TV mysteries

Nero Wolfe on Page and (Small U.S.) Screen:
“Disguise for Murder”
by Matthew R. Bradley


   Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe collection Curtains for Three (1951) contains the now-standard three novellas published in The American Magazine: “The Gun with Wings” (December 1949), “Bullet for One” (July 1948), and “Disguise for Murder” (as “The Twisted Scarf,” September 1950).

   “The Gun with Wings” was not near the body of opera singer Alberto Mion — or so say his wife, Peggy, and would-be successor, Fred Weppler, who didn’t tell the police it only appeared later beside the supposed suicide. They want Wolfe to dispel the shadow of murder over their intended union; Archie has “occasionally let Lily Rowan share her pair of opera seats with me” so he recognizes a suspect, baritone Gifford James.

   Continuing the ballistics theme, the “Bullet for One” knocks industrial designer Sigmund Keyes out of his saddle in Central Park; five of the suspects collectively hire Wolfe, some of them hoping he’ll nail the sixth, yet before long, all but one of the sextet is arrested for one reason or another.

   In “Disguise for Murder,” the brownstone hosts “no such throng as that within [Archie’s] memory”: at the suggestion of Bill McNab, garden editor of the Gazette, Wolfe has invited the Manhattan Flower Club to see his orchids. Fritz and Saul are manning the door while Archie — who regrets having agreed to help mingle — is taking a breather in the office, where he is joined by a panicked young woman, Cynthia Brown.

   Con artists Cynthia and her “brother,” Col. Percy Brown, were brought by Mimi Orwin, their prospective mark, a wealthy widow hooked in Florida and accompanied by her son, Eugene. Cynthia was terrified when upstairs she recognized, and was recognized by, the unidentified man she’d seen entering Doris Hatten’s apartment, whom she believed was “keeping” her friend there — and strangled her with her own scarf immediately afterward, a crime that has baffled Cramer for five months.

   Promising to bring Wolfe down to hear her out, Archie returns to the plant rooms to keep a special eye on the men, including one who grabs a flower pot in an oddly menacing way, revealed as an actor, Malcolm Vedder.

   The crowd has thinned to a trickle when the wife of Homer N. Carlisle, executive VP of the North American Foods Co., peeks into the office for a look at Wolfe’s famous three-foot-wide globe and finds Cynthia, strangled with, per Doc Vollmer, something like…a scarf.

   Cramer grills the remaining visitors, held there by Fritz and Saul, but both he and Wolfe decline psychiatrist Nicholson Morley’s offer to question all men among the 219 guests, dutifully recorded by Saul, and try to identify the killer. In a spiteful, ill-advised move, Cramer insists on sealing the office as a crime scene; otherwise “Wolfe might have called his attention to a certain fact as soon as [he] saw it himself,” saving a lot of trouble.

   Gleaned from Archie’s report but overlooked by him and Cramer, that fact leads Wolfe to a dangerous test of his theory: he sends a blackmail note to one suspect, who calls with an unfamiliar voice to make an appointment with Archie via an elaborate runaround and two cut-outs. Tied to a chair by those he dubs W-J (wrestler-jockey, for his mismatched torso and legs) and Skinny, he is at the mercy of the killer, at first unrecognizable.

   But bribery turns the flunkies, and “he” is revealed as the cross-dressing wife of Doris’s sugar daddy, Carlisle; in the plant rooms, the men had all doffed their hats, yet Cynthia recognized the killer specifically because of the hat, assuming it to be a man, as she had at the apartment.

   A first-season episode of A Nero Wolfe Mystery, “Disguise for Murder” (6/17/01) was one of four collaborations between director John L’Ecuyer and writer Sharon Elizabeth Doyle. As with the following consecutive pair, “Door to Death” (6/4/01) and “Christmas Party” (7/1/01), this and “Eeny, Meeny, Murder, Moe” (6/3/01), while based on widely spaced novellas, were linked by Doyle with original material for international broadcast and DVD as the respective faux telefilms Wolfe Goes Out and Wolfe Stays In. Here, her connective tissue is the often-invoked Thursday-night poker game played by Lon (Saul Rubinek), Orrie (Trent McMullen), Saul (Conrad Dunn), and Archie (Timothy Hutton).

   When Archie relates a postscript to “Eeny, Meeny, Murder, Moe,” Fritz (Colin Fox) asks them to quit early to prepare for the onslaught, during which Wolfe (Maury Chaykin) and Archie struggle to keep smiling. The body of Doris (Tramara Burford) is seen briefly in flashback, and after Archie encounters Percy (Nicholas Campbell), Mimi (Nancy Beatty), Eugene (Phillip [sic] Craig), and Vedder (Beau Starr), that of Cynthia (Kathryn Zenna) is found by Mrs. Carlisle (Debra Monk). Repertory player Ken Kramer makes a second and final appearance as Vollmer — later played by Joe Flaherty in “The Silent Speaker” (7/14 & 21/02) — summoned as Homer (Aron Tager) blusters at the indignity of being detained.

   As usual, the regulars are superb, e.g, Fritz bringing down Percy as he attempts to leave; Wolfe bellowing, “The police shall receive no sandwiches!”; Saul coolly standing by his legendary memory; Cramer’s (Bill Smitrovich) glee as he has Lt. Rowcliff (an uncredited Bill MacDonald) seal Wolfe’s office.

   The interrogations are intercut into a montage à la “Over My Dead Body” (7/8 & 15/01). A burgundy jacket and long hair visualize the odd persona of Morley (Richard Waugh), while the need for viewers to see and hear what had been simply described on the page causes the phone call to telegraph the killer’s gender a little more clearly before Skinny (Boyd Banks) and W.J. (James Tolkan) confront Archie.

         — Copyright © 2023 by Matthew R. Bradley.

Up next: Murder by the Book

Edition cited —

      Curtains for Three: Bantam (1970)

Online source

PETER GUNN “The Kill.” NBC, 22 September 1958 (Season One, Episode One). Craig Stevens (Peter Gunn), Lola Albright (Edie Hart), Hope Emerson (Mother), Herschel Bernardi (Lieutenant Jacoby). Guest Cast: Gavin MacLeod, Jack Weston. Music by Henry Mancini. Written and directed by Blake Edwards.

   As opposed to my recent encounter with the first episode of Surfside 6, this is, wow, the way to start off a brand new private eye TV series. Introduce the characters: a tough but suave PI; his girl friend, singer in the night club where he spends a lot of his time; the tough lady owner of said night club; and the cop who’s actually a good friend of the aforementioned PI.

   Then explain who they are naturally, and show the relationships between them by seeing them in their usual haunts and as they interact with each other in the every day (or night) course of business.

   And have a story that’s wrapped up in 30 minutes (although certainly rushed a little at the end), and still have time for the PI and the girl take a break outside the club between sets talking about life, love and maybe, the future. All in the realm of totally cool, but when Mother is seriously injured in an explosion in the club, Mr. Peter Gunn (the PI) gets to show how tough he is too, and the thugs responsible for the explosion will back me up on that statement, you can count on that.

   Although several others of the same overall genre came before it, Peter Gunn the TV show was a breath of fresh air in the business, what with the noirish atmosphere throughout the show, and the music – by Henry Mancini – that took the genre to new heights. This is a TV show that all private eye aficionados can’t afford not to know about, nor miss. (Unfortunately if you don’t have it on DVD (all three seasons, two on NBC, one on ABC), right now the bad news is that you’ll have settle for watching it on FreeVee, with dreadfully awful commercials.)


Nero Wolfe on Page and (Small U.S.) Screen:
In the Best Families
by Matthew R. Bradley.


