was still no click ' as expected. It was too damn cold to hang around, so I headed back for Eighth Avenue, with a notion about five or six fingers of bourbon, but with me the time for bourbon is when I’m going to let down, not when I have to pick up, so I went to a drugstore counter instead and got coffee.
When the coffee was down I went to the booth and dialed a number, hung up after ten rings with no answer, returned to the counter, and bought a glass of milk. Another trip to the booth; still no answer, and I ordered a corned beef on rye and coffee. There is never any rye bread in the kitchen of the old brownstone on West 35th Street. It was twenty minutes past six, on my fifth try at the phone, after the second piece of pumpkin pie and the fourth cup of coffee, when a voice said hello.
“Orrie'Archie. You alone?”
“Sure, I’m always alone. Did you go?”
“Yeah. I -“
“What’d you get?”
“I’d rather show you. Expect me in two minutes.”
“What the hell, I’ll come -“
“I’m in the neighborhood. Two minutes.” I hung up.
I didn’t stop to put on my overcoat and gloves. Two minutes of near-zero wind is a good test of your staying power. When I pushed the button in the vestibule the click came quick, and when I entered and started up the stairs Orrie called down from the top, “Hell, I could have come.”
Once Nero Wolfe, showing off, said to me, “Vultus est index animi,” and I said, “That’s not Greek,” and he said, “A Latin proverb. The face is the index of the mind.” It depends on whose face and whose mind. Across from you at the poker table, Saul Panzer’s face is an index of absolutely nothing. But you keep on trying, and I was still at it on Orrie Cather’s face after he showed me in and took my hat and coat and we sat. I sat and eyed him until he demanded, “Can’t you place me?”
I said, “Vultus est index animi.”
“Good,” he said. “I’ve often wondered. What the hell’s eating you?”
“Just curiosity. Is it possible that you’re playing me?”
“For God’s sake. Playing you how'For what?”
“I wish I knew.” I crossed my legs. “Okay, I’ll report. I followed the script. I arrived at a quarter past four on the dot, pushed the button several times, got no reaction as expected, used the key you gave me, took the elevator to the fourth floor, used the other key, and entered. No one in the living room, and I went to the bedroom. I don’t say someone was there, because properly speaking a corpse is not someone. It was on the floor not far from the bed. I had never seen Isabel Kerr or a picture of her, but I suppose it had been her. A pink thing with lace and pink slippers, no stockings. A couple of -“
“You’re saying she was dead?”
“Don’t interrupt. A couple of inches over five feet, hundred and ten pounds, well-designed oval face, blue eyes, lots of clover-blossom-honey hair, small ears close -“
“By God. By God.”
“Stop interrupting. Mr. Wolfe never does. I didn’t have to touch her to check. I mean it. There was a bruise on the forehead and a big dent in the skull, two inches above and back of the left ear. On the floor, three feet from her right shoulder, was a marble ashtray which looked heavy enough to dent a thicker skull than hers probably was. There were purple spots on an arm and a leg. Cadaveric lividities to you. Her forehead was good and cold, and -“
“You said you didn’t touch her.”
“I touch with my fingers. I don’t call applying a wrist to a forehead or a leg touching. The leg was cold too. It had been a corpse for at least five hours and probably more. The ashtray had been wiped. There were butts and ashes on the carpet but no particles on the tray. I was in there a total of about six minutes. The idea of staying to look for things didn’t appeal to me.” I put a hand in a pocket and got something. “Here are your keys.”
He didn’t see them. His jaw was clamped. He unclamped it to say, “Playing you. For God’s sake. Playing you.”
“Naturally I’m curious.”
He got up and went through a doorway. I tossed the keys onto a table by a window and looked around. It was a good-sized room with three windows, with furniture that would do all right for a bachelor who wasn’t fussy. The only light was from a pair of bulbs in a wall bracket, but there was a lamp by an easy chair that wasn’t turned on. Orrie came back with a bottle and two glasses and offered me one, but I said no thanks, I had just dined. He put one glass down and poured in the other, took a healthy gulp, made a face, and sat down.
“Playing you,” he said. “Nuts. Now you ask me where I’ve been since eight o’clock this morning and can I prove it.”
I shook my head. “Since I’m merely curious, that would be stretching it. If I wanted to be nasty I would have opened up by barking at you something like, ‘Why did you leave the ashtray on the floor?’ Of course we do have to consider facts, such as the fact that I may be the only one besides you who knows that her being dead pulls a thorn for you. A bad thorn in deep. So of course I’m curious about one detail. Did you kill her?”
“No. My God, Archie. Am I a sap?”
“No. You’re no mental giant, but you’re not a sap. It would be nice if you could sell me. After all, you pulled me in, you knew I was going there today. It would be extra nice if you were covered.”
“I’m not covered.” He was staring at me but possibly not seeing me. He took a mouthful of whiskey and swallowed it twice. “As I told you, I’m on a job for Bascom. I was out at eight and picked up a subject a little before nine and was on him all day. It was -“
“Yes. Just routine. From nine-nineteen until twelve-thirty-five I was in the lobby of an office building.”
“Then I’m still curious. You would be if we traded spots, you know damn well you would, but that’s all I am, just curious. Do you want to ask me anything?”
“Yes, I do. You had gloves and keys, I don’t mean mine. You knew there might be something there. Why didn’t you take a quick look?”
I grinned at him. “You don’t mean that.”
“The hell I don’t.”
I nodded. “Now and then you are a sap.” I stood up. “As you know, Orrie, and as I know, you think it would be fine if you had my job. That’s all right, there’s nothing wrong with ambition. But what if you had got too ambitious'What if you knew there was nothing there to point to you'What if you had arranged for one man, me, to go there at a quarter past four, and for another man, maybe a cop on an anonymous tip, to arrive a few minutes later'It wouldn’t have hooked me for murder, since the ME would set the time, but I would have the keys on me, not only yours, and the rubber gloves, and that would have been good for at least a couple of years. Of course I didn’t really believe it, but being the nervous type -“
“Balls.” He was staying put, his head tilted back. “What are you going to do?”
I looked at my wrist. “Dinner will be half over, and anyway I ate. I’m going home and eat two helpings of creme Genoise. You crush eight homemade macaroons and soak them in half a cup of brandy. Put two cups of rich milk, half a cup of sugar, and the finely cut rind of a small orange into -“
“So clown it!” he yelled. “Are you going to tell Wolfe?”
“I’d rather not.”
“As it stands now, no.”
“Or Saul or Fred?”
“No. Nor Cramer nor J. Edgar Hoover.” I went to the couch for my hat and coat. “Don’t do anything you wouldn’t expect me to do. You know what doctors call professional courtesy?”
“I sincerely hope you won’t need any.”