Monday, December 07, 2015

Death of a Doxy

Although I have probably read at least a dozen Nero Wolfe novels, I was still in my mid-twenties the last time I read one of them.  And that was a long time ago, a very long time ago.  So when I started reading Death of a Doxy (written in 1966), I thought I knew pretty much what to expect from Mr. Stout.  But (perhaps because this is one of the later Wolfe novels), it holds up surprisingly well and delivers a good bit more than I was expecting from it.

My copy of Death of a Doxy is a 1972 seventh reprinting of the book’s original paperback edition.  The little plot summary on the first page of the book captures both the basic premise of the mystery and the tone of the times:

            “Poor Orrie Cather.  He was being held for a murder he swore he hadn’t committed.  Poor Avery Ballou.  He’d been paying the rent of the victim’s apartment and if anyone found out, Orried’d be free and Ballou would be suspect #1.  But most of all, poor Isabel Kerr.  She was so young, so beautiful, so stone-cold dead.

Then, of course, there was poor Nero Wolfe.  Orrie was a friend, Balllou was his client, and the real murderer was playing hard-to-get….”

As for as teasers go, that’s a pretty good one.  The only quibble I have with it, and it’s a minor one, is that Ballou only even became a provisional client of Wolfe’s very near the end of the book – and only if taking him own did not at all interfere with Wolfe’s determination to clear Orrie Cather’s name with the police.  But this little book (155 pages) is much more complicated than the blurb makes it sound.

Once again, the rather large and set-in-his-ways Nero Wolfe stays at home and dispatches his minions, led by right-hand man Archie Goodwin, to do all the leg work and to haul witnesses and suspects back to the Wolfe residence on New York’s 35th street as required to move the investigation along.  This time, however, Wolfe is one minion short because Mr. Cather spends the entire novel in police custody.  But Wolfe and the available boys are still well up to their task.

Author Rex Stout
Isabel Kerr was a doxy, a kept woman, and there is no way she was able to pay the $300 monthly rent of the luxury apartment in which the body of this ex-showgirl was found.  All the police have to work with is Isabel’s diary, but there is evidently enough in it to tell them that she was pressuring Wolfe’s friend into marrying her and not his fiancĂ© – the woman he preferred to marry.  Orrie Cather, however, is not a man with enough money to be the Isabel’s sugar daddy - and that man’s life would be ruined if he were somehow connected to the dead woman.  Was he desperate enough, or angry enough, to be her killer?

Now it’s up to Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin to figure out a way to solve the murder that will earn them the conditional $50,000 fee they have been promised.  Depending on how it all works out, Death of a Doxy is a case that Wolfe will solve for free or for $50,000 – and that’s a heck of a big difference in 1966.

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