July 2023

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:

SHEENA: QUEEN OF THE JUNGLE “Crash in the Jungle.” Syndicated, 01 September 1955 (Season One, Episode One). Irish McCalla (Sheena), Chris Drake (Bob Rayburn), Neal the Chimp. Guest Cast: Claudio Brooks, Rebeca Iturbide. Based on the comic book character created by Will Eisner and Jerry Iger. Directed by Carl K. Hittleman. Currently streaming on YouTube (see below).

   This early syndicated TV series may have been intended for children, but even if so, I’ll bet a lot of adults watched too. Former pin-up model Irish McCalla, while far from being a polished actress, was perfect in the role of Sheena, blonde, athletic (often doing her own stunts in skimpy clothing) and still totally feminine.

   This first episode doesn’t go into the origins of the character, and perhaps the TV series, which lasted for one season of 26 episodes, never did. In this episode a pilot of a small plane survives a fiery crash, but a reel of film of a reclusive native tribe taken by a lady journalist does not. Luckily the film was insured, a fact that does not escape the notice of those investigating the accident.

   At the end of this review is the discussion that Sheena has with them. She does not know what “insurance” is, and the conversation is designed to show her naivete in such matters, which is effective as well as charming. You could say the same thing about the whole production, in spite of its low budget roots, which are showing.

   No matter. Watching this was fun. There was a full-length feature film starring Sheena that came along later, followed by a second syndicated series, both in color with a lot more production values. And yet, while this is the only episode of the earliest version I’ve had a chance to watch, at the moment this is the one I’ve enjoyed the most.

Bob Rayburn: Insurance is like betting. It started out with ships full of cargo, understand?
Andy Howard: Yes! Only the cargo owners bet the ship is going to sink.
Sheena: Why?
Andy Howard: [to Bob] Why?
Bob Rayburn: Because they didn’t want it to sink.
Sheena: Why bet?


Andy Howard: Why, because if it does sink they want to be paid for the cargo.
Sheena: Who pay?
Bob Rayburn: The insurance company.
Sheena: Why?
Bob Rayburn: Why.
Bob Rayburn: [to Andy] You take it, lad.

MICHAEL CANFIELD “We Both Loved Scandies.” Lead story in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, July/August 2023.

   The story begins as a woman is about to leave the small town of Osta in Sweden only to have an inspector from the local police department stop by, one she had not met before. Gradually we learn, largely from long flashbacks, that although we do not not exactly what, something has happened and that in all likelihood (as we can easily guess) it was serious.

   The woman, as it is gradually revealed, had come to Osta with another woman, a traveling companion, on a trip to see where the exploits of her favorite detective character had taken place, and where in fact the author, one Freddie Ek, had lived.

   Any fan of detective mysteries will identify with this immensely, and enjoy puzzling out who the other woman was and what might have happened. As his questions seem to reveal, the inspector seems to know than he actually says. The flashbacks also serve to only skirt around the real reason for his visit.

   It’s a storytelling technique that here, in the case at hand, is very neatly done. It’s only when the story is over might the reader realize how artificial the cat-and-mouse game really was.

   Your enjoyment of this particular tale, told in this particular way, will depend primarily on how forgiving you are, once the tale is told. As for me, I enjoyed it.


    From the author’s “About the Author” Amazon page:

MICHAEL CANFIELD is the author of the crime novels Perfect Likeness, Bad People, and Exhibit A, as well as Red Jacket: A Novel with a Superhero and a horror novel, Pain Thieves. He has published over two dozen mystery, fantasy, sci-fi, horror, stories in Strange Horizons, Spinetingler, Escape Pod, Realms of Fantasy, Talebones, Black Gate, Borderlands, and other places. His novelette “Super-Villains” was reprinted in the prestigious Fantasy: The Best of the Year series, edited by Rich Horton. He divides his time between Seattle and Los Angeles, with frequent side-trips to Vegas.

    This appears to be his first work of short story detective fiction.

