Nero Wolfe on Page and (Small U.S.) Screen:
Three Witnessess
by Matthew R. Bradley


   Rex Stout published one Nero Wolfe novel every year from 1946 (The Silent Speaker) to ’66 (Death of Doxy), and often a collection as well; the 1954 crop included, respectively, The Black Mountain and Three Men Out. Each novella first appeared in The American Magazine under a different title: “Invitation to Murder” (as “Will to Murder,” August 1953), “The Zero Clue” (as “Scared to Death,” December 1953), and “This Won’t Kill You” (as, oddly, “This Will Kill You,” September 1952). In “Invitation,” Archie lures Wolfe out of the house while trying to determine which of three women aspire to marry a wealthy widower in a wheelchair, and may have made him one with ptomaine poisoning.

   â€œThe Zero Clue” concerns the murder of a probability expert and former math professor, Leo Heller, whose penchant for complex formulae strongly recalls F.O. Savarese of And Be a Villain (1948). Justifying the collection’s sabermetric title, “This Won’t Kill You” opens with the unlikely spectacle of Wolfe acceding to the request by house guest Pierre Mondor — one of Les Quinze Maîtres, introduced in Too Many Cooks (1938) — to attend a baseball game at the Polo Grounds. The murder of a player, and drugging of four others, costs the Giants the seventh and deciding World Series contest against the Red Sox, with Wolfe hired by part-owner and oil millionaire Emil Chisholm, already deeply in his debt.

   A pivotal entry, The Black Mountain builds on the events of Over My Dead Body (1940), and opens as Wolfe visits the morgue to see his boyhood friend Marko Vukcic, owner of Rusterman’s Restaurant, shot outside his home on East 54th Street. Widow Carla Britton (formerly Lovchen), Wolfe’s adopted daughter, believes agents of Belgrade or Moscow killed him for supporting rebels in their homeland of Montenegro (the Black Mountain), now part of Marshal Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslavia. Sending weapons is against U.S. law, so her disappearance provokes a return visit from G-man Stahl, and after learning of her death in Montenegro from Paolo Telesio in Bari, Italy, Wolfe says he requires a passport.

   As we follow them to London (where Ethelbert Hitchcock is now Geoffrey), Rome, and across the Adriatic, Archie notes, “The basic setup between [us] was upset,” making him rely on Wolfe, as he knows the turf blindfolded, speaks eight languages, and translates as he can. Marko’s nephew, Danilo, is paid by both Titoists and Russians while guarding an arms cache for the Spirit of the Black Mountain, who may harbor a spy; in an old Roman fort, Archie avenges Carla, shooting Moscow’s Albanian puppets as they torture Marko’s killer, Peter Zov. In an impressive con job, Wolfe persuades his superior, Gospo Stritar, that they should bring him back to America for “safety”…then turns him over to Cramer.

   In Before Midnight (1955), Wolfe is hired to find out not who shot Louis Dahlmann, but who took the answers in a million-dollar perfume contest from his body. The novellas in Three Witnesses (1956) also premiered in The American Magazine: “The Next Witness” (as “The Last Witness,” May 1955), “When a Man Murders…” (May 1954), and “Die Like a Dog” (as “The Body in the Hall,” December 1954). “When a Man Murders…” introduces Tim Evarts, described as the Hotel Churchill’s “first assistant security officer, not to be called a house dick,” in Before Midnight; we also learn that “Only two assistant district attorneys rate corner rooms, and [ADA Irving] Mandelbaum wasn’t one of them.”

   In “The Next Witness,” Archie sees him “perform in a courtroom” for the first time as he tries to convict theatrical producer Leonard Ashe for strangling stage-struck Marie Willis and questions employer Clyde Bagby, the president of answering service Bagby Answers Ink.

   She reportedly refused to perform a “special service” eavesdropping on Ashe’s wife, ex-actress Robina Keane, and intended to warn her idol; subpoenaed to testify, Wolfe had turned down Ashe, who says he was summoned to Bagby’s office by an anonymous call, arriving to find her dead. On deck after Bagby, Wolfe risks a fine by taking Archie there to prevent a “justicial transgression” by refuting Mandelbaum’s thesis and clearing Ashe.

