Nero Wolfe on Page and (Small U.S.) Screen:
“Booby Trap”
by Matthew R. Bradley.


   Rex Stout took a wartime hiatus from writing Nero Wolfe novels after Where There’s a Will (1940), abridged as “Sisters in Trouble” for The American Magazine (May 1940), which started publishing the novellas with “Bitter End” (November 1940). Introducing the posthumous collection Death Times Three (1985), biographer John McAleer explains that the publisher refused to run an abridgement of Stout’s Techumseh Fox novel Bad for Business (1940), but paid him double to convert it into the Wolfe novella. Where There’s a Will—adapted in 1969 for the Italian TV series—gives Inspector Cramer his first name, Fergus, and has Wolfe leave home on business for a case involving the Secretary of State.

   The first Wolfe collection, Black Orchids (1942), pairs the title novella with “Cordially Invited to Meet Death,” abridged as—respectively—“Death Wears an Orchid” (August 1941) and “Invitation to Murder” (April 1942). The former introduces millionaire, fellow gourmet, and future ally Lewis Hewitt, whose Long Island greenhouse produced the three titular plants, demanded in payment by an envious Wolfe for sparing him embarrassment while investigating a murder. In the latter, he sends eight of those flowers to the funeral of Bess Huddleston, who was murdered with a deliberate infection of tetanus after hiring Wolfe to stop the anonymous poison-pen letters threatening her party-planning business.

   Not Quite Dead Enough (1944) also paired the eponymous work (abridged; December 1942) with another first published in The American Magazine, “Booby Trap” (August 1944). Both take place during Archie’s World War II service as Major Goodwin of U.S. Army Intelligence; in the former, he must goad Wolfe—who has been “in training” with chef Fritz Brenner, walking by the river and dieting, to kill Germans, as he did in 1918—to return to work. The returning Lily Rowan is briefly a suspect, and Cramer reveals that Lily’s late father “was one of my best friends. He got me on the force, and he got me out of a couple of tight holes in the old days when he was on the inside at [Tammany] Hall.”

   Also invoked, Captain Albert Cross and Archie’s superiors, Colonel Harold Ryder and General Mortimer Fife, all figure in “Booby Trap.” An anonymous letter to John Bell Shattuck links Cross’s fatal plunge from New York’s Bascombe Hotel with the betrayal of “secrets of various industrial processes,” entrusted to the Army, to “those who intend to engage in post-war competition of the industries involved,” which the congressman’s committee is authorized to investigate. After Wolfe says Cross, tracing stolen “samples” of brand-new H14 grenades, was murdered, Ryder is blown apart by an H14 he’d given Archie as a souvenir for his work on the case, which was returned at Wolfe’s insistence.

   Securing Fife’s grudging permission to see General Carpenter in Washington, Ryder had his suitcase already packed, and when sent by Wolfe to remove its remains surreptitiously from the site, Archie finds it gone. Deducing that it was taken by his secretary, Sergeant Dorothy Bruce, Archie is surprised to see Lieutenant Kenneth Lawson, Jr. in the WAC’s apartment when he fetches it and her, and even more so when — en route to Wolfe’s — she offers him $10,000 for it. Claiming that was a test of his loyalty, she is revealed to be the source of the anonymous letter and others; after a private talk with her, Wolfe tells Archie only that the grenade was inside the suitcase, which was booby-trapped to murder Ryder.

   Setting his own “booby trap” with props in his office, Wolfe arranges for Archie to watch from concealment as, sequentially, Lawson, Colonel Tinkham, Fife, Shattuck, and Bruce are each left alone there; none does anything clearly incriminating, but with Bruce’s help, Shattuck is exposed.

   Working undercover for Carpenter with Lawson, she sent 30 letters to smoke out the traitors, and Ryder was silenced when—shocked by Cross’s murder and his son’s death in combat—he decided to fess up to Carpenter. Wolfe has Archie drive to Van Cortlandt Park, where he gives Shattuck, whose political career is ruined, the chance to commit suicide with another H14, which Carpenter had provided for the “booby trap.”