   Just as Holmes had his Moriarty, and the 87th Precinct had its Deaf Man, so Nero Wolfe had… Arnold Zeck, who figured in three consecutive Rex Stout novels: And Be a Villain (1948), The Second Confession (1949), and In the Best Families (1950). Beginning with Full House (1955), Viking Press — his publisher for the last three decades of his life, and my future employer — assembled three books apiece into eight omnibus editions, five of which contained two novels and one of his collections (themselves generally comprising three novellas, occasionally two or four). All but one had poker-themed titles, the books seemingly selected at random, but the last bore the delicious moniker Triple Zeck (1974).

   A little history: my high-school geometry teacher, whom I will forbear to name, did not excel at her job, but I owe her an incalculable debt, for it was she who — knowing I loved mysteries — lent me her Triple Zeck (I now have my own copy). So entranced was I with Wolfe and Archie that I proceeded to devour all 46 books, plus the spin-off Red Threads (1939), that year. Mind you, in 1981, I was also amidst other series: Lord Peter Wimsey (7 books), Tarzan (4), Barsoom (1), George Smiley (4), Horatio Hornblower (1), Mike Hammer (the only one not to stick; 1), and Len Deighton’s anonymous spy (1); hard to believe that at 18, I had so much time for reading …  while falling in love with my wife!

   Backtracking a bit, the trilogy follows Too Many Women (1947), in which a disharmonic convergence of two virtually unthinkable events occurs the night the second victim, Kerr Naylor, is killed. First, Naylor loses Saul when he abruptly ducks into a taxi, and second, after Naylor takes it to Wolfe’s brownstone and, without leaving a name, asks for Archie, who is out for the evening, Fritz forgets to tell Archie upon his return.

   “That Saul Panzer is the best tailer in New York. I don’t for a minute believe he lost Naylor! He don’t lose ’em! Even if he did, when Naylor came here, wouldn’t you have had him tailed when he left, since you were interested in him?,” bellows the understandably incredulous Cramer.

   The curtain goes up on And Be a Villain (Hamlet, Act I, Scene V) as Wolfe — goaded into action by IRS payments — suggests that radio star Madeline Fraser hire him to investigate the poisoning of horse-race tipster Cyril Orchard on her show, in a sponsor’s product, yet.

   Lina would pay only expenses, plus a deductible $20,000 if he nails the killer, to stop the bad publicity, although Tully Strong, secretary of the Sponsors’ Council, says the makers of Hi-Spot, the doctored beverage, might wish to do the hiring. It is decided that said fee will be split unequally among Hi-Spot; the network, the Federal Broadcasting Co. (FBC); Fraser; and other sponsors White Birch Soap and Sweeties: cue assembling the suspects.

   Refusing to work for Sweeties, Wolfe reassigns their 2% to the FBC and hosts Lina; her “stooge and feeder,” Bill Meadows, and manager, Deborah Koppel; script writer Elinor Vance; Nathan Traub, ad exec for the agency handling three sponsors; and Strong. Gate-crashing are Hi-Spot’s president and p.r. man, respectively Walter B. Anderson and Fred Owen, and FBC veep Beech.

   Absent are Columbia mathematician F.O. Savarese, the ill-fated broadcast’s surviving guest, otherwise engaged, and Nancylee Shepherd, the “nosy little chatterbox” and “pain in the neck” who organized the country’s largest Fraser Girls’ Club, kept at arm’s length as much as possible, while being tolerated by Lina to a degree.

   All deny remembering who’d uncapped the bottles, one containing cyanide — with which Fraser’s husband, Debby’s brother, allegedly killed himself six years earlier — and placed it in front of Orchard; it is unclear if he was a deliberate target. With Nan and her mother shipped off to the Ambassador in Atlantic City, impervious to Saul’s charms, Wolfe grills Savarese, an expert on probability who knew Orchard, and asked to join him on the show, to no end. Archie’s faked telegram from Al Shepherd lures his family to the brownstone, where Wolfe catches Nan lying, forcing her to admit that nearly a year ago, clear glasses were switched to opaque blue … and Lina’s bottles were always marked with Scotch tape.

   The inference is clear: Lina hasn’t been drinking Hi-Top, which gave her indigestion, a ruinous fact if revealed, and Bill says that Traub — naturally unaware of the substitution — unwittingly gave Orchard Lina’s poisoned coffee. Wolfe tells Cramer enough to have his army of men investigate who might have it in for Lina, and if his fact is deemed essential to catching the killer, he will collect that fee.

   Even this seems fruitless until Beula Poole is shot dead in her office; she and Orchard published, for the unheard-of weekly price of $10, sheets giving, respectively, “inside advance information on political and economic affairs” and race-track tips, and Cramer reveals that both their offices were cleaned out.

   Then, it happens: answering Wolfe’s ad seeking subscribers to What to Expect or Track Almanac is a voice “hard, slow, precise, and cold as last week’s corpse”; he has heard it before, with advice on a job for General Carpenter, and to advise him to limit his “efforts in behalf of a Mrs. Tremont,” which he did, but only “because no extension of them was required to finish the job I was hired for.”

   Zeck, who has a place in Westchester, is not pleased to learn that Wolfe knows his name — ascertained by Del Bascom’s agency with no word to Archie, whom he did not want to involve — and warns him to drop the matter. Cautioning Archie to forget his name and stay away from him, Wolfe drops a bombshell.

   “I’ll tell you this. If ever, in the course of my business, I find that I am committed against him and must destroy him, I shall leave this house, find a place where I can work — and sleep and eat if there is time for it — and stay there until I have finished. I don’t want to do that, and therefore I hope I’ll never have to.”

   Then it’s back to the matter at hand, and he learns that said sheets were an ingenious blackmail racket. A disobedient Archie calls Lon Cohen at the Gazette — introduced in The Silent Speaker (1946) — to ask about Zeck, whom Lon has heard “owns twenty Assemblymen and six district leaders … if you print something about him that he resents your body is washed ashore at Montauk Point…”

   Comparing notes with Cramer, Wolfe posits that the éminence grise behind the sheets has “units” nationwide, ensuring success both with modest payments and by rigidly adhering to one-year “subscriptions” sans renewals. He suggests focusing on subscriber Vance — whose namesake is “Eleanor” in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959) — and says one of Zeck’s cutouts may know the murderer’s identity.

      He refuses a unilateral attempted firing by Anderson, who is enraged at associations with blackmail after Archie gives Lon the story (naming no names, natch) and withdraws his sponsorship; Wolfe also stirs the pot by faking an “anonymous” letter that implicates Elinor in a suspicious death.

   At least that’s the plan, but as Archie waits for the interested parties to wind up a summit meeting to select the replacement for Hi-Top, Debby eats a sample of Meltettes candy, to disprove Nan’s assertion that “It’s dangerous!,” and promptly drops dead.

   Unfortunately, when Archie refuses to be frisked like the others, Deputy Commissioner O’Hara (invoked yet unseen in Too Many Women) has him hauled downtown, where the forgery is found. He is sprung to forestall the release of an announcement sent to Fraser’s station, WPIT, that Wolfe “has solved the murder cases, all three of them, with no assistance from the police,” and can soon tell the D.A., so Cramer and Stebbins start rounding up suspects…

   The blackmailers cleverly implied knowledge of fabricated dirty laundry but, by the law of averages, inevitably put the bite on someone who really had a deadly secret they would kill to protect. Lina faked Lawrence’s suicide and made herself seem to be the target, not Orchard; Anderson was scared off by Strong, who showed her the accusatory letters and deduced her guilt.

