TV mysteries

Nero Wolfe on Page and (Small U.S.) Screen:
Might As Well Be Dead
by Matthew R. Bradley


   In Rex Stout’s Might as Well Be Dead (1956), James R. Herold hires Nero Wolfe to find his son after learning that he had wrongly accused Paul — who has been sending birthday cards to his mother and sisters, postmarked New York, for 11 years — of stealing $26,000 from his Omaha hardware wholesale business. Because people often select an alias using the same initials, Wolfe places an ad directed at “P.H.,” only to have it widely assumed as a reference to Peter Hays, on trial for first-degree murder. This seems like a coincidence, until attorney Albert Freyer pops in and reveals that he knows nothing of his client’s past, and while headed down to the courtroom for a look, Archie realizes he is being followed.

   Freyer disbelieves that they have no interest in Hays when he sees Archie, who becomes certain that he matches Paul’s graduation photo by his defiant look after the guilty verdict is announced, which Freyer says is inconsistent with a despairing view that “he might as well be dead.” Convinced that Hays was framed, he gets Archie in to see him, and Hays begs them not to tell his father; since Archie’s tail suggests that someone is threatened by the possibility of his being cleared, Wolfe agrees to postpone informing Herold as Freyer starts the appeal process and he investigates the murder. The advertising copywriter had allegedly killed real-estate broker Michael M. Molloy because he loved his wife, Selma.

   Hays denied shooting him, but offered no explanation for the key to their building and the pistol — both found on him — or anything else, while Selma testified that the abusive Mike falsely accused her of infidelity, refusing to grant a divorce. Freyer reports Hays’s claim that he found Mike dead after an anonymous caller said he was beating her, opining that he is shielding Selma, who has an alibi that may not be airtight but in turns believes Hays guilty. Giving the ’teers and occasional operative Johnny Keems various jobs, Wolfe has Archie pump Delia Brandt, Selma’s successsor as Mike’s secretary, for information, with the pretext of gathering material on his last days, for an article to appear under her byline.

   Mike rented a safe-deposit box as “Richard Randall” and died intestate, but Selma refuses to be his administrator; she proposes his friend Patrick A. Degan, head of the Mechanics Alliance Welfare Association, and accepts Wolfe’s suggestion of Nathaniel Parker as her lawyer. As the conference is winding up, Stebbins calls to tell them Johnny was killed by a stolen car while investigating Selma’s theater companions that night, Thomas L. Irwin and Jerome and Rita Arkoff. She’d been asked to fill in for Fanny Irwin, benched with a headache, and Wolfe thinks that the killer not only knew she’d be out of the way but also may have engineered her absence, yet what Johnny might have learned is not yet known.

   Selma asks the couples to come to Wolfe’s, noting that Rita — also a former model, who wed TV producer Jerry — thought Fanny and Pat “were snatching a snuggle,” and Tom’s company did printing for MAWA; they are preceded by Delia’s fiancé, William Lesser, whom Archie assures they can vet the article before publication. Johnny saw all four of them, and Rita reports that she had asked Selma at the suggestion of Tom, but Fanny says the idea was originally hers, “because I could trust him with her.” They leave Wolfe with “no gleam anywhere,” and are followed by Cramer, who provides a list of the contents of Johnny’s pockets, missing the $100 given him for expenses, presumably used for a bribe.

   Watched by Archie, Parker, and an agent of the New York State Tax Commission, Degan finds $327,640 in cash in the safe-deposit box, and agrees to try to learn its source. Saul tentatively i.d.’s the body found bludgeoned behind a lumber pile on 140th Street as Ella Reyes, the Irwins’ maid and the likely bribee; Archie has Selma confirm that — which she does under an alias without alerting Donovan, the morgue desk sergeant from The Black Mountain (1954) — and stay with them for safety. Cramer arrives, “fed up,” unwilling to concede Hays’s innocence, and deduced to have led Lieut. Murphy of Missing Persons to spill the beans about his true identity to Herold, who briefly fired and then rehired Wolfe.

   Mike had invited Delia on a “business trip” to South America, and since Archie intuited that she’d been receptive, which she denied, he and Saul go to her apartment in search of anything he might have stashed there, finding it rifled and, on her strangled body, the key to a Grand Central locker. Documents from the suitcase therein cause Wolfe to convene the interested parties and finger Degan, who’d conspired to embezzle funds from MAWA with Mike, and killed him to forestall his betrayal. Johnny and, in turn, Ella died because she told him Fanny did not develop her “headache” until after a call from Pat, suggesting that she forego seeing Julie Harris in The Lark, ostensibly to discuss some private matter.

   Directed by series mainstay George McCowan, “Might as Well Be Dead” (2/13/81) was the only episode of NBC’s Nero Wolfe series featuring William Conrad to be scripted by Seeleg Lester, a longtime writer-producer on Perry Mason. Natalie Wood’s sister, Lana, who played Plenty O’Toole in Diamonds Are Forever (1971), guest-starred as Delia, with John de Lancie, best known as Q in the Star Trek franchise, as Tom. It simplifies the plot by establishing Hays (A.C. Weary) as innocent from the outset, as the audience actually sees him get the anonymous call, hear shots from outside the apartment, find Mike dead with no sign of his wife, Maggie (Gail Youngs), and pocket the gun before he is caught.

