28 June 2009
Rex Stout: SOME BURIED CAESAR
At least half--okay, a third--of the fun of reading one of Rex Stout's "Nero Wolfe" stories is watching Wolfe unravel an extremely convoluted mystery without leaving his home or varying his highly-structured routine. Gathering clues, doing legwork, making love to beautiful but dangerous women (in short, all the usual tasks of a private detective) are the province of Wolfe's personal assistant, Archie Goodwin (who, it just so happens, also narrates the pair's adventures). You might say, in fact, that the relationship between Wolfe and Goodwin, and the unvarying roles played by the two, are what make Nero Wolfe mysteries Nero Wolfe mysteries. As a departure from that tried-and-true formula, then, how well does Some Buried Caesar work? Well, that's actually a fairly complicated question. As a novel, just fine, really; in fact, it's proof that Stout is talented writer with the ability to soar above and beyond what might otherwise have become a tired formula. But as a Nero Wolfe mystery? Well, it's just not the same. And therein lies an interesting paradox: if all Nero Wolfe mysteries stuck to exactly the same formula, that formula would become dull and trite rather quickly--but they don't all work out in precisely the same way, and as a result it's actually the exceptions that seem a little dull. In my opinion, this is because they can then be compared to your standard American detective fare of the same period, and just don't pack the same level of excitement as a Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade tale. But that's just my opinion. So what do I have to say about Some Buried Caesar in particular? Read it, but only if you've already read some other Rex Stout / Nero Wolfe stuff beforehand (I remember enjoying The League of Frightened Men thoroughly). This one gets just a B-, but bonus points to anybody who can remember the poem from which its title is drawn (I don't feel like looking it up again). Oh, and ignore that sticker on the cover. You know, the one that says its one of the 100 all-time best mysteries, as selected by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association. I'm telling you, League of Frightened Men all the way.