DANGEROUS MONEY. Monpgram Pictures, 1946. Sidney Toler (Charlie Chan), Gloria Warren, Victor Sen Young (Jimmy Chan), Rick Vallin, Joseph Crehan. Willie Best. Screenplay by Miriam Kissinger, based on characters created by Earl Derr Biggers. Director: Terry Moore. Currently streaming on YouTube (see below),

   Charlie Chan is en route by boat to Australia, when a treasury agent on the trail of some “hot money” is murdered. With a ship full of suspects, plus two “assistants,” one his number two son, Charlie fuddles around for a while and then nabs the killer.

   I take back the remarks I made about the Mr, Moto series. I think I am an intelligent person, but I didn’t understand anything after the first 15 minutes. I assumed all would be made clear later, but the movie’s over, and here I am, without a clue.

– Reprinted from Movie.File.2, June 1980.


ELLERY QUEEN’S MYSTERY MAGAZINE – June 1967. Overall rating: ***

CORNELL WOOLRICH “Divorce – New York Style.” Serial, part 1 of 2. This story will be reported on in my review of the July 1967 issue. [Note: This installment is only ten pages long.]

GEORGES SIMENON “Inspector Maigret Thinks.” [First published in English in Argosy (UK) December 1961, as “Dead Man’s Barge.”] Two hangings on a barge in the Seine require Maigret’s attention. (3)

GERALD KERSH “A Game Played in the Twilight.” [Reprinted from The Saturday Evening Post, October 10 1959, as “Duel in the Dusk.”] A young Wild Bill Hickok learns how a near-sighted woman avenged the murder of her husband. (2)

EDWARD D. HOCH “The Theft from the Onyx Pool.” Nick Velvet is hired to steal 10,000 gallons of water from a swimming pool. (4) [Note: I reviewed this story separately on this blog here.]

AVRAM DAVIDSON “The Memory Bank.” Attempts to retire an aged clerk fail because of the old man’s memory. (4)

AGATHA CHRISTIE “Ask and You Shall Receive.” [Reprinted from The Royal Magazine, May 1928, as “The Thumb Mark of Saint Peter.” It was later collected in The Tuesday Club Murders.] Miss Marple’s niece is suspected of murdering her husband, and pilocarpine is mistaken for a heap of fish. (3)

MIRIAM SHARMAN “Battle of Wits.” A headmaster is confronted by the father of a student who was expelled. Good moments, but too confused. (3)

COLIN WATSON “Return to Base.” An American returns to an abandoned British air base where a girl had disappeared, Moody, languorous and uninteresting. (2)

ROBERT LADNER, JR. “Choice of Evils.” [Appears in EQMM‘s Department of First Stories- and was the author’s only published work of crime fiction.] The owner of a gas station slowly going bankrupt finds robbery the solution to his problems. (4)

JAMES HOLDING “The Photographer and the Columnist.” Manuel Andradas works out a plan to get all the money due him for working for the Big Ones. [Note: Under the guise of a photographer, Andradas is a professional assassin.] (3)

NEIL MacNEISH “Lament for a Scholar.” [Author’s real name is Norma Schier; an anagram of Michael Innes is used as the stated author.] Pastiche of Sir John Appleby. (0)

MICHAEL INNES “Dead Man’s Shoes.” Novelette. [Reprinted from Lilliput, August/September 1953; later included as the title story of a US hardcover collection.] A young real estate agent has a strange adventure traveling back to London, involving him with a murdered scientist wearing different colored shows. Sir John Appleby is the detective in this story of international espionage. Too clever a plot on the part of a murderer leads to his downfall. (3)

— April 1968.


NICK CARTER (*) – The Doomsday Formula. Award A420X, paperback original; 1st printing, 1969.

   You can chalk this one up to curiosity – mine. After reading the last two more recently published books (**), I was wondering if they were really as bad as I thought they were, compared to the same sort of thing being written twenty years ago, or if I was just in a bad mood, or what. Answer: they are.

   Nick Carter goes to Hawaii in this one, trying to prevent the destruction of the 50th state in a huge volcanic explosion. The resulting adventure is fast-moving, with lots of holes in the plot, which is absolutely unbelievable. The difference, believe it or not, is that Nick is likable. (***)

– Reprinted from Mystery.File.6, June 1988.