   Lester efficiently interpolates exposition by dramatizing testimony in the trial, and before they meet with Herold (Stephen Elliott), news vendor Charlie (Ralph Manza) tells Archie (Lee Horsley) that Hays, refusing to take the stand in his own defense, must be guilty. In looking at the front-page story, Wolfe immediately notices a similarity in the photos, the identical initials, and the fact that Paul refused to defend himself of embezzlement, all of which he terms “synchronicity.” Stymied by Hays’s lack of cooperation, Freyer (Michael Currie) gives Archie a transcript of the trial and thinks Wolfe could help; streamlining the plot yet again, Pat (Bruce Gray) had been Mike’s lawyer and agrees to serve as Maggie’s.

   The Arkoffs are now Jerry (John Findlater) and Tina Nelson (Deborah Tranelli), and with Saul out of town, Johnny (Herb Braha) is assigned to investigate them, Tom, and Fanny (Karen Montgomery). The death of a recurring character dating to the second book, The League of Frightened Men (1935), lacks resonance with his televised appearances limited to two quick scenes here. After Ella is killed, Cramer (Allan Miller) brings a warrant for Maggie, whom he believes Hays is shielding; Lester borrows an incident — mentioned by Purley in the novel — from The Rubber Band (1936), as Wolfe conceals her in the plant rooms, hidden underneath some seedlings he and Theodore (Robert Coote) are spraying.

         — Copyright © 2023 by Matthew R. Bradley.

Up next: “Immune to Murder”

Edition cited: Might as Well Be Dead in Seven Complete Nero Wolfe Novels: Avenel (1983)

Online source [link mislabeled as “Blue Ribbon Hostage”]

ALLEYN MYSTERIES “Artists in Crime.” BBC1, 23 December 1990 (pilot episode). Simon Williams (Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn), Belinda Lang (Agatha Troy), William Simons (Inspector Fox), Ursula Howells (Lady Alleyn). Based on the novel by Ngaio Marsh. Director: Silvio Narizzano.

   There was a three year gap between this one-shot pilot and the series that eventually developed from it. In the meantime, actor Simon Williams became unavailable, and his role as Inspector Alleyn was taken by Patrick Malahide, while Simons and Lang continued in two seasons of eight additional TV films of Ngaio Marsh’s mysteries.

   I can’t comment on the latter actor in the part (not yet, that is), but I had a difficulty time at first with Simon Williams in the role. Not because he wasn’t more than acceptable. The problem was that while I’ve read about half of the Alleyn mysteries, I had only a general idea of what he looked like. The same is true about his wife-to-be, Agatha Troy, and his second-in-command “Br’er” Fox.

   This is the story in which Alleyn first meets Agatha Troy, and in the film at least, he is smitten immediately. The problem he faces is that she is intimately involved in the mystery, and she in fact is for some time an actual suspect. She is the artist overseeing a group of paying clients trying to learn to paint and living together in the same large home if not mansion. Dead is a sexy model, and in strange fashion, impaled by a knife sticking upward from the bed where she has been posing.

   She, as it turns out, and not surprisingly, is also a blackmailer. This means that Agatha Troy, whom Alleyn’s mother looks favorably upon, is hardly the only suspect. The film is beautifully filmed, a period piece set in the late 40s, but I found it difficult to keep in mind who the other suspects were, and what their involvement might be. Remembering the book only vaguely, I believe the killer’s identity was the same, but they changed the motive.

   Overall, almost more a very tentative romance than a detective story, but as we know Alleyn and Agatha Troy did eventually marry. Oh, one more thing. In this TV version, at one point Alleyn goes into a deep silent mood, and his mother explains he’s been that way since the war. Never happened in the books, nor (so I’ve been told) in any of the TV episodes that followed.


BOURBON STREET BEAT. “A Taste of Ashes.” ABC, 05 October 1959 (Season 1, Episode 1). Richard Long (Rex Randolph), Andrew Duggan (Cal Calhoun), Arlene Howell (Melody Lee Mercer), Van Williams (Kenny Madison). Guest Cast: Joanna Moore, Fredd Wayne, Karl Weber, Isobel Elsom, Jean Byron, Jean Allison. Based on the novel by Howard Browne. Director: Leslie H. Martinson. Currently streaming online here.

   When you’re a private detective and your partner is murdered, you’re obliged to do something about it. Especially when the local cop tells you it’s suicide and you know it’s not. Such is the case that Rex Randolph (Richard Long) finds himself on, taking over from the one that his partner, a chap named Jelkens, was working on.

   Randolph’s office is in New Orleans (not Chicago, as in the book), but most of the action takes place in Pelican Point, a town run by a wealthy matriarch who doesn’t want certain information made public. Blackmail is a nasty business, but the head cop doesn’t want Randolph or any of his assistance anywhere around. An older man on the force, tired of working under younger fellows, is a lot of more sympathetic, and I hope I don’t spoil anything for anybody by telling you that this older guy is named Cal Calhoun (Andrew Duggan), who by episode’s end is Randolph’s new partner.

