My rating: 8/10.
What with the immense number to choose from, with over seventy novels and novellas to the author’s credit, I’m nowhere close to having read all of Rex Stout’s clever and generally complicated tales starring private investigator Nero Wolfe (the more than slightly eccentric orchid aficionado, world-class gourmet, and superior thinker, with a most well-functioning brain residing in a body famously weighing, as we are often informed, a full one-seventh of a ton – a much rarer bulk back in the 1930s when Wolfe was created by Stout than we are used to today; I am quite sure I have seen a few gentlemen of this poundage and beyond in our nearest large city, though Wolfe would no doubt eschew the shopping mall food courts where many of my sightings have take place) and his trusty Man Friday – as well as Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday – Archie Goodwin. (Note to eagle-eyed readers and red-pencil holders, please forgive this complicated run-on sentence. I bemuse myself sometimes … punctuation scattered at will, stream-of-consciousness posting going full speed ahead …)
I am going to assume everyone reading this is at least generally familiar with Nero Wolfe, by reputation if not from personal experience, and from his rock solid position in the American mystery fiction canon, so I won’t go into too much background detail. Suffice it to say the Nero Wolfe is a superior thinker, doing all of his detective work sitting down, usually with eyes closed after a gourmet meal created by his private chef, Fritz. (Shades of Hercule Poirot’s “little grey cells”, but infinitely more cerebral, if that is possible.) Live-in employee Archie is the legs of the outfit, and, frequently, the eyes, ears and hands as well, especially when a female client calls. While Wolfe has a definite misogynist streak, Archie appreciates all things feminine, though he doesn’t allow a pretty figure and face to distract him from his duties. Well, most of the time, that is …
One thing for certain about Nero Wolfe is that he strongly dislikes having to leave his comfortable 4-story brownstone house in New York. He strongly distrusts the internal combustion engine, and assumes the worst of any vehicle, ascribing a sentient malevolence to the machinery, which mistrust is occasionally borne out, as in Some Buried Caesar. We are rather shocked to realize that not only is Nero Wolfe out and about in a car, but that the occurrence has satisfied his deepest misgivings, and the vehicle has indeed been involved in a crash. Archie is, as always, the narrator of the tale.
That sunny September day was full of surprises.
The first one came when, after my swift realization that the sedan was still right side up and the windshield and windows intact, I switched off the ignition and turned to look at the back seat. I didn’t suppose the shock of the collision would have hurled him to the floor, knowing as I did that when the car was in motion he always had his feet braced and kept a firm grip on the strap; what I expected was the ordeal of facing a glare of fury that would top all records. What I saw was him sitting there calmly on the seat with his massive round face wearing a look of relief – if I knew his face, and I certainly knew Nero Wolfe’s face. I stared at him in astonishment.
He murmured, “Thank God,” as if it came from his heart.
I demanded, “What?”
“I said thank God.” He let go of the strap and wiggled a finger at me. “It has happened, and here we are. I presume you know, since I’ve told you, that my distrust and hatred of vehicles in motion is partly based on my plerophory that their apparent submission to control is illusory and that they may at their pleasure, and sooner or later will, act on whim. Very well, this one has, and we are intact. Thank God the whim was not a deadlier one.”
Did you catch the obscure word in this passage? Reading Rex Stout is an education all in itself, if you stop to take the time to investigate Nero Wolfe’s arcane terminology. I’ve never come across this one before: plerophory. According to my highly intellectual (ahem) search for a definition (I Googled it), plerophory means “a fullness, especially of conviction or persuasion; the state of being fully persuaded.”
All right, digressions aside, and on to the story. I’ll try to be as concise as possible. (The nice thing about writing up a post about a mystery novel, in my opinion, is that the reviewer shouldn’t really give too much away, so as to preserve the pleasure of discovery for those new to the tale.)
After crashing their car, Archie and Nero head off cross country to look for assistance. (They’re on their way to the big state fair, with a collection of rare albino orchids which Wolfe is planning on showing.) Crossing a pasture, they are distracted by a shouting man brandishing a shotgun, and, moments later, a large and very irate Guernsey bull.
The bull in question is the key player in the mystery to follow. He’s a prize herd sire raised by a neighbourhood farmer from a pup (okay, calf) and purchased by the present owner, entrepreneur owner of a highly successful restaurant chain, for the unheard-of sum of $45,000, as a publicity stunt. The bull is destined to be killed and barbecued and served to a large party of prominent people who are preparing to converge on the country estate in a few days. Needless to say, there is an upswelling of outrage among the farmers of the area, that an animal of such value as a breeder should be sacrificed at such a whim.
The plot gets really messy (literally) when the son of the next-door estate holder, a vocal opponent of the prospective barbecue, who has just advanced a $10,000 bet to the effect that the bull will NOT be killed and eaten, is found dead on the ground in the pasture being pushed around by the bull. Ah – but did the bull actually kill the young man? Nero Wolfe, reluctant witness to the scene, thinks not, and details his reasons.
As well as the (possibly) murderous bull, there are a pair of star-crossed lovers, an anthrax epidemic, a glorious description of a big state fair, and a second mysterious death – this one by pitchfork, so at least the bull is off the hook. This novel, only the sixth in the Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin canon, also introduces beautiful, witty, and wealthy socialite Lily Rowan, who figures prominently from here on in as our Archie’s soon-to-be close friend and love interest.
This is a classic vintage mystery read. Rex Stout stands alone; he’s in his own class entirely, though sometimes his stuff can be rather hit-and-miss. Some Buried Caesar, good though it is, is far from my personal favourite of the Nero Wolfes I’ve read (I think The Mother Hunt might get that designation) – but this is an author worthy of exploration for any mystery lover. If your choice of book falls flat, try another; it may take an attempt or two to really get involved in Wolfe’s world, but once you’re won over, you’ll be a fan for life.
And this is what inspired me to pick up this book, after a Rex Stout hiatus of years. My sister, who recently celebrated a milestone birthday, is fond of orchids and has quite decent luck in keeping them happy and blooming, which can be something of a challenge. As a birthday gift, I gave her this handsome Cymbidium in full bloom, and, as I photographed it against the aqua walls of our newly painted enclosed porch, its temporary home awaiting the birthday party, I suddenly thought of orchidphile extraordinaire Nero Wolfe.