Monday, May 16, 2016

Rex Stout’s Some Buried Caesar

Some Buried Caesar was Rex Stout’s sixth Nero Wolfe mystery and appeared in 1939. It’s notable for being one of the fairly rare Wolfe books in which the gargantuan private detective leaves his beloved brownstone on West 35th Street. He not only leaves New York - he spends the entire book in the countryside, probably Wolfe’s least preferred environment.

What could possibly have induced Wolfe to venture into rural surroundings? If you guessed it had something to do with orchids you’d be right. He has entered some of his prized plants in competition at the North Atlantic Exposition held in Crowfield in upstate New York. He fully expects his plants to win and he does not intend to miss the pleasure of witnessing the discomfiture of his arch-rival orchid fancier Mr Shanks.

The trip almost proves fatal. His indefatigable assistant Archie Goodwin loses control of the sedan after a tyre blows out. A car crash is bad enough (Wolfe abhors motor vehicles at the best of times) but worse is to follow as Wolfe finds himself marooned on a large boulder being menaced by a very large and very enraged bull. 

The sedan being temporarily hors de combat Wolfe and Archie are stuck for several days at the home of Thomas Pratt, the owner of a chain of cut-price restaurants (known as pratterias).

The bull proves to be the means of introducing Wolfe to a strange bucolic drama. The centrepiece of the drama is the bull, Hickory Caesar Grindon. Hickory Caesar Grindon is not just any bull. He is a National Grand Champion. As Guernsey bulls go he is the ace of aces, the finest example of the breed in the country. And Hickory Caesar Grindon is about to be turned into beefsteaks. He has been purchased by Thomas Pratt. Having paid a record price for the bull ($45,000 which was an immense fortune in 1939 dollars) he thinks it would be a splendid publicity stunt for his pratterias to have Hickory Caesar Grindon butchered and served up to a hundred invited guests (including as many celebrities as he can rustle up). That works out at $450 per diner, a ludicrous amount but Pratt is convinced the publicity will be well worth the price.

The idea of a National Grand Champion being converted into hamburger has sent shock waves throughout the local community and in fact throughout the entire Guernsey cattle establishment nationwide. Pratt finds himself a very unpopular figure among cattlemen some of whom will stop at nothing to prevent his stunt from coming off.

In this tense atmosphere it’s perhaps no surprise that murder soon follows, but the victim is not the obvious one. And the chief suspect is none other than Hickory Caesar Grindon.

Nero Wolfe knows quite well that Hickory Caesar Grindon is innocent. Somebody committed murder but it was not the bull. However it’s none of Wolfe’s business. By the following day it has become Nero Wolfe’s business. The difficulty is that this is a murder that will be particularly difficult to prove.

Along the way Archie Goodwin risks ruin at the hands of a femme fatale and organises a trade union among prisoners in the county jail. The North Atlantic Exposition proves to be not only the place to be if you love orchids or Guernsey cows but also the scene for murder.

Stout has not always been admired for his plotting but in this novel he really knocks one out of the park. The solution is not merely satisfactory, it is pleasingly elegant in its simplicity and plausible. Wolfe can see a number of possible solutions to a puzzle that seems on the surface to be fiendishly complicated. All the solutions have the disadvantage of being distressingly complex and far-fetched. All except one. That solution is obvious, but it is only obvious once Wolfe explains it. Of course if you’re a writer of detective stories then the ability to make the simple seem complicated, and the complicated seem simple, is obviously a considerable asset.

Everything else is as you expect in a Nero Wolfe mystery - plenty of amusing byplay between Wolfe and Archie, sparkling dialogue and plenty of beer drinking.

It was not at all uncommon in detective fiction of this era to have a vital clue provided by an animal. Erle Stanley Gardner was particularly fond of the idea. The great thing about animals is that they themselves cannot lie but the evidence they provide can be misinterpreted. Having an animal as a suspect rather than just a witness was more unusual. In this case it works extremely well. Nero Wolfe knows nothing about cattle but he knows all about murder and he knows all about evidence and the way it can be manipulated.

There are those who consider Some Buried Caesar to be the best of all the Nero Wolfe novels. Since I haven’t read them all I can’t offer a specific opinion on that but I can say that this is an exceptionally fine detective tale. Very highly recommended.

4 comments:

  1. I've read only about half of all the Wolfe and Goodwin stories, but always thought this one was the absolute best one of the lot.

    Stout really seemed to have elevated above himself when wrote Some Buried Caesar. Plot, characters, setting and writing interlaced perfectly and some of the best scenes from the series came from this book (e.g. Archie in the country jail). I wish he had written more like this one.

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    1. Archie in the jail is definitely a highlight!

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  2. I have many, many favorites among the Nero Wolfe novels, and I have read every novel and collection of novellas in the series. More than once each. But Some Buried Caesar is in my top five (and it is the one I was planning on rereading next). I love so many things about it. The Exposition, Archie's time in jail, the scenes with Lily Rowan. You have done a great job with this review.

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    1. The Exposition, Archie's time in jail, the scenes with Lily Rowan.

      I loved so many of the scenes at the Exposition - it was a great setting and Stout used it to perfection. And he got the tone just right - there's plenty of humour but it's not overdone.

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