   There is a noirish vibe in this episode – well, why not, being set in New Orleans and close environs as it is – that’s less present in contemporary stablemate Surfside 6, say, or even 77 Sunset Strip. at least this time around.

   The book is still better, though, a well-recognized masterpiece in the hardboiled/PI/noirish vein. (For Bill Pronzini’s 1001 Midnights review of the book, go here.)




THRILLER “The Double Kill.” ITV, UK,  First broadcast either on February 18 or April 19, 1975 Series 5, Episode 2, Number 31 of 43. Cast: Gary Collins (Hugh Briant), James Villiers, Peter Bowles (Superintendent Lucas), Stuart Wilson, Penelope Horner (Clarissa Briant), John Flanagan, Hilda Fenemore, Griffith Davies, Michael Stainton, Gordon Salkilld, Norman Mitchell, Paul Nicholson. Series creator: Brian Clemens (1931-2015). Writer: Brian Clemens. Director: Ian Fordyce (1931-1988).  Currently streaming on Pluto TV and YouTube (see below).

   Clarissa Briant has it all: a stately home in the country filled with valuable artwork (with more to come), the great wealth that such possessions betoken, and Hugh, her American husband, to share it with.

   But Hugh seems more eager to share knowledge of Clarissa’s acquisitions with the world at large, especially at social occasions and even in the local pub to perfect strangers. He has become the incarnation of that old wartime adage about loose lips sinking ships, blabbing to one and all, for instance, about how their security systems are yet to be installed, puzzling behavior even for an American.

   Sure enough, it isn’t long before a burglar has a go at those objets d’art gracing the walls and mantelpiece, only to get caught by Hugh in flagrante delicto. You’d think that Hugh has laid a trap and an unsuspecting bug has fallen into it — and you’d be right; but you’d be wrong in assuming Hugh is going to do the proper thing and turn the burglar in.

   No, Hugh has big plans, and a common variety thief like this one just won’t do. Hugh needs someone who is willing to go much further than simply purloining stuff, someone with enough guts to go that extra step to murder . . . .

   “The Double Kill” fits snugly in the “perfect crime” subgenre, two fine examples of which are Double Indemnity (1944) and Dial “M” for Murder (1954). Although it comes closer to the Hitchcock film, “The Double Kill” excels in plot twists, enough to make Dial “M” look as uncomplicated as a typical investigation with Encyclopedia Brown.

   While Gary Collins (1938-2012) carries on the British tradition of importing American actors to boost international sales, he is very good here, veering from smug overconfidence to near desperation, his barely concealed anger and frustrations bubbling up from time to time. Although he appeared in a few movies, Collins spent most of his career on the small screen, starring, for example, in the Night Gallery spin-off series, The Sixth Sense (1972, 25 episodes). Along with another American, Donna Mills, he had the most repeat appearances (3) on Thriller.

   Similarly, Penelope Horner (born 1939) performed in both movies and TV, retiring in 1986.

   Another versatile actor who could handle drama and comedy equally well was Peter Bowles (1936-2022), the wily Superintendent Lucas, whose conduct during the investigation takes a surprising and almost Machiavellian turn.

MICHAEL SHAYNE “Man on a Raft.” Unsold TV Pilot. Aired on the NBC summer replacement series Decision, 28 September 1958. Cast: Mark Stevens (Michael Shayne), Merry Anders (Lucy Hamilton), Robert Brubaker (Tim Rourke), Robert Stevenson (William Gentry). Guest star: Diane Brewster. Teleplay by Steve Fisher, based on thee characters created by Brett Halliday. Directed by Mark Stevens. Currently streaming here on YouTube.

   The summer replacement series that replaced The Loretta Young Show for 13 weeks in 1958 consisted entirely of pilot episodes for various series, most of which never came to fruition. The first one shown was picked up, though, and went on to considerable success, that being The Virginian, starring James Drury.

   Not so for this early attempt to get a Mike Shayne series on the air. (The one starring Richard Denning as Shayne came along later.) In it a young good-looking girl comes to Shayne for help in determining when her playboy husband died. He lost his life in a boat at sea, and a good deal of money depends on whether he died before or after his birthday. The other two men on the boat survived, but barely, and the only way of determining what actually happened is by means of a diary one of them kept.

   You can take it from there, but as usual with private eye shows on television, thirty minutes of running time (less time-out spots for would-be commercial buyers) is not enough for more than a bare bones mystery to develop. Other than Mark Stevens as Shayne, none of the rest of the regulars had time enough to make an impression, and Stevens would not have been my choice of an actor to play him. He’s a little too dour for my tastes. In his series Denning looked as though he was having fun playing the role.


WILD CARD. “Pilot.” Lifetime.. 02 August 2003. Joely Fisher (Zoe Busiek), Chris Potter, Rae Dawn Chong, Bronson Picket. Director: Stephen Surjik.  Currently streaming on YouTube (see below).

   Zoe Busiek is making living as a blackjack dealer in Las Vegas, when she learns that her sister has died in an automobile accident back East, and she decides to quit and head there to take care of her three young children, two girls and a boy. Only the youngest, a girl, takes at all warmly to her sudden abrupt presence in their lives.