   When Zeck calls to “congratulate you on keeping your investigation within the limits I prescribed,” and Wolfe responds, “I permit prescription of limits only by the requirements of the job. If that job had taken me across your path you would have found me there,” he says, “Then that is either my good fortune — or yours,” and hangs up.

   Act II, The Second Confession, opens as James U. Sperling, chairman of the board of the Continental Mines Corp., tries to hire Wolfe to do what Bascom has not: prove there is, and if possible get, evidence that layer Louis Rony is a Communist. He wants to prevent Rony, a “champion of the weak and downtrodden,” from marrying his younger daughter, Gwenn; Wolfe and Archie agree with her that communism is “intellectually contemptible and morally unsound.”

   Wolfe says, “Why not hire me to reach your objective, no matter how — of course within the bounds permitted to civilized man?,” but Del’s reports reveal that Rony was seen at Bischoff’s Pet Shop, “a branch of Zeck’s far-flung shenanigans…”

   “Andrew” Goodwin infiltrates to photograph Stony Acres, Sperling’s country home near Chappaqua, for a corporation portfolio and steal shots of Rony, at whom Connie Emerson is making a pass, while Archie fears that war widow Madeline may do so at him, tangling a possible diversionary run at sis Gwenn.

   Also present are James, Jr., economist Webster Kane, and Connie’s husband, Continental-sponsored WPIT newscaster Paul, despised by Wolfe as a veritable fascist. Fiercely protective of Gwenn, Madeline recognizes “Andy” from a news photo and intuits that his object is Rony; offering him a ride back to the city, Archie plots for him to be knocked out in an ambush, simulated by Ruth Brady and Saul.

   Rony carries an American Communist Party membership card for a “William Reynolds,” which Archie photographs, and eight keys, of which he takes impressions, giving Saul his cash to maintain the fiction. On his return, Wolfe is reporting a warning from Zeck to let Rony alone when the plant rooms are blasted with gunfire, leaving Theodore traumatized but unhurt.

   Enlisting Andy Krasicki, Lewis Hewitt, and G.M. Hoag to salvage what they can, Wolfe is driven — literally and figuratively — to Westchester, where he enlightens the Sperlings regarding “X,” leaving Gwenn to decide if she insists on proof regarding Rony, whatever the cost; stalling for time, she makes a rendezvous to tell Rony they’re through.

   The victim of an apparent hit and run, he’s found behind a bush by Archie, and Wolfe has Sperling, who rehires him to solve it, report the death, bringing local law Dykes, Noonan, and Archer — introduced, like Andy, in “Door to Death” (1949).

   Archie deflects Archer’s interested in the faux holdup as best he can, while the antagonistic Noonan is thrilled that Wolfe’s car is found to have killed Rony, which Kane confesses he did by accident while borrowing it to mail some letters in Mount Kisco. Archer is satisfied, but not Wolfe, who refuses to consider Sperling’s $50,000 pay-off (including orchid-damage) final and, back home, receives the same amount in an anonymous package, obviously on behalf of Zeck.

   He calls wishing luck to Wolfe, who asks Doc Vollmer to seek any sign on Rony of being knocked out before he was run over, with inconclusive results. He sends Archie and Saul with duplicate keys to his apartment, fruitlessly searched just when Jimmy and his mother turn up, looking ostensibly for letters from Gwenn, but presumably for a threat Rony held over them.

   Telling the ’teers that any information will be used — or not used — at his sole discretion, he asks Saul and Orrie Cather to learn the hold, and Fred Durkin to probe their servants in an effort to glean who doped a drink meant for Rony yet consumed by Archie, who had done the very same thing, and switched them in the hope of searching his room.

   Connie suspiciously materializes just as Archie locates a stone that — per Weinbach of the Fisher Laboratories, introduced in “Cordially Invited to Meet Death” (1942) — hit a man’s head. Saul learns that Jimmy contributed to the Committee of Progressive Business Men, a “funny front” for former Vice President, 1948 Progressive Party candidate, and alleged Communist “fellow traveler” Henry A. Wallace, his check one of several photostatted by a possible spy.

   Wolfe is visited by Gwenn, who reports hearing an argument between the Emersons that implicated the jealous Paul, and “Mr. Jones,” a mysterious contact within the Communist party whom Archie has never met, and then has Archie call off the boys.

   Deducing that Reynolds is not Rony’s alias but the killer’s, Wolfe ghost-writes articles on the party’s inner workings (leaked by Jones) for Lon, now second in command at the city desk; his anonymous letter fingering Reynolds as their source leads high-ranking Harvey and Stevens — one of whom may be Jones — to sign a document identifying his photo.

   At the climactic confab, Wolfe forces Web to retract his first confession, only to reveal he is Reynolds, his stunned look the titular admission. In what Archie calls “the tail,” Sperling repays Wolfe by pulling Paul off the air, where he’d insulted Wolfe, and a satisfied Zeck sends him $15,000, replacing what he’d paid Jones, all set aside by Wolfe as a war chest.

   Wolfe finally makes good on his vow in Act III, In the Best Families, which begins when wealthy Sarah Rackham visits with cousin Calvin Leeds and hires him to learn the source of second husband Barry’s new income. As cover, Archie is to be called in on a valuable dog’s poisoning at Calvin’s Hillside Kennels, and invited with him to dine at her adjacent Westchester estate, Birchvale.

   That morning, Wolfe is expecting a sausage delivery from Bill Darst that he and Fritz plan to share with Marko Vukcic, but the box instead contains a cylinder of tear gas, a warning from Zeck to lay off Barry, suggesting an answer to Mrs. Rackham’s question; Wolfe hangs up when Zeck offers to replace her $10,000 with cash.

   “This episode will be repeated. [The telephone] will ring, and that confounded voice will presume to dictate to us. If we obey the dictate we will be maintaining this office and our means of livelihood only by his sufferance. If we defy it we shall be constantly in a state of trepidant vigilance, and one or both us us will probably get killed.”

   Wolfe refuses to ignore the third threat, as does Archie, who advises that the household begin the “trepidant vigilance” and heads off to Westchester, casing Eastcrest, Zeck’s mansion. At dinner are Sarah’s widowed daughter-in-law, Annabel Frey; banker, Dana Hammond, her admirer; and secretary, Lina Darrow, as well as her admirer, state assemblyman Oliver A. Pierce.

   That night, Nobby, a Doberman pinscher given to Sarah by Calvin, crawls to Hillside and dies with a steak knife stuck in him; his mother, Hebe, gets the scent, leading Calvin and Archie toward Birchvale, but on the path is Sarah, stabbed with the same knife. Archie is candid with Archer, if omitting Zeck, and Leeds says, “It happens in the best of families” before he races home, where Wolfe has bolted, leaving three notes. Two offer Theodore and Fritz employment with Hewitt (who takes the plants) and Marko, respectively, while one reads, “A.G.: Do not look for me. My very best regards and wishes,” and a Gazette ad announces his retirement, referring only clients having “unfinished matters” to Archie.

   Marko reveals that Wolfe has given him a power of attorney, told him “to offer the house and its contents for sale [with] confidential instructions,” and bidden Archie “to act in the light of experience as guided by intelligence.” New millionaire Barry contradicts Archie, claiming that Sarah was going to consult Wolfe about possible mishandling by Hammond of her affairs, and disbelieving Archie’s ignorance of Wolfe’s whereabouts, Archer locks him up.

   Before Wolfe’s lawyer, Nathaniel Parker (mentioned, by surname, in The Silent Speaker), springs him, Archie is offered a job in the “organization” by his cellmate, Max Christy, who per Lon sets up “little weekend roundups … Anything men risk money for.”