   Wolfe seeks to question employees Helen Weltz — now off-duty — Alice Hart, and Bella Velardi, but new receptionist Pearl Fleming was not working there then. Alice, like Lily Rowan, owns a Van Gogh, allegedly bought with her savings; Bella claims she makes her race-track bets on behalf of friends, while Helen has a Jaguar and may have been Marie’s rival for the affections of Guy Unger. Bearding Helen in her Westchester summer rental, and now officially AWOL, they find Guy with her, but although Wolfe is convinced that the quartet is concealing something, Helen refuses to unload in the presence of Guy, who offers a retainer for undefined investigative services, and they head for Saul’s apartment.

   Spotting Purley on his way in, they detour first to defense attorney Jimmy Donovan, who won’t get Wolfe in to see Ashe, and then to Keane, who will; Helen agrees to meet Wolfe chez Saul, the site of “friendly and ferocious poker” on Saturday nights, escorted there by Archie from Grand Central.

   Cut to the courtroom the next morning when Wolfe takes the stand — placed under arrest and threat of a contempt charge by Judge Corbett. Questioned by Mandelbaum, he says Ashe tried to hire him to learn Marie’s identity and propose the eavesdropping, and relates their conversation just one hour ago, noting that an answering service could be a goldmine for a blackmailer, before he is cross-examined by Donovan.

   â€œAs a witness for the prosecution, with a warrant out for my arrest, I was in a difficult situation,” but this stratagem allows Wolfe to get “information which cast a reasonable doubt on his guilt…before the court and the jury…” He concluded that the suspiciously well-off operators had colluded in an eavesdropping conspiracy — as Helen confirmed — with Guy and Bagby, and that Marie became a threat when she’d refused their orders to accept Ashe’s proposal. Wolfe fingers Bagby as the killer; Corbett dismisses the charge of contempt; Ashe shows his appreciation with “a handsome check,” despite not being a formal client; and the case is solved in a narrative set completely outside the brownstone.

   â€œDie Like a Dog” finds Archie trying to return a raincoat to Richard Meegan, who took his by mistake after Wolfe declined to take on a marital case, but arriving at his building, Archie sees Purley on the way in (again) and a black Labrador retriever that follows him, fetching his wind-blown hat. He mischievously brings “Nero” home, perhaps forgetting the rage displayed by Wolfe — who says he had a dog as a boy — at the injustice to Nobby from In the Best Families (1950). Archie’s call to trace his tag number elicits a visit from Cramer, revealing that owner Philip Kampf was strangled in that building, also occupied by lawyer Victor Talento, painter Ross Chaffee, and night-club performer Jerome Aland.

   Arguing that Archie is obliged to see to his welfare, Wolfe refuses to let Cramer take Jet (as he calls him), whose leash was the murder weapon, to Arbor Street to see which door he goes to; to resolve the situation by solving the murder, he sends Archie back with the raincoat. Seeing Talento leaving, Archie tips him off that he’s being tailed by the police, and agrees to make excuses to singer Jewel Jones at their rendezvous in exchange for his pledge to see Wolfe the next morning.

   She comes immediately, and is recognized by the dog (real name: Bootsy), having formerly lived in what is now Meegan’s apartment and been intimate with Kampf, but says they had no quarrel, and Talento is merely her friend.

Wolfe consents to Cramer’s experiment with dog expert Sgt. Loftus, provided Archie is present; Aland credits Bootsy’s dislike to a misunderstanding at a party chez Kampf, and Meegan claims never to have seen him, while Talento and especially Chaffee seem to be on good terms with Bootsy.

   Willfully assumed to be a cop, Archie questions Aland, who got his job through Jewel, and Pittsburgh commercial photographer Meegan, who sought his estranged wife, Margaret Ryan. After seeing her depicted in Chaffee’s Three Young Mares at Pasture, he took the now-vacant apartment in the hope of locating her, since he disbelieved Chaffee’s claim that he couldn’t remember her among his numerous models.

   On a hunch, Archie infiltrates the home of Chaffee’s frequent buyer Herman Braunstein, photographs the painting — which he’d recently lent to the Pittsburgh Art Institute — and confirms that Jewel is Mrs. Meegan.

   Brought to the brownstone, she says she feared for her life due to Dick’s jealousy, and when Wolfe summons the tenants, the rest of whom concealed knowledge of her from Meegan, Cramer and Purley crash the party. Bootsy, it transpires, had followed not Archie but the coat, in reality Kampf’s; having inadvertently switched coats not once but twice, Meegan strangled Kampf (who’d threatened to expose Jewel if she did not resume their relationship), and unwittingly put Archie’s coat on him.