   Her new life, in other words, will not be easy. Making matters worse is that the insurance company has determined, on the basis of eye witnesses, that her sister was at fault, and there will be no money coming in from them. Feeling something is wrong, she decides to investigate on her own, and – you will not be surprised to learn – she is right. It takes a lot of perseverance and footwork to get there, but each in its way pays off.

   Not only that, when all is said and done, she is offered a job as an investigator with the insurance company. Or should that last sentence end with an exclamation point?

   I’ve chosen not to. All signs have been pointing to this all episode long. The happy conclusion – and yes, the kids becoming OK with her now as well – comes as all in due course, the way things should be., especially on the Lifetime network. Putting things into a proper perspective, I’d consider the entire production a step up from a similar concept on say, the Hallmark Channel. Not quite as sentimentally cloying, and maybe just a hint more of a solid edge to it, the series lasted for two seasons of eighteen episodes each.

   One additional note: I did not realize until I started writing this review that Joely Fisher is the daughter of Eddie Fisher and Connie Stevens. And a half-sister of Carrie Fisher. Talk about family values!

MONTE NASH “The Long Ride.” Syndicated / Four Star Productions. September 17, 1971 (Season One, Episode One). Harry Guardino (Monty Nash). Guest stars: Don Gordon, Lew Gallo. Based on the character and books by Richard Telfair. Director: Nicholas Colasanto. Currently streaming on YouTube (see below).

   Monty Nash is a government agent who, in this short-lived syndicated series (it lasted only 14 episodes), is assigned the task of getting a government witness safely from a jail in South Bend, Indiana, to a courtroom in Chicago. The plan is to use a decoy while Nash and the witness drive by car.

   Things don’t go well. There must have been a leak. Somebody on the inside must be on the take.

   Problem is, as far as any enjoyment there may have been in watching this really really disappointing misfire, is that the Bad Guys are Utterly Inept. Even shooting at Nash’s car from a helicopter, wouldn’t you think that would be enough to get the job done? No, sir. Not this time around. It turns out they turn tail and skedaddle as soon as Nash opens fire on them with only a handgun.

   As an actor, tough and gruff Harry Guardino fits the part the screenwriter and director wanted him to play. The direction is OK. The story, though, collapses under its own triteness into something not worth watching. Luckily the show is only 22 minutes long, streaming as it does without space for commercials.

   And oh yes. The music is too jazzy and too loud. I think they were trying to make believe something interesting was going on.

THE ROCKFORD FILES. “The Countess.” NBC. 27 September 1974 (Season 1, Episode 4). James Garner, Gretchen Corbett, Joe Santos, Tom Atkins. Guest stars: Susan Strasberg, Art Lund, Dick Gautier, Harold J. Stone, Gloria Dixon. Teleplay by Stephen J. Cannell, based on a story by Roy Huggins (credited as John Thomas James). Director: Russ Mayberry. Currently streaming on the Roku Channel.

   Rockford is hired by a young woman (Susan Strasberg) who is being blackmailed by a man from her past (Dick Gautier, in a perfect role for him, just oozing oily sleaze) who knows a secret about her earlier life so destructive to her marriage to her second husband she won’t even tell Rockford what it is.

   Of course she does, eventually. And so I assume I can tell you, too. (If I’m wrong, please close your eyes now.) She grew up in a small town in Illinois, and life happened. After skipping bail in Chicago, she ended up in Europe and marrying a count she met there, thus referring to herself as a countess ever since. Now back in the US and happily married again, she wants to stay that way. Blackmailers being who there are, when this fellow is killed, Rockford’s client is high on the list of suspects.

   As well as a couple of syndicate hoodlums whom Rockford soon discovers following his every move. But of course the primary suspect is Rockford himself. He was there on the scene when the fellow was killed, with eyewitnesses, a fact that strains his usually friendly relations with Detective Becker (Joe Santos). Luckily Rockford has a good lawyer at hand, namely Beth Davenport (Gretchen Corbett), who does more lawyer work in this one than she has previously in the series (which largely consisted of wheedling Rockford to work for her pro bono).

   Although I have not reported on any of the earlier episodes, I have been watching the series in order, and this is the first time I can definitively say the people in charge have gotten their acts together. The case is simple but coherent, there are a lot fewer scenes of cars driving endlessly around in this one, and much less padding of the running time with the camera following people along as they’re quietly strolling from one place to another.

   But the big thing I noticed in this one is the comfortable feeling the regular players have reached in interacting with each other. Garner’s natural good-looking charm and his occasional sheepish grin are also in full force in this one.

Nero Wolfe on Page and (Small U.S.) Screen:
The Golden Spiders
by Matthew R. Bradley


   Like “Before I Die” (1947), The Golden Spiders (1953) is among Rex Stout’s few works to be adapted for the Nero Wolfe series starring William Conrad and Maury Chaykin, and interestingly, it was selected to kick off both, serving as the premiere episode (1/16/81) of the former on NBC and the two-hour pilot film (3/5/00) for the latter on A&E. The novel finds 12-year-old Pete Drossos offering to cut Wolfe in on a case: wiping windows at the corner of 35th and 9th, he sees the driver of a Caddy, wearing the titular earrings, mouth, “Help, get a cop.” Seen by the passenger apparently jabbing a gun in her ribs, he gets the license number, so Wolfe has Archie report possible illegal activity in connection with it.