   Bequests also go to distant relatives, servants, Lina ($200,000), Annabel (Birchvale plus $1 million), and Leeds ($500,000), whose corroboration of Archie is disbelieved as well; like him and everyone else, Cramer thinks Archie knows how to reach Wolfe but, having deduced the truth, he says Wolfe should return Sarah’s fee and Zeck “is out of his reach.”

   Archie decides to open his own office at 1019 Madison Avenue, with Annabel as his first client, who asks him to a gathering of the suspects … none of whom will cooperate. Max invites Archie to meet a man he thinks might be Zeck, but it is bearded Pete Roeder from L.A., who wants Archie to tail Barry and has his driver, Bill, take them up to 1019 to talk.

   There, he is revealed as Wolfe, who’d spent “the most painful month of my life — except one, long ago,” in Texas, and has lost 117 pounds. Like Charles Forbin in D.F. Jones’s Colossus (1966), he knows his only guarantee of privacy is to feign the need for female companionship, so Lily Rowan hosts a five-hour confab in her E. 63rd Street penthouse, necking with “Pete” en route to sell it.

   Having planted a seed of suspicion in Zeck, Pete has Archie hire the ’teers for the job, deliberately letting themselves be spotted, and when confronted by Barry, Archie accepts $6,000 to reveal that they are working — indirectly — for Zeck, whom he conjectures “is getting set to frame you for the murder of your wife.”

   Archie claims to have told Barry he was working for Annabel in his daily reports to Max, who takes him to an audience where Zeck denies seeking Wolfe, but tries to recruit him; with the threat of a murder rap, he wants to force Barry to help them duplicate Roeder’s successful L.A. operation locally.

   Summoned to Archer’s office, Archie encounters Lina (a name Stout, typically casual, used for two characters in the trilogy), jilted by Barry and peddling the tale of a fictitious whistle-blowing call from Wolfe to Sarah that gave him a motive. “About all that [his] ticket to the electric chair needed was my endorsement,” yet however deserved, it would end the anti-Zeck scheme, so he shoots the story full of holes.

   Persuaded that his only out is an accommodation, Barry is taken to Zeck by Archie — now nominally on the payroll — and Pete, with a gun beneath his briefcase’s false bottom, used to cover Barry when they abruptly bind and gag Zeck. He agrees to trade evidence Wolfe has assembled against him for evidence that will convict Barry, who grabs the gun Archie “carelessly” put down to free Zeck, kills him, and in turn is killed by henchmen.

   Back in the brownstone at last, Wolfe earns Sarah’s fee by revealing that Calvin tipped off Zeck, and only he would be trusted by Nobby enough to stab him after killing his new mistress; vacationing with Lily in Norway, Archie learns that Leeds has hanged himself in his cell.

   The only book in the trilogy to be adapted, “In the Best Families” (3/6/81) was directed for the William Conrad series — which, oddly enough, I was not watching while reading the books during its original January 16-June 2 run — by the prolific George McCowan and, like “Before I Die” (1/30/81), scripted by Alfred Hayes.

   I hope you’ll agree that to summarize the first two in detail gave the third an essential context! Guest stars Linden Chiles (Leeds), Burr DeBenning (Max), and Diana Douglas (Sarah) each made multiple appearances with Conrad on Cannon; DeBenning, the ill-fated scientist in The Incredible Melting Man (1977), was also later seen on Matt Houston opposite Lee Horsley (Archie).

   Even before Sarah and Leeds arrive, a messenger (Chuck Tamburro) delivers the fateful package from Arnold Dorso (Robert Loggia), “king of the spiders,” who knows Wolfe is out to change his untouchability. Defying this third warning, Wolf takes the job; Hayes excises several characters, but otherwise follows Stout closely with the Westchester trip, the introduction of Annabel (Juanin Clay) and Barry (Lawrence Casey), and the murder.

   Once again, Archie returns home to find the door wide open as Fritz (George Voskovec) and Theodore (Robert Coote) wait with the notes, yet no sooner has he been summoned to Rusterman’s than Marko (Alex Rodine) takes him to Wolfe, hiding in the meat locker.

   The spectacle of a chipper Wolfe in chef’s garb, singing opera, is a far cry from the folds of skin bespeaking “Pete’s” crash diet, and if he truly sought to disappear, hiding out with his oldest friend seems less than secure. It’s as if Hayes said, “Let’s adapt Gone with the Wind, but leave out all that nonsense about the Civil War”; why, with 46 to choose from, select and then vitiate the book whose distinguishing characteristic is Wolfe’s imposture?

   Archie rejects an offer from Annabel, who believes Barry is guilty, but accepts one from Max (now a Christy/Roeder amalgam), ostensibly bitter over his abandonment by Wolfe, whose dispute with Marko’s chef over seasoning is interpolated as supposed comic relief.

   The rest of the plot, and even the dialogue, remain faithful, with Archie flying solo in the climactic confrontation, and Annabel assuming some of Lina’s functions, just as Max did Pete’s. When the normally unsentimental Wolfe hands Leeds over to D.A. Emory (Arnie Moore) and his assistant (David M. Zellitti), his outrage over Nobby’s betrayal is true to Stout; in a lame tag, Archie refuses a delivery from another messenger (Bennett Roberts). Loggia’s toymaker in Big (1988) was a change of pace from crime stories, e.g., Scarface (1983), Prizzi’s Honor, Jagged Edge (both 1985)  — earning Loggia an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor — Innocent Blood (1992), Lost Highway (1997), The Sopranos.

         — Copyright © 2023 by Matthew R. Bradley.

Up next: “Disguise for Murder”

Editions cited:

   Too Many Women: Bantam (1955)

   And Be a Villain, The Second Confession, In the Best Families in Triple Zeck: Viking (1974)

Online source:

SURFSIDE 6. “Country Gentleman.” ABC / Warner Brothers. 03 October 1960 (Season One, Episode One). Lee Patterson (Dave Thorne), Troy Donahue (Sandy Winfield II), Van Williams (Ken Madison), Diane McBain, Margarita Sierra. Guest Cast: Ray Danton, Frank DeKova, Robert Burton, Janet Lake. Director: Irving J. Moore. Many shows available for streaming on the Internet Archive.

   As far as least a secondary function of the first show of the season is o introduce the characters, this particular one is (was) a gigantic flop. It might be me, but I felt as though I could have been watching an episode in the middle of the season rather than the first one.

   Not that that was much of a problem. The picture filled itself in easily enough, if all you want is to watch is a show with three good-looking guys running a PI agency in Florida (Miami) with the usual light-hearted effort to put on an otherwise ordinary PI TV show.

   But to put in the effort that a blogger who likes to watch old PI TV shows should be doing, let me crib from IMDb:

   “Ken, Dave, and Sandy are three hip private detectives living on, and working out of, a houseboat in Miami, Florida. A yacht, belonging to socialite Daphne [Diane McBain], is anchored next to their houseboat. While not pursuing criminals, they spend time at the Fontainebleau Hotel chasing Cha Cha [Margarita Sierra], who works as an entertainer in the Boom Boom Room.”

   It is interesting to note that Van Williams’ character (Ken) was a fellow who previously was one the lead players on Bourbon Street Beat, another Warner Brothers/ABC production which had just closed down for good the previous spring.

   In this one, a cool suave but still somewhat crude gangster (played by totally cool suave but still somewhat crude Ray Danton) is trying to use his money and charisma to join whatever high society that Miami has to offer, and hitting a brick wall in doing so. When one of the gents who blackballed him is found dead, guess who is the obvious suspect? Not to mention that he and the Commodore’s daughter have become very close.

   This is a somewhat mediocre episode and yet perhaps as enjoyable a one as viewers were able to see in 1960. The stories may very well have improved, as the series was on for two years. But when the “villain” of the piece has more screen appeal than its nominal three stars, something’s just not right.

Nero Wolfe on Page and (Small U.S.) Screen:
Trouble in Triplicate
by Matthew R. Bradley.


   Rex Stout’s third Nero Wolfe collection, Trouble in Triplicate (1949), contains a trio of novellas first published in The American Magazine: “Before I Die” (April 1947), “Help Wanted, Male” (August 1945), and “Instead of Evidence” (May 1946); the latter debuted as “Murder on Tuesday,” yet was curiously advertised a month before as “Too Stubborn to Live.”

   That’s how Martha Poor describes husband Eugene, convinced that his partner, Conroy Blaney, plans to kill him for his half of their novelty business. All agree that it is impossible to prevent this, but Gene wants Wolfe to ensure that Blaney gets caught, while she would prefer that he be bought out for a ridiculously low $20,000 — yet remain alive.

   When a real exploding cigar kills Poor, obliterating his face, longtime genre readers are perhaps unsurprised as “Gene” is revealed to have been her accomplice, eliminated after helping Martha implicate Blaney, and in fact, all three stories have imposture in common. In “Before I Die,” Wolfe surprises Archie by having him admit Dazy Perrit, King of the Black Market, who provides a phone number to offset the “Great Meat Shortage.”

   He is being blackmailed by Angelina Murphy, set up in his penthouse off Fifth Avenue as his faux daughter, Violet; he took this precaution because his enemy Thumbs Meeker learned that he had one somewhere: Beulah Page, now “among the top of her class at Columbia.”

   She turned two the week he went to prison, and believes that Perrit merely represents her mysterious, wealthy father; Dazy, whose minion is Archie’s namesake, also fears that her appearance and mannerisms, strongly resembling her dead mother’s, will be a give-away. Himself posing as Harold Stevens of the Dayton, Ohio Community Health Center, Archie invites Beulah and her fiancé, law student Morton Schane, to dine with Wolfe, who later threatens to turn “Violet” (aka Sally Smith) in on a Salt Lake City charge if she does not give him 90% of what she gets from Perrit. Archie assumes he plans to kick it back, but as he escorts her home she is gunned down, her last words, “It’s — uh…shame. Shame!”

   Archie is released after telling Lt. Rowcliff that the killer fired from a (stolen) car with a handkerchief over his face; no sooner has he reached the brownstone to be confronted by Perrit and Archie 2 than they, too, are shot dead from a taxicab. L.A. Schwartz, Dazy’s lawyer, tells Wolfe he will get $50,000 if he assents to be the executor “and in effect the guardian of his daughter,” then turns over a sealed envelope containing background data on Beulah, and a request that Wolfe make sure she receives his sizable estate. They are interrupted by calls from Fabian, an “associate” who may blame them for Perrit’s death, and Beulah, who has seen Archie’s photo in the paper, and shows up with Schane in tow.

   With Beulah — to whom he has revealed her patrimony — up in the plant rooms, Wolfe has just convened Fabian, Schwartz, Schane, and Saul Panzer when Meeker breezes by Fritz; per Archie, “Before I die I get to hear Wolfe bawling hell out of Thumbs … for dashing in to where Fabian is ready with his gun out.”

   Wolfe denies telling the cops that Archie had fingered Dazy and Violet for him, explaining that she had learned Beulah’s identity, and Schane, with whom she had a history, secretly cultivated Beulah. Violet’s final word was not “Shame!,” but “Schane!,” and when confronted with the truth he fires on Wolfe yet is shot down by Fabian, Meeker, and Saul, leaving Archie to dine with Beulah at Ribeiro’s.

   Like the stories in Not Quite Dead Enough (1944), “Help Wanted, Male” occurs during Archie’s World War II service as Major Goodwin of Military Intelligence (who notes in “Instead of Evidence” that “I had been a civilian again for only a week”). Publisher and politician Ben Jensen, whistle-blower in the (unrecorded) case of court-martialed Captain Peter Root, brings Wolfe the warning he’s received in the mail: “YOU ARE ABOUT TO DIE—AND I WILL WATCH YOU DIE!” Archie recognizes it from an ad for the movie Meeting at Dawn, published in The American Magazine, ha ha ha, but Ben is not amused, especially when Wolfe refuses to provide protection … and 12 hours later, Jensen is killed.

   Shot along with him, Cramer reports, was Doyle, the best man at the Cornwall and Mayer agency (hired by Jensen on Archie’s suggestion), but while “not interested, not involved, and not curious,” Wolfe receives an identical clipping. Presuming a connection, he asks Archie to fetch Root’s fiancée, Jane Geer, delaying his trip to Washington to ask General Carpenter to send him overseas; the head of G-2, introduced in “Booby Trap” (1944), he was revealed as Mrs. Boone’s cousin in The Silent Speaker (1946), where Ribeiro’s was first mentioned. Arriving simultaneously is Ben’s son, the handsome Major Emil Jensen, who leaves with Jane when Wolfe suddenly shifts gears and refuses to see either of them.

   His request refused, Archie confers with Colonel Dickey on various cases, and then spots an ad in the New York Star: “WANTED A MAN” of Wolfe’s description, “Temporary. Hazardous.” Fleeing Pentagon red tape, he returns home, where a retired architect, H.H. Hackett, “an unsurpassed nincompoop with the manners of a wart hog,” is impersonating Wolfe, who believes Cramer is wasting his time trying to nail Emil, due to a quarrel upon learning that Ben sued his mother for divorce while he was serving in Europe. No sooner have Jane and the gate-crashing Emil arrived to see “Wolfe” than a shot — fired inside the house — nicks Hackett’s ear, and a revolver wrapped in a handkerchief is found in a vase.

   Giving the gun and a bullet Archie digs out of the wall to Cramer, Wolfe persuades the guests to stay during a ballistics test to see if it killed Ben and Doyle, yet when Cramer shows up with confirmation, Purley Stebbins, and a search warrant, he angrily demands that the latter be torn up before playing ball.

   He suspects Jane and Emil, as the killer had intended, until the absence of a sofa cushion points him in the right direction: Hackett is in fact Thomas Root. Peter’s vengeful father took a job as a doorman at Ben’s apartment house in order to kill him, then fired a separate shot from one of Wolfe’s pistols into the cushion as part of an elaborate ruse to implicate them, nicking his ear with a pocket knife.

   Among a handful of works adapted for the Wolfe TV series starring both William Conrad and Maury Chaykin, “Before I Die” (1/30/81) was directed for the former by Edward Abroms, second only to George McCowan with his contributions.

   Along with The Red Box (1937), “Black Orchids” (1941), The Silent Speaker, and five of Stout’s later works, “Before I Die” was also dramatized on a Russian series that ran for two seasons (2001-2002 and 2005), featuring Donatas Banionis as Wolfe, with Sergey Zhigunov as Archie. The Conrad version was scripted by Alfred Hayes, who had shared Oscar nominations for Teresa (1951) and — with Roberto Rossellini and Federico Fellini—Paisà (Paisan, 1946).

   Dazy is now Leo Crown, played by Darren McGavin’s fellow Night Stalker alum Ramon Bieri, also seen in The Andromeda Strain (1971) and Sorcerer (1977); surprisingly, Russ Tamblyn turns up as an unidentified police detective. Kidnapped by Eddie Meeker (H.M. Wynant) to end a war between them, Violet (Char Fontane) is released to Leo and Harry Fabian (Eddie Fontaine), then admits her masquerade to Wolfe and Archie (Lee Horsley), fearing for her safety. Angelina is followed there by Leo, who agrees to let her “retire,” and the two shootings — separated by Cramer (Allan Miller) questioning Archie — follow, with no last words for Violet, and Leo survived by his useless bodyguard (Robert Sutton).

   Saul (George Wyner) learns that in Utah, hooker Angelina had a boyfriend, local hustler Harvey Pine, and Cramer tells Eddie — who denies hitting Leo — he’d grabbed the wrong girl; Schwartz, now Arthur Poor (John Ericson), provides the envelope identifying Elaine Page (Tarah Nutter), warning that Harry will dislike the will.

   Archie flies his true colors when inviting Elaine, about to head for Maryland to wed Paul Shane (Kale Browne), chez Wolfe, suggesting that she will learn the truth at last. The dialogue and Nutter’s delivery convey how badly she wants it (“I’ve lived in houses that weren’t mine, with families that weren’t mine”), and how devastated she is at the news that her father was killed that day.

   As in the novella, Wolfe confirms his suspicions of Paul by tripping him up on an arcane legal point at dinner, and having Fritz (George Voskovec) save his “cracked” wine glass, complete with Pine’s fingerprints. A shot through the window of the brownstone later on suggests an attempt on the life of Elaine, kept there for safety, but was only an attempt at misdirection by Paul, who wished to marry into her fortune.

   We are deprived a climactic hail of bullets (with Saul proven to have fired the fatal shot) as a tipped-off Cramer takes Paul away, but Hayes is largely faithful, eliminating the blackmail angle, and ending on a grace note as Theodore Horstmann (Robert Coote) presents Wolfe’s ward with an orchid.

   Both “Before I Die” (6/16/02) and “Help Wanted, Male” (6/23/02) were directed for the Chaykin series by its own runner-up (after star Timothy Hutton), John L’Ecuyer, airing on consecutive weeks in the second season. They were adapted by, respectively, Sharon Elizabeth Doyle (by far the most frequent scenarist, a contributing producer that season) and, in his only contribution, Mark Stein.

   Interestingly, although each episode features a half-dozen of the show’s repertory players, they have none in common, while Dazy Perrit is played by Seymour Cassel, whose collaborations with John Cassavetes include his film debut, Shadows (1958), and a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for Faces (1968).

   The double-length international version of “Before I Die” is augmented with comedic and Corleonesque scenes created by Doyle in which Archie 2 (Joe Pingue) earns the grudging admiration of Fritz (Colin Fox) by teaching him how to make “gravy” (spaghetti sauce, to us non-Sicilians).

   Michael Small provides a jazzy score befitting this underworld motif, while the opening narration by Archie (Hutton) preserves Rex Stout’s immortal line, “To Nero Wolfe a meal without meat was an insult.” Ostensibly fresh out of St. Louis, Violet (Christine Brubaker) makes her N.Y.C. debut when Dazy introduces her to Fabian (Doug Lennox), Archie 2, and their respective girlfriends (Nicky Guadagni, Angela Maiorano).

   An in-joke has Violet show her friends a designer dress from Saks in a box conspicuously labeled “L’Ecuyer,” while a sexual relationship with Dazy either wasn’t in the novella, or went right over my head (admittedly plausible). Beulah (Lindy Booth) is a social activist focused on health work, who insists she is not a communist, and brings Schane (Matthew Edison) to dinner, where she impresses Wolfe with more dialogue original to Doyle.

   Bill MacDonald returns as Rowcliffe (sic), his role in “Prisoner’s Base” (5/13 & 20/01), while the shooting spree by Fabian, Meeker (Beau Starr), and Saul (Conrad Dunn) is retained as Schwartz (Ken Kramer) witnesses that they fired in self-defense — since Schane shot first.

   In “Help Wanted, Male,” guest star Larry Drake, who won consecutive Supporting Actor Emmy Awards as mentally impaired office worker Benny Stulwicz on L.A. Law, is well cast as “Hackett.” Convinced that Wolfe turned down the job because he thought it was too hot, Cramer (Bill Smitrovich) invades Wolfe’s bedroom during breakfast to detail the deaths of Ben (James Tolkan) and Doyle (Randy Butcher). Jane (Kari Matchett) did have a grudge against Wolfe when she believed Peter (Steve Cumyn) a scapegoat, but revised her opinion of Root; she now fears that the adverse publicity from being a murder suspect will hamper her aspirations to be the first female vice president of her advertising agency.

   Noting the immediate attraction between Jane and Emil (Richard Waugh), Archie makes his abortive trip to Washington, where Carpenter (George Plimpton) states, “Your role as Mr. Wolfe’s assistant is absolutely vital.” Stein interpolates bizarre byplay between him and eyepatched Dickey (Robert Bockstael), and dramatizes Wolfe’s questioning of Root, brought to him from prison, which he merely related to Archie in the novella.

   Trying to maintain the façade, Archie has Fritz hold Jane and Emil at gunpoint so that he can coach Hackett, but Wolfe shortly reveals himself; as Cramer and Purley (R.D. Reid) investigate the shot’s trajectory, Archie and Fritz launch the separate search for the missing cushion.

            — Copyright © 2023 by Matthew R. Bradley.

Up next: “Door to Death” [See comment #1.]

    Edition cited:

      Trouble in Triplicate: Bantam (1955)

    Online sources:

[link mislabeled as “Wolfe at the Door”]


TIGHTROPE! “The Chinese Pendant.” Screen Gems / CBS, 29 March 1960 (Season 1, Episode 28). Michael Connors. Guest cast: Ted de Corsia, Mary Castle, Philip Ahn, Lisa Lu, Jeanne Carmen (as Saba Dareaux). Directed by Irving J. Moore.

   Tightrope! the TV series lasted but one season on CBS, but that was back when a season consisted of well over 30 episodes, in this case 37, running throughout the entire 1959-60 season. Mike Connors played an undercover cop in each of the stories, every week getting into scrape after scrape, but managing to escape just in the nick of time at the end.

   He has two problems hanging over him in “The Chinese Pendant.” The first he knows about – trying to get in with a mob boss by posing as a skilled diamond thief – the other he doesn’t – that of a would-be killer whom Connors sent to prison, and who wants revenge.

   Narrating the stories, Connors had a new name in each episode, but apparently he often went by “Nick.” Even though posing as a crook, he was suave enough to catch the eye of some very good-looking women; two, in fact, in this episode. Old time movie fans will recognize the name of Philip Ahn, who plays a fence this time around and whose career lasted some 40 years or more. His daughter, played by Lisa Lu, you may remember as Hey Girl in the Have Gun, Will Travel TV series, and who quite remarkably is still active today.

   There’s a lot of plot in “The Chinese Pendant,” and one could only wish the show was 60 minutes long instead of a very cramped 30 minutes. I enjoyed the series immensely back when it was originally on, and I enjoyed it equally so the other night when I discovered this episode on YouTube. See below, if still there:



XYY MAN, SERIES 2: THE CONCRETE BOOT. Granada TV, UK, (1997). Four episodes. Stephen Yardley as William “Spider” Scott, Don Henderson as DI Bulman, Vivienne McKee as Maggie Parsons, Dennis Blanch as DC Derek Willis, Mark Digman as Fairfax. Guest: William Squire as Laidlaw. Based on the novel (Hodder, 1971) by Kenneth Royce.

   Tall, slender, and bent by nature, that’s what the extra Y chromosome has done for cat burglar extraordinary “Spider” Scott (Stephen Yardley), a professional criminal whose unique DNA makes him prone to risks, to womanizing, and to trouble legal and otherwise.