(*) Or in this case, Jon Messmann.

(**) Mission Bay Murder, by Philip Carlton Williams, and The Last Private Eye, by John Birkett. (See Comment #1.)

(***) Or competent. Not too much to ask.



NOEL LOOMIS – Have Gun, Will Travel. Dell First Edition B-156, paperback original; 1at printing, 1960. Cover art by Robert Stanley.

   Not a real winner, but it inspired me to make a pipe.

   Noel Loomis was a well-regarded Western historian, and he wrote several scripts for the television show, so he was a natural for this paperback tie-in. And he gives it the dollop of polish one expects from a writer of his caliber, but that’s not always a good thing.

   The plot involves Paladin’s involvement with a notorious lady of the theatre, the search for a missing newspaper editor, Mexican revolutionaries and the near-legendary outlaw Three-Fingered Phil.

   Freed of the time and budget constraints of network television, Loomis lets his hero and himself ramble, from San Francisco to Santa Fe, down into Mexico and up into the mountains, with every leg and limb of the journey described in detail. Oh, it never gets monotonous, it just gets, well… long!

   And perhaps it’s no fault of Loomis’ that he never really evokes the forceful personality Richard Boone brought to his characterization, though he lards the dialogue with allusions to Shakespeare. He just misses the laconic personality and repressed rage essential to the character of Paladin, and it leaves a gaping whole in the book that Robert Stanley’s excellent cover can’t quite fill.

   That said, there are enough fist-fights, knife-fights and gun-fights to keep the reader awake, and Loomis puts the action across reasonably well. Maybe it’s me, I just couldn’t get excited over this.

   But it did prompt me to make a pipe out of a tree branch and trim from an old cap pistol!

A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Bill Pronzini


THOMAS B. DEWEY – A Sad Song Singing. Mac #10. Simon & Schuster, hardcover, 1963. Pocket, paperback, 1965. Carroll & Graf, paperback, 1984.

   A Sad Song Singing is Mac’s finest case and Dewey’s masterwork. This reviewer considers it one of the ten best private-eye novels ever written — not because of its plot, which is relatively simple and straightforward, but because of its emotional depth and impact and its superb depiction of what it was like to grow up in the early 1960s.

   It is the only mystery novel to employ as its background the short-lived hootenanny craze of that period (hootenannies being, for those of you who might have forgotten or are too young to remember, large gatherings at which folk singers entertained with audience participation).

   In fact, one can’t imagine any kind of novel more vividly or poignantly evoking that type of festival or the life-styles of its young performers.

   Crescentia Fanio, twenty years old and a budding singer, hires Mac to find her missing boyfriend, Richie Darden, himself an itinerant but already well-established singer of folk songs. But it isn’t just a simple case of boy losing interest in girl and leaving her behind; Cress is convinced that not only is Richie’s life in danger, but so is her own.

   If Mac has any doubts that her fears are genuine, he quickly loses them with the appearance of two toughs who are unmistakably hunting Darden — and a mysterious suitcase he had with him when he vanished. A combination of flight, chase, and personal odyssey leads Mac and Cress from Chicago into rural Illinois and Indiana, from the world of coffeehouses and hootenannies to an isolated farm near the small agricultural community of Fairmont, Indiana — and finally to tragedy and, for Cress, rebirth.

   There is plenty of action and suspense, but as in most of Dewey’s novels — and even more so here — the emphasis is on mood and characterization. The father-daughter relationship between Mac and Cress is what gives the novel its emotional power: The last page is the kind of stuff that could put a tear in the eye of Mike Hammer. In all respects, A Sad Song Singing is a virtuoso performance.

   Mac appears in a total of sixteen novels, beginning with Draw the Curtain Close (1947). The others are likewise first-rate, the most notable among them being The Mean Streets (1954), the novel in which Mac — and Dewey — realized his full potential (thus making the title, a phrase from Chandler’s essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” doubly appropriate); The Brave, Bad Girls (1956), The Case of the Chased and the Unchaste (1959), Don’t Cry for Long (1964), Portrait of a Dead Heiress (1965), and The King Killers ( 1968).