   The next day, Purley Stebbins visits to say that Pete was run over on the same corner by a man in the same car, its plate taken from one stolen months ago, and is departing as Mrs. Anthea Drossos arrives. Pete’s last words — spoken to her in the ambulance—were, “Tell Nero Wolfe he got me…. Give him my money in the can,” his savings of $4.30; refusing to return or donate it to the Red Cross, Archie uses it to place an ad asking the woman to make contact with them…since, per “Black Orchids” (1941), “Contact is not a verb under this roof.” She calls to make an appointment while Cramer is there reporting that the car, found parked on 186th Street, had killed Matthew Birch in an alley by a South Street pier.

   Yet the identifying scratch on her cheek, when she offers $500 for Pete’s whereabouts, is recent enough to discredit widow Laura Fromm, who says she was having cocktails at the Churchill with lawyer Dennis Horan when he was killed. Not yet hired, Wolfe agrees to hold her $10,000 retainer and refrain from reporting her visit until the day after, warning her to “beware!” Sure enough, she becomes roadkill, so Archie leaves an account of their conversation for Cramer; in no time, Horan calls, seeking the return of her check, already certified, but Wolfe says he’ll earn it, sending Archie to the Gazette for information, with Lon Cohen revealing that she had dined with Dennis and Claire Horan before her demise.

   The other guests were Angela Wright, the Executive Secretary of Laura’s favorite cause, the Association for the Aid of Displaced Persons (aka Assadip); p.r. expert Paul Kuffner; and magazine publisher Vincent Lipscomb. Hit on the head with a wrench, she was run over by her own Caddy, and had no known connection to I.N.S special agent Birch, so to learn more about her last hours, Wolfe assigns Archie to Laura’s personal secretary, Jean Estey, but he learns little before Kuffner summons her away. When Wolfe asks the ’teers for ideas, Saul suggests posing as a displaced person to seek an Assadip/I.N.S. link, while Orrie tackles the earrings, and Fred tests the hypothesis that Birch was the man Peter saw.

   As they wind it up, Horan and James Albert Maddox, respective counsels for Assadip and Laura, appear unbidden, the latter insisting that as Laura’s executor, he could demand the check from Wolfe, who refuses to reveal what they said, and reports the visit to Cramer. Sent to stir the pot, Archie feigns an offer to spill the beans for $5,000…rejected in quick succession by Jean, Claire, Angela (with Saul slumped in the outer room), and Lipscomb. Back from the offices of Modern Thoughts, he finds Kuffner — clued in by Angela — who tries to accept it, but Wolfe declines; Jean sics the police on Archie, who tells Detective Randall and A.D.A. Mandelbaum, both of Prisoner’s Base (1952), he has broken no law.

   Julius Gerster clams up when Orrie asks about the earrings seen in his shop window, but after Archie — having seen his presumed young son — tells him about Pete, he says Laura bought them. Directed to Horan by Angela and her assistant, Chaney, the undocumented “Leopold Heim” tails the man who tries to extort $10,000 for help; Archie sends Orrie to help as Fred reports learning at bookie Danny Pincus’s bar that Lips Egan has the skinny on Birch. Mort Ervin takes Fred to Lips at Nunn’s Garage, where his cover is blown and they begin torturing him, forcing an eavesdropping Archie to intervene by disarming both thugs, and when the shooting is over, Saul and Orrie appear, having been following Egan.

REX STOUT The Golden Spiders

   Himself tortured (which, while deserved, discomfited me, as it did Steve in his review of the novel), Lips confirms that Birch was in both car and racket, but claims he can identify neither the driver nor the woman who tipped him off to Heim with the password, “Said a spider to a fly.” As Horan appears and is held by Saul, Archie calls for instructions from Wolfe, who has them apologize and suggest that he represent Egan when the pair is taken to the brownstone, where Wolfe brings Cramer up to speed — excepting a notebook listing Egan’s “clients.” In a 180, Horan “reveals” that Laura had fingered Egan, whom he now refuses to represent, and Birch, sending him to Nunn’s to investigate and prevent scandal.

   Tossed to the wolves, Lips returns the compliment; while he is implicating Horan, Wolfe departs punctually for the plant rooms, asking that the trio be removed by an incredulous Cramer, who retaliates by taking Archie, Saul, and Fred as well, but Orrie is on an errand. Hauled before, successively, Deputy Commissioner Neary, boss Skinner, and their fellow mayoral wannabe, D.A. Bowen, Archie is also re-grilled by Mandelbaum regarding Jean, and Cramer interrupts a top-brass confab to say that Horan has been tentatively identified as Pete’s killer. Wolfe summons all and sundry, plus three plainclothes policewomen, to the office to earn his fee, and announces that the murderer was actually a woman in drag.