   Scott lives with Maggie Parsons (Vivienne Parsons) who loves him despite his wandering ways and lack of traditional moral fiber (Maggie isn’t much better at times) as Spider, in this second four part serial in the series that began in 1976, has gotten his flying license and opened a small service with a friend. Things seem pretty good until “Spider” gets a job involving a charitable group rehabilitating ex cons run by a man named Laidlaw (William Squire) and discovers an old friend of his who worked for them has ended up in the Thames with a concrete boot.

   Soon DI Bulman (Don Henderson), a tough policeman who likes to read Karl Marx, is pretty sure Spider is up to his old ways while Spider finds himself being seduced by Laidlaw’s posh secretary Penny (sexy Fiona Curzon) and running into some dodgy old mates who are working for the almost evangelical Laidlaw.

   Meanwhile Fairfax (Mark Digman, head of a shady Intelligence group that used Spider in the first series based on the debut novel The XYY Man) is keeping an eye on his new agent.

   It’s not long before Spider becomes sure the sinister and charming religious fanatic Laidlaw is twisted and had something to do with the murder of his old friend, but when he thinks he is getting close, a flying job up north for Laidlaw turns out to be a setup, and Spider finds himself framed for a heist at an airport, and his plane blown up, supposedly with him in it.

   Bulman is upset he never nailed Spider, and shocked when Spider shows up alive and surrenders, but hatred aside he believes Spider’s story and gives him a chance to clear himself and nail Laidlaw, which involves recovering the stolen loot and uncovering Laidlaw’s riverside graveyard where he’s been dumping his victims with “concrete boots,” weighing them down Chicago style (Laidlaw used to be an idea man for the Syndicate). Bulman sweeps in, and as usual even when things seem to be looking up for Spider, they aren’t.

   The series is very faithful to the Kenneth Royce books, maintaining the wry humor and slick action, but only managed two seasons and some twelve episodes, the last four not based on a book, but an original story. There was a spin off series with Henderson, Bulman, in which Bulman resigns from the police and becomes a private detective. Spider had moved on.

   Yardley, tall with thinning hair and a fluid body makes a believable Spider, and along the way, as in the books, bits and pieces of his biography are revealed though never getting in the way of narrative or suspense. McKee is attractive, exasperated, and human as Maggie, and Squires is a fine scene-chewing villain, but the series is largely stolen by the sarcastic, hard nosed, fair, and left-leaning Bulman, a set of curious contradictory traits that make you want to know more about him. Obviously the audience felt the same, since he graduated to his own series.

   The Royce series ran to seven novels between 1970 to 1985, with a ten year gap between 1974’s Trap Spider and 1984’s The Crypto Man.

   The complete series is available on YouTube beginning with the episode below. (The same person who who uploaded this one has also provided the others.) I found it an attractive series, with an offbeat hero and faithful to Royce’s complex plots. Comfort food.

Nero Wolfe on Page and (Small U.S.) Screen:
“Door to Death”
by Matthew R. Bradley.


   Like Trouble in Triplicate (1949), Rex Stout’s next Nero Wolfe collection, Three Doors to Death (1950), contains three novellas that first appeared in The American Magazine: “Man Alive” (December 1947), “Omit Flowers” (November 1948), and “Door to Death” (June 1949). In “Man Alive,” Archie informs us, “The only thing that shakes Wolfe as profoundly as having a meal rudely interrupted is a bawling woman. His reaction to the first is rage, to the second panic.” Wolfe allows that “I respect and admire Mr. Cramer,” despite his doing the former; the latter is their client, Cynthia Nieder, whom he must clear of suspicion in an haute couture murder…of a man reported to be a suicide a year earlier.

   “Omit Flowers” involves Wolfe’s lifelong friend Marko Vukčić, introduced in Too Many Cooks (1938; the accents appear inconsistently). Marko is “one of the only three people who called him by his first name, but there were other factors. Rusterman’s Restaurant was the one place besides home where Wolfe really enjoyed eating…Marko owned it and ran it…”

   He asks Wolfe to clear Virgil Pompa, under whom he’d worked at Mondor’s in Paris in his youth, which Wolfe does, sans fee, as a favor; Pompa, say Marko, “forfeited all claim to professional respect,” becoming the #2 of the AMBROSIA restaurant chain, and is accused of murdering the man who married the founder’s widow and tried to oust him.

   “Door to Death” finds Wolfe desperately seeking a replacement for Theodore Horstmann, “tender and defender of the ten thousand orchids in the plant rooms on the roof,” called to his critically ill mother’s side in Illinois…indefinitely. He finds one in Andrew Krasicki, formerly employed—and recommended—by Lewis Hewitt, after braving wet December weather to poach Andy from the estate of Joseph G. Pitcairn in the Westchester village of Katonah. Offering to show off a Phalaenopsis Aphrodite in flower, Andy takes him and Archie to the greenhouse, conspicuously marked “DANGER-DO NOT ENTER-DOOR-TO-DEATH” due to the use of ciphogene, the deadly fumigant from “Black Orchids” (1941).

   Truer words were never painted—as those were by Mrs. Belle Pitcairn—for in addition to the P. Aphrodite sanderiana, they find her nurse and his fiancée, Dini Lauer, dead from it. Despite Wolfe’s pleading, Pitcairn’s prominence prompts Andy to be charged with first-degree murder by Ben Dykes, head of the county detectives; Lt. Con Noonan of the State Police; and Cleveland Archer, the county’s D.A. du jour after Anderson in Fer-de-Lance (1934) and Fraser in “Instead of Evidence” (1946). Well-meaning assistant Gus Treble says Dini “had given Andy the fanciest runaround he had ever seen,” and they have only Andy’s word for it that she had consented to marriage that day, so things look pretty bad.

   Archer is unable to complete a jealous love triangle with Gus, butler/chauffeur/handyman Neil Imbrie, or Pitcairn père et fils, Donald, but the p.m. shows she was knocked out with morphine, to which Andy had access, because the cook—Neil’s wife, Vera—suffers from facial neuralgia and had a now-missing box in the kitchen.

   According to Andy, they both planned to quit and head for New York after Dini broke the news to Mrs. Pitcairn, whose daughter, Sybil, helps care for her. Proving Andy innocent, Wolfe contends, rolling Dini under a bench overturned a pot in which he’d gotten a branch of Tibouchina semicandra to sport; “such a plant man” would automatically right it, as he did when she was found.

   Ordered out by Pitcairn, Wolfe sets up shop in Andy’s cottage, ostensibly to pack up his things, and probes Gus for dirt on the household (e.g., Joseph’s violent attack on paid-off ex-chippie Florence Hefferan) before Noonan ousts them. Wolfe, his mind “completely dominated by a single purpose,” has Archie summon Saul Panzer via Riverdale drugstore telephone to meet him at the Covered Porch near Scarsdale, eliciting Fritz’s disbelief that he isn’t coming home for dinner. His plan unfolds as the trio infiltrates the greenhouse in the dark—leaving Saul concealed under the bench where Dini’s body had been—then the house by the connecting door, compelling a chat with Joseph G. and children at gunpoint.

   Wolfe threatens to tell the newspapers about Florence, and how four colleges booted out Donald, whose lunge Archie has just slapped down when Belle—recovering from a back injury—appears, her $50,000 offer to shield them declined. At last allowed to inquire, he summons the Imbries as well, distracting everyone while Saul sneaks in and later makes a dramatic entrance, bearing a paper found under the Imbries’ mattress, a blackmail note to Joseph from Dini. It has, of course, been forged by Wolfe with the desired effect, leading to an attack on the father by Donald, who was threatened with disownment if he married Dini, and decided to kill her when she laughed at him and said she planned to wed Andy.