   Dewey also wrote four minor mysteries featuring a small-town hotel owner named Singer Batts, the best of which are probably As Good as Dead (1946) and Handle with Fear ( 1951 ). Of his non-series suspense novels, two arc first-rate:

   How Hard to Kill (1961), a chiller about an ex-cop’s hunt for the murderer of his wife; and the paperback original A Season for Violence (1966), which is concerned with corruption, murder, and rape in a small California town.

Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.



   Take a look at this. I promise you the movie isn’t nearly as enthralling as the trailer makes it out to be, but it is nonetheless a fun time. Bring your suspension of belief. A lot of it!



BERLIN AFFAIR. NBC / Universal TV, 02 November 1970. Darren McGavin, Fritz Weaver, Brian Kelly, Claude Dauphin, Pascale Petit, Christian Roberts, Darren Nesbit, Kathie Browne. Teleplay by Peter Pendulik &  E. Jack Neuman, basef on a story by Eliot West. Directed by David Lowell Rich. Currently streaming on YouTube (see below),

   Surprisingly good international intrigue pilot for a series that never developed, Berlin Affair features Darren McGavin as Peter Killian, a manhunter for InfoCon Geneva, a sort of INTERPOL=like organization that hunts down people for their clients. Here he is summoned to InfoCon’s lavish headquarters in Geneva for his latest assignment by his boss Mallicent (Fritz Weaver in a sly performance — and incidentally a great name for his character) whose understanding of who and what Killian is makes their relationship testy (“…my very best manhunter, in spite of everything you really do like that don’t you?”).

   It seems a courier has been found washed ashore, murdered with nothing but an empty watch on his wrist. The courier was travelling with Paul Strand (Brian Kelly), and old friend of Killian’s, and now the police want to question Strand, and InfoCon has been hired by a mysterious plastics firm called StetinFlex to find Strand.

   Strand saved Killian’s life once, and fed up with Mallicent’s high handed ways, McGavin resigns, but he heads for Berlin to try and contact his old friend and incidentally check out StetinFlex. He succeeds in both, StetinFlex proves to be a front for some criminal outfit operated by one Languin (Claude Dauphin) and his two henchmen Christian Roberts and Darren Nesbit ,who drug Killian and are going to kill him until he evades them.

   Killian has found Strand too, and when he goes to meet him Strand too tries to kill him leaving him for dead.

   â€œYou don’t belong to anyone Peter. You get sick and you die — alone.”

   Now Killian wants revenge and to know what was in the empty watch the courier was wearing that so many men would kill for. Strand turns out to have a girl. Wendy Romer (Pascale Petit) so it is back to Berlin to see if she leads to Strand, but things get complicated when Killian discovers Wendy is the secretary to Languin at his art gallery. Even more complicated, Killian is falling for Wendy who is tied into Strand’s plans to sell Languin what he stole from the watch case.

   Attractive Berlin location shooting open this one up quite a bit and McGavin’s mix of charm and intensity are perfect for Killian, a complex man who fights against Mallicent’s all too perfect insight into his nature and motivation.

   Dauphin has little to do, and Kelly is, as usual, mostly adequate as the charming Strand, while Petit is attractive certainly, but no earth shaker. That leaves most of the work to McGavin playing off Weaver in their scenes together and some decent thuggery by the reliable Darren Nesbit. A solid script (similar to, but not a copy of the plot of Funeral in Berlin) that ties the various twists and mysteries up neatly, good direction, and better cinematography than usual, plus a downbeat ending opening up room for a series to develop round it all out.

   McGavin is the primary attraction here, with Weaver’s appearances a welcome bit of spice. There is decent action here and there, a good teleplay, and good direction, but it’s mostly McGavin’s film and you’ll enjoy it or not based on your tolerance or admiration for his performances. Here he gets to stretch a little, playing a more complex and fully developed hero than usual.

   McGavin’s real life wife Kathie Browne shows up in what would likely have been a recurring role as Mallicent’s personal Moneypenny. It’s little more than a walk on, but nice to see them together.

   Nicely done little film, which is McGavin’s to make or break, but for my money he makes it well worth catching.

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