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Mystery Monday – Black Orchids

Black Orchids by Rex Stout 

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

(AKA  The Case of the Black Orchids and Death Wears an Orchid)

 

This novella opens with Archie Goodwin complaining about being dispatched to the Grand Central Flower show for four days running. His boss, the famous if eccentric PI Nero Wolfe, wants him to gather intelligence on three newly-developed black orchid plants hybridized by Lewis Hewitt, an arch-rival in flower fancying who “churns his beer.” 

While at the exhibition, Archie is smitten by a model in a unique exhibit. A beautiful blonde picnics in a sylvan (now there’s a 1940s word) scene with her boyfriend, near a stream, with mossy rock walls nearby. Crowds gather when she bathes her slim ankles and comely dogs in a nearby pool. Archie is unsettled, to the point where he doesn’t mind looking at thousands of flowers.

On fourth day, she follows the script as usual. That is, she tries to awaken her BF who has been feigning a nap with a newspaper over his face. But she runs into Archie who’s jumped over the rope to examine the supine figure. He’d noticed the male model’s foot at an awkward angle and thought it merited investigation. He probes the top of the man’s head with a finger that went “right into a hole in his skull, a way in, and it was like sticking your finger into a warm blueberry pie.”

Yuck. Not for nothing did blurb writers back in the day describe Stout as “gruesome, gory, but gay.” “Gay” as in the 1940s “carefree” sense, you understand.

The method of murder is diabolically clever, as we would expect in a classic mystery from that bygone era. So complicated, in fact, that we readers doubt it would work in the real world.  Still, this, the first novella Stout wrote, is quite a strong entry in the Wolfe canon. Wise-guy Archie’s narration has its usual brash, snappy, likable tone. The dialog between Archie and Wolfe is simultaneously acerbic and affectionate. The overall tone is light-hearted. As a whodunit that plays fair, there are red herrings and plausible deductions. As any good series book does, it delivers the inevitable touchstones we fans look forward to: the irascible Lt. Cramer; the red chair; the city girl with moxie; the glasses of milk; the bottles of beer; Wolfe barking “Archie!” 

It was published in the August 1941 issue of The American Magazine.

 

 

 

 

 

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