   Bizarrely, “Gambit” (4/3/81)—an episode of NBC’s Nero Wolfe series starring William Conrad, with Lee Horsley as Archie—took its title from Stout’s 1962 novel, but credits “Booby Trap” as its source. The only entry scripted by Stephen Kandel, later a prolific writer-producer on MacGyver, it was directed by the show’s most frequent contributor, George McCowan; its executive producers, Ivan Goff and Ben Roberts, created Charlie’s Angels and shared an Oscar nomination as co-writers of the Lon Chaney biopic Man of a Thousand Faces (1957). Fritz (George Voskovec), orchid-meister Theodore Horstmann (Robert Coote), Saul Panzer (George Wyner), and Cramer (Allan Miller) were regulars.

   Best known as reporter Carl Kolchak in the 1972 TV-movie and ensuing series The Night Stalker, Darren McGavin guest-stars as John Alan Bredeman, first seen in comic mode as a faux service tech, hiding a surveillance system in the brownstone. Patti Davis, daughter of recently inaugurated President Ronald Reagan, plays magazine reporter Dana Groves, seeking an interview with Wolfe, against which he refuses to break a long-standing rule. Kandel rewrites Wolfe’s wartime role as “Butterfly,” commander of an intelligence unit, three members of which died when betrayed by Bredeman—code-named “Filligree”—who specialized in demolition, and now plans to kill Wolfe, having served 20 years for it.

   After asking Cramer to check on Bredeman, Archie risks bringing Dana to Wolfe, but as he is dressing them down, Bredeman gloats via the intercom that he has cut off the phone, and provides a “demonstration” by blowing up the stove, injuring Fritz. Asserting that he was innocent, he has rigged the whole house and planted a bomb on the elevator, defused by Archie with Wolfe’s guidance. As Dana exults in a juicy story, the staff disables three cameras, so Bredeman threatens death unless they gather in the entry hall, in view of the fourth; intending to slip out through a plant-room window, Archie sends her down, but in the stairwell, Dana—Bredeman’s daughter and accomplice—calls him on a walkie-talkie.

   Tipped off, he fires at Archie with a rifle (his aim spoiled by Wolfe tossing a pot through another window), belying his assurance to her that he means no harm to innocents; Fritz and Theodore cut off the power, gas, water, and intercom as Wolfe and Archie seek other explosives. Bredeman sneaks in to face his foe, trying to extract a confession for framing him, yet Wolfe, displaying unusual physicality, disarms him and tells Dana he’d deduced her imposture. In her presence, he confronts Bredeman with the truth: he was absent on the unit’s fatal mission, having alerted the enemy to their route, and over the years, guilt had twisted his mind, but attempting to flee, he falls victim to one of his own booby traps.

   Kandel’s “Gambit”—the last alleged adaptation on Conrad’s series—has little to do with “Booby Trap,” let alone Stout’s Gambit, used in 1971 and 2012 on the Italian series with Tino Buazzelli and Francesco Pannofino, respectively. Sally Blount hires Wolfe to clear her father of a murder charge after he served hot chocolate to Paul Jerin, poisoned while playing 12 simultaneous blindfold games at the eponymous chess club. The murder was a gambit, “an opening in which a player gives up a pawn or a piece to gain an advantage. The [murderer] had no animus for Jerin [who] was merely a pawn. The target was your father,” and Archie gets the proof on tape via a hidden mike in John Piotti’s restaurant.

            — Copyright © 2023 by Matthew R. Bradley.

Up next: The Silent Speaker

   Editions cited

Where There’s a Will: Avon (1941)
Death Times Three: Bantam (1985)
Black Orchids, Not Quite Dead Enough: Jove (1979)
Gambit in Seven Complete Nero Wolf Novels: Avenel (1983)

   Online source [link mislabeled as “Before I Die”]