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”]