   The second season of A&E’s A Nero Wolfe Mystery included the consecutive episodes “The Next Witness” (4/21/02) and “Die Like a Dog” (4/28/02), both directed by repertory player James Tolkan and adapted by the redoubtable Sharon Elizabeth Doyle. Shown internationally in a double-length version, “The Next Witness” upgrades Mandelbaum (Wayne Best) to D.A. and — unlike the novella— includes Cramer (Bill Smitrovich), who gleefully serves Wolfe (Maury Chaykin) and Archie (Timothy Hutton) personally. They arrive two hours late, eliciting sarcasm from Corbett (Beau Starr); the “Smelly Woman” (Carolyn Taylor) beside Wolfe, applying perfume, is the straw breaking the camel’s back.

   Bagby (Boyd Banks) circumvents labor-law restrictions by having his operators provide their 24-hour service while living and working in the same apartment, so Pearl (Kathryn Zenna) takes a board while Wolfe questions Alice (Nicky Guadagni) and Bella (Christine Brubaker) in their rooms. In Katonah, he notes that Helen (Francie Swift) is “on the edge of hysteria,” and as he confers privately with Guy (Richard Waugh), she breaks down in tears walking with Archie.

   The latter declines to call Donovan (Robert Bockstael) — who as a sworn officer of the court would have to serve the warrants — and after leaving Keane (Rebecca Jenkins), they head for Saul (Conrad Dunn) with no sign of Purley (R.D. Reid).

   In a scene taken straight from Stout, and expanded for the international version, first-time visitor Wolfe commends Saul for “A good room. Satisfactory. I congratulate you,” then feasts on beer, sturgeon, paté, pickled mushrooms, Tunisian melon, and three varieties of cheese.

   Doyle depicts the start of the meeting at which he shares his theories with Ashe (David Schurmann), merely related in the novella on the stand. Under Donovan’s cross-examination, as Wolfe begins to unfold the story of the blackmail operation that included Marie (Brittney Banks) and was run by Alice, Archie’s timely warning to the guard stops her, Bella, and Guy from making a beeline to the exit once they realize that the jig is up…

   Interestingly, while director Tolkan doubles as Loftus in “Die Like a Dog,” the episodes shared no repertory players (so defined, if you’re curious, as those appearing in three or more adaptations), who filled all other roles except the policeman played by Robbie Rox, also seen in “Cop Killer” (8/11/02).

   As usual, Doyle dramatizes events just alluded to by Stout, e.g., Meegan (Bill MacDonald) grabbing the raincoat while leaving in a huff; when Archie returns, she retains his mention of Fritz’s turtle and Theodore’s parakeets, perhaps for the only time in the canon. Seeing Bootsy/Ebony/Inky/Jet/Nero (Jessie and Guinness) while announcing dinner, Fritz (Colin Fox) wryly asks, “Is the animal dining with you?”

   Kari Matchett — whose roles range from Wolfe’s adopted daughter to Archie’s recurring romantic interest, Lily Rowan — is properly seductive as Jewel, intercepted on behalf of Talento (Alex Poch-Goldin). After the experiment with Chaffee (Steve Cumyn), Aland (Julian Richings), and the others fails, Wolfe explains that Bootsy showed no interest in the spot where Kampf was found because he was clad in, first, Meegan’s coat, and then Archie’s.

   Leaving the dog in care of a cabbie (Angelo Tsarouchas), Archie risks letting the tenants assume he is a cop, having been arrested for the same stunt in Prisoner’s Base (1952) by Lt. Rowcliff, aptly also played by MacDonald (suitably abrasive as Meegan).

   In Wolfe’s office, the terrified Jewel says that Kampf “had to go see Dick again anyway, because Dick had gone off with his raincoat. Phil thought it was funny that Dick had his raincoat and he had Dick’s wife. I’ll bet that’s just what he told you, hunh?…that I was coming back to him, and he thought that was a good trade — a raincoat for a wife.” The novella, if not the episode, ends with the implication that Bootsy, who “responds to Jet now,” will remain in residence at the brownstone. But I will not be surprised if, like the aforementioned alleged pets or Felix’s “beloved” parrot in the Odd Couple episode “It’s All Over Now, Baby Bird” (12/3/70), Albert, he will never be seen or heard about again.

         — Copyright © 2023 by Matthew R. Bradley.

Up next: Might as Well Be Dead

Editions cited —

     Three Men Out, The Black Mountain: Bantam (1955)
     Before Midnight: Bantam Crime Line (1993)
     Three Witnesses: Bantam (1957)

Online sources —