   Curiously, although Theodore was the object of the exercise in “Door to Death” (6/4/01), and a regular on the William Conrad series, he is never seen in this first-season episode—or any other—of A Nero Wolfe Mystery. Adapted by Sharon Elizabeth Doyle, it was the first directed by Holly Dale, and repertory player Kari Matchett’s first appearance as Lily Rowan, the sometime romantic interest of Archie (Timothy Hutton), not mentioned in the novella. Nicholas Campbell, who guest-stars as Andy in his second and final series role, had memorably portrayed serial killer Deputy Frank Dodd in the Stephen King adaptation The Dead Zone (1983), one of his several collaborations with director David Cronenberg.

   Right from the title illustrations by Hutton’s then wife, Aurore Giscard d’Estaing (thanks to Mike Doran for pointing that out), a cousin of former French President Valéry, much is made of Wolfe’s comical outing. In Doyle’s opening, Fritz (Colin Fox) has Saul (Conrad Dunn) summon Archie, who has been tangoing with Lily, to help out in the crisis, and the next day, he drives Wolfe (Maury Chaykin) to Westchester. Ensuing events are rendered faithfully as Andy finds Dini (Kristen Booth); Archie encounters Joseph (James Tolkan), his two children (Christine Brubaker, Boyd Banks), and the Imries (Ken Kramer, Nancy Beatty); and they are interrupted by Noonan (Beau Starr) and Dykes (Michael Rhoades).

   After Archer (Hrant Alianak), unmoved by Wolfe’s logic, takes Andy away, Archie says, “I’d like to get back to New York before Christmas…I’m getting married,” a tale told by Dale and Doyle in the next episode, “Christmas Party” (7/1/01), but not by Stout for more than seven years! A tell-tale branch moving outside the cottage window tips him off that someone is spying on them; it turns out to be Gus (Steve Cumyn), who first believes they have betrayed Andy, but is only too happy to cooperate once persuaded they really are on his side. Cast as Belle was Marian Seldes, whose collaborations with playwright Edward Albee included A Delicate Balance (1966), earning her a Tony and him the Pulitzer Prize.

   Accompanied by a droll Michael Small score, Operation Greenhouse finds Wolfe heavily bundled up; lashing out with his walking stick at “Some kind of serpent!,” the branch that trips him up; and even wading a brook. Unfortunately, with garish make-up and minimal screen time, stage legend Seldes is wasted in a role that, albeit brief, had possibilities on the page. After all Wolfe went through to secure his services, Andy is surprisingly never seen again, although the local law-enforcement officials previously figured in the Arnold Zeck Trilogy (accounting for Lt. Noonan’s apparently unpleasant but unspecified history with Archie), which will be the subject of my next post—y’all come back now, ya hear?

            — Copyright © 2023 by Matthew R. Bradley.

      Up next: In the Best Families

   Edition cited

         Three Doors to Death: Bantam (1970)

   Online source

  BOB HOPE PRESENTS CHRYSLER THEATRE “The Fatal Mistake” NBC, 30 November 1966 (Season 4, Episode 10). Roddy McDowall, Arthur Hill, Michael Wilding, Marge Redmond, Laurence Naismith, Alice Rawlings. Teleplay: Jacques Gillies. Director: Mark Rydell. Currently streaming online here.

   The Chrysler Theatre, often hosted by comedian Bob Hope, a fixture at NBC at the time, was a general 60-minute anthology series which ran from 1963 to 1967. Included among its offerings were musicals, dramas, comedies and mysteries. This (not surprisingly) is one of the latter.

   The two male leads, playing off each other magnificently throughout the show, are perfectly cast. Roddy McDowall plays a smarmy “insurance agent” who comes by the home of an accountant (Arthur Hill) to pick up a monthly blackmail check. There is something in Hill’s past he does not want either his wife or 17-year-old daughter to know about, much less the rest of the world.

   Posing as a friend of the family, McDowall showers the two women in Hill’s life with small gifts and flattery, while all Hill can do is stand there and take it, all the while seething inside. The fact that he keeps a small collection of reptiles in a back room, some rather deadly, tells the viewer exactly where the story is going.

   Which of course it does, with a small mild twist in the tale, unfortunately well telegraphed in advance. It’s a perfectly acceptable story, and well acted. (Roddy McDowell is superb, as always.) It’s just not quite up to the standards of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, for example, but then again, what is (or was)?




THE GOLD ROBBERS. London Weekend TV, 1969; 13 episodes. Peter Vaughan, Richard Leech, Arto Morris, Maria Aitken, Louise Pajo, Fred Bartman, Peter Copely Guests: George Cole, Ian Hendry, Patrick Allen, Roy Dotrice et al. Produced by John Hawkesworth.

   When five million pounds sterling being flown into the United Kingdom by the failing government of a Middle Eastern state is met by a highly organized criminal team and stolen, an international manhunt is set off led by Detective Chief Superintendent John Craddock (Peter Vaughan) of Scotland Yard and Detective Sergeant Tommy Thomas (Arto Morris), an effort that will put their careers and lives at risk.

   The Gold Robbers is a thirteen episode closed crime series that was remarkably dark, violent, and dour for British television of its time. It marked and early part for reliable character actor Vaughan in a rare lead as an all to human but doggedly intelligent policeman. It highlighted as well a number of British stars like Ian Hendry, Patrick Allen, Roy Dotrice, and others as individuals involved in the complex heist that leads Craddock across Europe and into the worlds of high finance, international banking, smelting gold, and politics. It was  where high finance and society met low crime and criminals before the downbeat and not wholly resolved conclusion.

   Filmed in black and white, this one is well worth catching, marked by intelligent scripts and naturalistic acting. In each  episode Craddock and his team focus on some element of the heist, a driver, gunman, crooked air traffic controller, mercenary soldier and their families and loved ones while closing in on slimy crooked casino owner Victor Anderson (Frederick Bartman) who ran the operation for an unknown Mr. Big.

   Along the way, Craddock’s relationship with his son and his mistress fall apart while he is taken under the wing of charming wealthy newspaper and airline magnate Richard Bolt (Richard Leech), whose airline flew the hijacked gold into the UK.

   The ruthless gang uses money, threats, and murder to protect itself as  Craddock tightens the noose, despite setbacks and maddening interference from his superior the Assistant Commissioner (Peter Copely) that gets worse as Craddock closes in on the men behind the crime including some in the government.

   Characters weave in and out of the series, some suspects temporarily get away, some are brutally killed before they can talk, and all the time Craddock’s career is threatened as much by success as failure.

   You can currently find the entire series on YouTube (Nostalgia channel), and it is worth watching for its gritty realism, tough minded characters, sharp writing, and increasingly complex plot that builds to a satisfying downbeat ending that ties all the plot threads while leaving somethings open. It is basically a thirteen part serialized story though, minus cliffhangers and with each episode self contained.

   Among those contributing to the scripts are producer John Hawkesworth, spy novelist Berkley Mather (co-writer of the screenplay for Dr. No), and Allan Prior (Softly Softly: Taskforce and novels).

   The Gold Robbers is plotted more like a really good police procedural novel than a television series with character arcs for police and crooks, and a sense of the cost and the allure of crime. Vaughan’s Craddock is a flawed but compelling protagonist. The series holds up well and has a good mix of suspense, detection, police work, crime, and romance (even with a bit of nudity; it is British television) as the plot unfolds through the characters and not just around them.

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