Nero Wolfe on Page and (Small U.S.) Screen:
Murder by the Book
by Matthew R. Bradley


   Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novel Murder by the Book (1951) marks Archie’s first reference that I’ve noted — insert fallibility disclaimer—to his weighing a “seventh of a ton” (285.7 pounds). I’ll continue to monitor the situation, but I think this became the standard after, e.g., “two hundred and sixty-some pounds” (“Help Wanted, Male,” 1945), a quarter of a ton (i.e., 500 pounds, perhaps figurative; “Instead of Evidence,” 1946), close to 340 (Too Many Women, 1947), and an even 300 (“Door to Death,” 1949). With its metafictional publishing theme, it is set in motion when Wolfe is hired by the father of Joan Wellman, an editor at Scholl and Hanna who died in an apparent hit and run in Van Cortlandt Park.

   Peoria grocer John R. Wellman believes otherwise, due to her appointment that day with Baird Archer to discuss a novel she’d rejected; no trace is found, but Wolfe recalls seeing the name on a list of tentative aliases among the effects of Leonard Dykes, whose murder led Cramer to consult him six weeks earlier. He had been a law clerk at Corrigan, Phelps, Kustin and Briggs, formerly O’Malley, Corrigan and Phelps until O’Malley’s disbarment. Conjecturing that Joan was killed because she’d read the manuscript, Wolfe has the ’teers canvass typing services and sends Archie to Scholl and Hanna, where he merely confirms that she’d read, rejected, and returned Put Not Your Trust to Archer via General Delivery.

   Joining the hunt, Archie arrives at the office of typist Rachel Abrams just after her plunge from the window, pocketing the notebook recording Archer’s payment on his way out the door; reaching Rachel’s mother before the news, he gets the names of her friends William Butterfield, Hulda Greenberg, and Cynthia Free, on whom he sics the ’teers. Shifting his focus, Wolfe has Archie cultivate the law firm’s female staff of 16, with ten accepting his invitation to dinner when he sends them orchids. Archie produces Mr. Wellman and Mrs. Abrams to stir sentiment, eliciting steno Helen Troy’s controversial assertion that Conroy O’Malley killed Dykes for getting him disbarred because he bribed the foreman of a jury.

   She notes that others believe her uncle, new partner Frederick Briggs, ratted Con out, and killed Dykes to prevent his revealing that fact; Eleanor Gruber, secretary to Con and now Louis Kustin, posits that his death was unrelated to the others, and as the party breaks up, Archie takes Sue Dondero, Emmett Phelps’s secretary, dancing. Senior partner James A. Corrigan brings his current and former colleagues to Wolfe’s office, where they submit to fruitless questioning, and he requests samples of Dykes’s writing. On a resignation letter, offered due to gossip (but declined), is a scribbled notation directing them to Psalm 146, verse 3: “Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help.”

   Switchboard operator Blanche Duke identifies the handwriting (via a ruse by Archie) as Corrigan’s, and says that writing a book was one way she’d suggested the smitten Dykes might attract Sue’s attention. Regarding the notation as a trick, Wolfe sends Archie out to California to have Dykes’s sister and heir, Peggy Potter, search his letters to confirm that he wrote the novel, and solicit the firm’s advice about having literary agent “Walter Finch” sell the film rights on her behalf, hoping to panic the killer. Archie hires Nathan Harris from Ferdinand Dolman’s Southwest Agency to pose as Finch, and another man to hide within earshot when Peggy meets with Corrigan, who immediately flies out to L.A.

   Archie himself hides in Finch’s closet when she sends Corrigan to the South Seas Hotel, where he tries to insist on a look at the (nonexistent) manuscript, saying he has reason to believe it is libelous, and leaves after an altercation. Stymied again chez Potter by Finch, then left on guard, Corrigan infiltrates his room, only to find Archie, who puts Southwest man Phil Buratti on his tail; when he calls from the airport, Archie asks Phil to get him a seat on Corrigan’s flight back east. The fivesome revisits Wolfe, demanding to know the contents of the manuscript or offering to buy it, but Wolfe merely says he is not yet ready to act, while Kustin correctly thinks that “it’s a ten-cent bluff,” and he has no knowledge.

   That night they get a call, ostensibly from Corrigan, who says he has sent Wolfe a letter, followed by an apparent gunshot; after they alert the police, Archie gets there in time to witness the discovery of his body, consistent with suicide. The unsigned letter confesses to blowing the whistle anonymously on Con without identifying the information’s source, and to stumbling on the “Modern Novel of a Lawyer’s Frailty,” which made it clear that Dykes knew he had done so. Claiming to have destroyed all copies of the roman à clef, he admits killing Dykes after a blackmail attempt and the others to cover his tracks, but while the details are obviously accurate, Wolfe believes that the killer framed Corrigan.