   Having gotten wind of the blackmailing, and perhaps overheard the password, Laura saw the earrings in the window, gave them to the woman she suspected, and retrieved them to impersonate her, not knowing that she had killed Birch and, fearing he could identify her, Pete. Fetched by Orrie (whose first name, later contradicted in a typical inconsistency, is given here as Orvald), Bernard Levine picks Jean out of Wolfe’s policewoman-enhanced line-up as the woman who bought a man’s felt hat and suit in his Newark clothing store. She claims to have done so on behalf of Claire, whose husband and Lips blow the whistle on Jean; when the dust has settled Wolfe burns the list of the displaced blackmail victims.

   The only episode of Nero Wolfe directed by Michael O’Herlihy, “The Golden Spiders” was adapted by Peter Nasco and David Karp, the latter credited as “Wallace Ware,” as he was on “Murder by the Book” (3/13/81). George Voskovec, playing Fritz opposite Lee Horsley’s Archie, was a scientist in the unsold 1959 Kurt Kasznar/William Shatner Nero Wolfe pilot, “Count the Man Down,” as was John McLiam, later seen in Conrad’s “Death and the Dolls” (4/10/81). Best known as Colonel Pickering in My Fair Lady on stage (1956) and screen (1964), Robert Coote played his final role as Theodore, and George Wyner, cast as Saul, had a recurring one as Murray Chase on Horsley’s Matt Houston.

   An Oscar-winner for Tom Jones (1963), series composer John Addison reportedly called his equally whimsical theme for Murder, She Wrote his “old-age pension.” His feature-film credits include Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain (1966) — abruptly replacing a score by Bernard Herrmann, which ended their legendary collaboration — and A Bridge Too Far (1977), depicting a battle in which he had participated with the British XXX Corps tank force. Katherine Justice, cast as Angela (now Bell), also appeared with Conrad in three episodes of Cannon; Dennis Horan is now Michael Doran (John Petlock), the p.r. man is Barry Green (James Parkes), and Paul Kessler (Liam Sullivan) is a colleague of Angela’s.

   Wolfe displays amused tolerance as Pete (David Hollander) — foisted upon him by Archie as payback for a childish outburst at Fritz — reports his brief encounter with Jean (Carlene Watkins) and Birch. Now no longer fatal, the hit and run puts him into the I.C.U., yet it’s “touch and go,” per Archie, preserving the poignancy as his mother (Rhoda Gemignani) brings his inflation-adjusted $12.35.

   Posing as Jean, Laura (Penelope Windust) says that “her” plea for help was a misunderstanding and she wants to thank Pete but, learning of the attack, leaves Wolfe with no check, only her promise to return the next day; after a fatal fall from the balcony of her apartment, she is identified by fiancé Doran and Jean.

   When Cramer (Allan Miller) reveals the murder of Birch, who matches Pete’s description of the passenger, his habit of annoying Wolfe by “get[ting] out of a chair [using] just his legs, never his arms or his hands,” is noted, as it is in the novel. Faux-turncoat Archie is rejected by Jean and Angela; in the Assadip garage, his “trusty burglar alarm” (a match placed between hood and body) forewarns him of the car bomb planted by L.A. hit man Joseph Moore, who then attempts to silence Pete — also anticipated by Wolfe — and dies in a struggle with Archie. Saul infiltrates the “vile scheme to smuggle the riffraff of the world into this country — the murderers, the terrorists, the fascists — for exorbitant fees.”

   Saul’s timely rescue from Frank Egan and an unnamed friend in the garage is interrupted by Cramer, who has tailed Archie ever since fruitlessly telling Wolfe to “lay back” due to federal pressure. Convening those concerned, Wolfe turns Angela, Barry, and Paul over to “the men of the 18th [Precinct]” for arranging the entrance of the refugees; fingered as the murderer, who conspired with Birch to blackmail them and killed him after a falling out, Jean claims Laura fell accidentally as they’d argued because “she was going to leave me.” Befitting Wolfe’s somewhat softer side on the series, the episode ends as he returns to the brownstone after leaving a check and orchid for his hospitalized young “partner.”

   Neither the director of The Golden Spiders, Bill Duke, nor scenarist Paul Monash carried over onto the ensuing series, but producer Susan Murdoch and composer Michael Small did, while two of the regulars were recast, as Saul Rubinek switched roles from Saul here (replaced by Conrad Dunn) to Lon Cohen (replacing Gerry Quigley).

   In a parallel acting career, Duke appeared with Arnold Schwarzenegger in Commando (1985) and Predator (1987); Monash was the respective producer and writer of the Stephen King adaptations Carrie (1976) and Salem’s Lot (1979). Elizabeth Brown (cast as Claire) and Philip Craig (Maddox) each made their only series appearances in “Disguise for Murder” (6/17/01).

   Featured were soon-to-be repertory players Gary Reineke (as Horan), Beau Starr (Lips), Nancy Beatty (Mrs. Drossos), Nicky Guadagni (Angela), Hrant Alianak (Gerstner [sic]), Peter Mensah (Mort), and Robert Bockstael (Kuffner). As Archie (Timothy Hutton) sits at his typewriter in an opening montage of the brownstone, with expository narration, we see the portrait of Sherlock Holmes hanging above his desk, mentioned as far back as The Rubber Band (1936). The sage vs. saffron and tarragon kerfuffle, almost verbatim, deftly introduces Fritz (Colin Fox); the day after Pete (Robert Clark) reports on Birch (Dwayne McLean) and Jean (Larissa Laskin), Purley (R.D. Reid) brings news of his brutal murder.

   The ad in the Mirror (replacing the Gazette as Lon’s employer) elicits the visit by Cramer (Bill Smitrovich), revealing the Birch/Drossos link, with Laura (Mimi Kuzyk) hard on his heels; the scratch is omitted, as is Lipscomb, and Wolfe intuits her imposture. Dressed as a mortician, getting him in to Jean, Archie returns as Wolfe tells Orrie (Trent McMullen), Fred (Fulvio Cecere), and Saul, “I resent the assumption that those who come to seek my help may be murdered with impunity.” Saul’s encounters with Angela at the Association of European Refugees (AER), Horan, and Lips are depicted, rather than merely related in the book, while young Irving (Brian Miranda) is explicitly identified as the jeweler’s son.

   The top brass confronting Archie is consolidated in the person of Neary, now “promoted” to Commissioner and given a first name, Walter (James Purcell). Wolfe’s final gathering, where he observes, “This is the first time I’ve undertaken to single out a murderer from a group of mostly strangers” before producing surprise witness Levine (Jack Newman, later seen in “Poison à la Carte” [5/26/02]), is true to Stout, as Chaykin invests his retelling of the crimes with dramatic tension. Monash replaces the burning of Egan’s notebook with an effective coda in which, because Wolfe and Pete were “partners” on the case, Anthea is presented with half of Laura’s fee by Archie, given Wolfe’s aversion to crying women.

         — Copyright © 2023 by Matthew R. Bradley.

Up next: Three Witnesses

Edition cited

      The Golden Spiders: Bantam (1955)

Online sources

Nero Wolfe on Page and (Small U.S.) Screen:
Prisoner’s Base
by Matthew R. Bradley


   In Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novel Prisoner’s Base (1952), Archie Goodwin describes his employer as weighing “four thousand ounces” (a possible post-Zeck low of 250 pounds); they reach an impasse over a young woman who refuses to identify herself and offers $50 a day to hide out in the brownstone until June 30.

   This is broken by the arrival of lawyer Perry Helmar, who offers Wolfe $5,000 to find Priscilla Eads, of whom he is the guardian and trustee of her father’s estate, and $10,000 if he produces her by…you guessed it, June 30, when she takes possession on her 25th birthday. One complication is doubt within “a large and successful corporation” about Pris’s inheriting 90% of the stock to take control.

   Another is ex-husband Eric Hagh, who has a document she’d signed granting him half of the property, and Helmar thinks she might be going to Venezuela to see him, so Wolfe — tipped that Archie recognized her photo — says he’ll sleep on it.

   Pris can either match his offer or leave so that Wolfe can accept, giving her a head start; she opts for the latter, and when she is murdered, Cramer comes calling, because Archie’s prints are on her luggage. After Wolfe directs him to “unload,” Cramer reveals that her maid, Margart Fomos, was strangled near her tenement, as was Pris in her apartment, but Wolfe refuses to take it on, absent a paying client and notwithstanding his self-esteem, so Archie undertakes to do so.

   Lon Cohen of the Gazette explains that the stock will now be divided among personnel of the Softdown, Inc. towel and textile business (plus Helmar), where Archie, mistaken for a cop, finds them in conference with stylist Daphne O’Neil. President Jay Luther Brucker; Viola Duday, the former assistant to Nathan Eads; VP/sales manager Bernard Quest; and secretary/treasurer Oliver Pitkin all benefit from the murder, and while Daphne was hired in the decade since Nate’s death, Vi says Pris planned to oust her. As Archie grills them on their alibis, Lt. Rowcliff arrests him for impersonating a cop and takes him downtown, where Skinner has apparently become Commisioner, and replaced as D.A. by Ed Bowen.

   Himself hauled in by the despised Rowcliff as a material witness, Wolfe says he now has a client — Archie — because of his “humane, romantic, and thoroughly admirable [quest], and your callous and churlish treatment of him…”

   Over dinner, Lon says the remaining 10% is owned by Sarah Jaffee, a Korean War widow and friend of Pris whose father had been a Softdown associate; male journalists favor Ollie as a suspect, and females Vi, with at least half certain that Daphne is involved. Sarah tells Archie she declined to help Pris elect a female board of directors, including them and Margaret with Vi as president, and she also refuses to seek an injunction restraining the fivesome from assuming ownership.

   Archie has no better luck with the bereaved Andreas Fomos, but then Attorney Albert M. Irby arrives, representing Hagh and seeking affidavits that Pris had acknowledged signing the document, which Helmar contests.

   Offered 5% of any settlement, Wolfe refuses until he meets Eric, en route from Caracas, which he suggests take place at “a meeting of those concerned.” Grateful to Archie for helping her get past her husband’s death, Sarah does a 180, so Nathaniel Parker takes a $1 retainer until a court is satisfied that the stock was not acquired via murder; this compels an outraged Helmar to convene the suspects at Wolfe’s office, where it is stipulated in advance that Hagh and Irby should be seen, but not heard.

   Deciding that Pris must have owed Margaret something big, which he wants, Andy also reconsiders and joins the party; there, Vi identifies Miss Drescher, a superintendent at the factory, as the last proposed director, and Bernie claims that he and Sarah’s father, Arthur Gilliam, were responsible for Softdown’s success.

   They disperse without resolution, but an alarm bell rings in Archie’s head when Sarah calls after dancing at the Flamingo Club with Parker to report her keys missing, and he hastens over, arriving too late. Even more guilt-ridden than before, he puts himself at Cramer’s disposal, since the keys were stolen at the meeting, sitting in on interrogations and even buying Purley fried clams at Louie’s.

   On a brownstone pit stop in between visits to Leonard Street, Archie is surprised to learn that Wolfe has hired Saul, and finally, “flumped,” Skinner suggests replaying the meeting to spot the key-thief and/or deduce a motive, with Saul standing in for Sarah.

   Wolfe flips the script, noting that Margaret was not killed only to obtain the keys to Pris’s apartment, and Sarah, having seen his photo, knew “Hagh” was an impostor and had somehow made him aware of it in the office. In South America, Saul identified him as Siegfried Muecke; having impersonated Hagh — killed in a snow slide — and unaware of the provisions of the will regarding the stock, Muecke strangled each of them because they could expose him…

   A two-part first-season episode of A Nero Wolfe Mystery, the only entry directed by Neill Fearnley, “Prisoner’s Base” (5/13 & 20/01) was adapted by Lee Goldberg and William Rabkin, who shared an Edgar Allan Poe Award nomination for Part 2, and were second only to Sharon Elizabeth Doyle as scenarists.

   It marked Hrant Alianak’s sole appearance as Parker (embodied twice by fellow repertory player George Plimpton in Season 2), and Bill MacDonald’s first in his recurring role of Rowcliff. The closing credits list alternate spellings for several character names (Jaffe, Eades, O’Neill), and Aron Tager, previously seen as Commissioner Bernard Fromm, is amusingly credited as “Commissioner Skinn.”

   The show customarily capitalizes on the comedic potential as Archie (Timothy Hutton), stung by sarcasm regarding a low bank account, retaliates by tearing up his salary check, annoying Wolfe (Maury Chaykin) by disrupting the accounting but sweetening the offer made by Pris (Shauna Black).

   Ron Rifkin, later of “Over My Dead Body” (7/8 & 15/01), guests as Helmar, with the usual suspects — literally — as the Softdown contingent: Bernie (James Tolkan), Vi (Nicky Guadagni), Daphne (Dina Barrington), Ollie (Gary Reineke), and Brucker (David Schurmann). Although appreciative that Archie was so forthcoming about Pris’s visit, Cramer (Bill Smitrovich) can’t resist gloating over their lack of a client.

   This is surpassed by Rowcliff’s glee when arresting Archie, whose insistence that he had only identified himself as “Goodwin. Detective,” and flashed his license, “which no one took the trouble to examine,” triggers his foe’s tell-tale stutter.

   The colloquy with Bowen (Robert Bockstael) — whose door bears the first initial “T.” —  is delicious as Wolfe names his client, excoriates the squirming Rowcliff, and enumerates his hatred of leaving home, being touched, or riding in any kind of vehicle. The dismay of Fritz (Colin Fox), told he must unexpectedly stretch dinner to include Lon (Saul Rubinek), and the badinage over who is in whose debt, as they haggle over the terms of the quid pro quo, are equally droll.

   A self-described “nut,” Sarah (Kari Matchett) never put away her late husband’s hat and coat when he went to war, and couldn’t bring herself to do so once he was reported dead, also keeping a place set for him at the table, so Archie occupies it, and touchingly agrees to take his things to the Salvation Army. Fomos is eliminated, but Part 2 brings onstage Irby (Wayne Best), noting that Eric (Steve Cumyn) rejected a $100,000 settlement, and Parker, with Wolfe listening in as Helmar calls him a “murderer” for sending Pris to her doom. Fearnley generates suspense in Sarah’s darkened apartment, where Archie finds she has lost the titular game, with the phone one base and the elevator outside the other.

   A montage depicts Archie’s efforts as — per Stout — “an informal adjunct of the NYPD,” initially arrested again after he is seen forcing the night man (Jody Racicot) to admit him at gunpoint. At Skinner’s behest, the suspects are gathered for the playback, pre-empted by Wolfe’s “remarks” fingering Muecke, with Saul (Conrad Dunn) confirming that while signing the paper had been Pris’s idea, Hagh himself “was too proud a man to sponge off a woman…”

   Goldberg and Rabkin amend Stout’s ending as Archie’s punch forestalls an attack by Muecke on Wolfe, rather than by Andy on Muecke; they close with him poised to tear up his payment for Wolfe’s services, not Wolfe doing so himself, as in the novel.

         — Copyright © 2023 by Matthew R. Bradley.

Up next: The Golden Spiders

Edition cited: Prisoner’s Base: Bantam (1963)

    The final chapter, omitted from most Bantam editions, is thoughtfully provided by the Wolfe Pack, “the official Nero Wolfe literary society,” here.

Online sources:

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