   The D.A. is satisfied that it was suicide, yet after an undisclosed report from Saul, Wolfe has Cramer and Purley Stebbins assemble the ten women and four surviving partners for a “risky but resolute effort to expose a murderer,” to which Archie invites Wellman. Wolfe deduced the truth because the “confession” asserted that Corrigan knew the manuscript’s contents, when his behavior in L.A. clearly indicated that he did not. He had informed on O’Malley, who targeted him for murder to avenge that fact and “killed three people so he could safely kill a fourth,” and made the notation in Corrigan’s handwriting — assumed by Cramer et alia to have been a trick by Wolfe or Archie — as the first step in framing him.

   An episode of NBC’s Nero Wolfe series starring William Conrad, “Murder by the Book” (3/13/81) was directed by Bob Kelljan, best known for Count Yorga, Vampire (1970) and its 1971 sequel, and written by David Karp, an Emmy-winner for a two-part 1964 episode of The Defenders, using his “Wallace Ware” byline. Jean Wellman (Delta Burke) refuses to believe that her sister Claire — a reader for Wainwright Press — committed suicide with alcohol and sleeping pills, which she did not use, and the hunt is on for the elusive Blake Ritchie. Karp also renames the lawyers Phillip Corrigan (David Hedison), Robert Phelps (Edmund Gilbert), George Briggs (Walter Brooke), and Ryan O’Malley (John Randolph).

   The episode opens as Cramer (Allan Miller) reports that an unknown man killed in a hit-and-run a block from the brownstone bore a slip of paper with Wolfe’s name and address and the mysterious list, which includes “Ritchie”; by the time this ties him in to Claire, he has been identified as Leonard Dart, a member of the firm. When Jean takes Archie (Lee Horsley) to her apartment to retrieve a contact number that may have been Ritchie’s, his instincts save her from a booby-trapped door with minor injury, so Saul (George Wyner) guards her at the hospital. Wolfe suspects that she was targeted because, per Archie, “she knows something she doesn’t know she knows,” a sentiment worthy of Donald Rumsfeld.

   The editor who turned down the first novel supplies the title, and Jean recalls being told it was about the members of a law firm. At O’Malley, Phelps, Corrigan and Briggs, Archie tells Dart’s secretary, Elizabeth Marsh (Jennifer Leak), that he was murdered, which Miss Johnson (Elizabeth Halliday) quickly reports to Briggs — who gives him the bum’s rush — and Phelps, yet retiree O’Malley wants to protect the reputation of the firm he made, and Wolfe finally gets a well-heeled client. For safety, Jean is moved to the brownstone, and a visit by Corrigan leads Wolfe to invite the three active partners to dinner, before which Liz, whose information suggested that Ritchie and Dart were the same man, is strangled.

   Wolfe learns of a prior scandal, the embezzlement of $2 million — unproven and repaid — from an estate the firm represented, which he theorizes may have been the subject of Put Not Your Trust. Liz was found in the computer room, suggesting that Dart kept the book there; it is unlocked with the code “146 P 3,” and the list of names were for characters, to protect him from libel. Wolfe had suspected since being hired by him that the embezzler and killer was O’Malley, who asks before Cramer takes him away to make a summation: his theft, which they concealed, gave his partners “the shock of righteous men, meaning those who haven’t been caught yet with their hands in the till…[and so] they retired me.”

   Kelljan was blessed with a strong guest cast, including Burke, known for the CBS sitcom Designing Women, and Randolph, one of the former blacklistees — along with Will Geer, Jeff Corey, and Nedrick Young — cast by John Frankenheimer in Seconds (1966). David Hedison, who starred in The Fly (1958) and Irwin Allen’s series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, became the first actor to play James Bond’s CIA buddy, Felix Leiter, in multiple movies, Live and Let Die (1973) and Licence to Kill (1989). Giving ammunition to those who disapprove of Conrad’s casting, the episode ends with the jaw-dropping sight of the grinning Wolfe returning Archie’s thumbs-up, which Stout fortunately did not live to see.

         — Copyright © 2023 by Matthew R. Bradley.

Up next: “The Cop-Killer”

Edition cited:

      Murder by the Book: Bantam (1954)

Online source: