Nero Wolfe on Page and (Small U.S.) Screen:
“Poison à la Carte”
by Matthew R. Bradley


   As with Murder by the Book (1951), the Nero Wolfe novel Plot It Yourself (1959) gets a metafictional spin from Rex Stout, who’d served as the president of Vanguard Press; the Authors Guild, lobbying for copyright-law reform; and the Mystery Writers of America, receiving their Grand Master Award that year. The National Association of Authors and Dramatists (NAAD) and Book Publishers of America (BPA) hire Wolfe due to a rash of “plagiarism upside down,” with successful works alleged to be copied from unpublished material planted ex post facto. The ’teers are reinforced by Dol Bonner and her assistant, Sally Colt (inexplicably renamed Corbett, with Stout’s typical disregard for consistency).

   We learn that Wolfe’s letter-opener “was a knife with a horn handle that had been thrown at him in [The Black Mountain (1954)], in the cellar of an old border fort in Albania, by a man named Bua.” Three at Wolfe’s Door (1960) is unique, since only “Method Three for Murder” was previously published (serialized in The Saturday Evening Post, January 30-February 13, 1960); “Poison à la Carte” and “The Rodeo Murder” debut there. “Method” opens as Archie leaves the brownstone on one of the 30 or 40 times he has been fired or, as he has here, quit over the years, and on the steps meets his first solo client, Mira Holt, who found a woman stabbed to death in the borrowed taxicab she was driving…illegally.

   Per Archie, the methods for answering police questions are to “Button your lip….Tell the truth straight through….[or] Tell a simple basic lie with no trimmings, and stick to it.” A sensible Wolfe offers to split Mira’s $50 fee: “You have helped me with many problems; surely I can help you with one. I am not being quixotic. I do not accept your headstrong decision that our long association has ended, but even if it has, your repute is inextricably involved with mine. [She] is in a pickle. I have never tried to do a job without your help; why should you try to do one without mine?” In “Rodeo,” they investigate a murder that is perpetrated during a party and roping contest at Lily Rowan’s Park Avenue penthouse.

   “Poison” finds Fritz asked by millionaire orchid fancier Lewis Hewitt to cook the annual dinner for the Ten for Aristology, his group “pursuing the ideal of perfection in food and drink,” to be served (unknown to Wolfe) by “twelve young women, one for each guest,” at the home of shipping magnate Benjamin Schriver. With Rusterman’s maítre d’hôtel, Felix Courbet—aka Felix Martin from The Black Mountain?—and chef Zoltan Mahany lending a hand, Archie busies himself trying to get the phone numbers of the “Hebes.” He meets Nora Jaret, Carol Annis, Fern Faber, Peggy Choate, and Helen Iacono before the dinner, spoiled when theatrical angel Vincent Pyle’s blinis are doctored with arsenic.

   A complex set of circumstances muddled the serving, with Fern returning from the “can” to find no plate, and the other four plus Lucy Morgan serving guests different from those to whom they had been assigned, while nobody seems able—or willing—to identify who gave Pyle the fatal dish. After the usual tirade from Cramer, Helen visits Wolfe to admit stabbing Pyle in self-defense several months earlier; to keep this from coming out, to the detriment of her career, she offers to expedite the investigation and seek a motive among the others. Wolfe suggests doing so en masse with Archie present, so they convene at the apartment shared by Peggy and Nora, a gathering eavesdropped upon by Purley Stebbins.

   Arrested for obstructing justice on the verge of relocating the party to the brownstone, he tells Purley—tipped off by Nora—that Fritz is Wolfe’s client, and is grilled by Rowcliff. The next day, Fritz joins Felix and Zoltan in offering to hire him formally for the good of the restaurant’s reputation, an appeal met with an astonished “Pfui….I am solely to blame for this mess, but you offer to pay me to clean it up.” He has Zoltan call each of the five, claiming to have withheld the fact that he saw her go back for a second plate, and asking to meet at a table with a mike hidden in a bowl of artificial flowers in Piotti’s restaurant, also used for precisely the same purpose in Gambit (1962), as Archie and Purley listen in.

   As with the Grand Central rendezvous in “Christmas Party” (1957), it’s largely a question of who accepts, in this case Carol, who responds to Zoltan’s “admiration” by stating that the master of the casting couch had promised to marry her…and trying to poison Zoltan’s spaghetti anchovy. Brought in by Cramer en route to jail, she admits nothing; per Wolfe, “You took such prodigious risks that it is hard to believe in your sanity…if you are mad you are also ruthless and malevolent.” Given a novella’s constraints, Stout identifies all twelve of neither the guests—including actor Adrian Dart, corporation lawyer Harvey M. Leacraft, and Emil Kreis, Chairman of the Board of Codex Press—nor the actress servers.

   A second-season episode of A Nero Wolfe Mystery, “Poison à la Carte” (5/26/02) was the fourth and final series adaptation by William Rabkin and Lee Goldberg; also broadcast in a double-length international version, it was directed by George Bloomfield, the uncle of Maury Chaykin, who starred as Wolfe. Cast members Michelle Nolden (as Helen) and Lindy Booth (Peggy) were also seen in, respectively, Season 1’s “The Doorbell Rang” (4/22/01) and Season 2’s “Before I Die” (6/16/02). The Server Girls include repertory players Shannon Jobe and Lorca Moore, as well as an early appearance by Stockholm-born Malin Akerman, whose breakthrough role was Silk Spectre II in Watchmen (2009).

   Pyle (Domenic Cuzzocrea) ruffles feathers by dismissing a centerpiece of pricey orchids donated by Wolfe and praised by Hewitt (David Hemblen in his recurring role): “I don’t care for flowers with spots and streaks. They’re messy.” The courses provided by Fritz (Colin Fox), Zoltan (Hrant Alianak), and Felix (Carlo Rota) are lovingly depicted, while Rabkin and Goldberg create dialogue to flesh out such characters as Dart (James Tolkan). Now the host instead of Shriver (sic; Jack Newman), Hewitt tells Wolfe that a dying Pyle keeps repeating “Jack in the Pulpit,” the title of a flop he had backed; Peggy insists that, finding her assigned guest already served, she instead gave his blinis and caviar to Wolfe.

   Assigned to Hewitt, already served by Lucy (Dina Barrington), Fern (Hayley Verlyn) lost the game of musical chairs after fixing her hair and delivered none, meaning that she is in the clear and someone else—clearly the murderer—had double-dipped. Wolfe asks Kreis (David Schurmann), Leacroft (sic; Gary Reineke), and the others to envision the scene, in the hope of recalling who had served Pyle, but to no avail. Cramer (Bill Smitrovich) says a paper spill was found bearing traces of arsenic and the fingerprints of Zoltan, who states that he saw it on the floor and put it in the trash; returning with Archie (Timothy Hutton) from their all-nighter, Wolfe does the unthinkable and skips his 9:00 A.M. orchid session.

   Helen had been seeking a role in Jack in the Pulpit when Pyle tried to have his way with her, and is quite happy, once they have a nominee, to tell the police she saw her go back for a second plate. At the “party” with Carol (Emily Hampshire), Nora (Sarain Boylan), et alia, broken up by Purley (R.D. Reid), Archie uses the seating chart and twelve slips of paper to go through the various permutations. Wolfe wisely warns Cramer of the planned unmasking—with him and Rusterman’s respectively replacing Purley and Piotti’s—since Helen calls the D.A. right after hanging up on Zoltan; Fritz forgives the injury Carol did to him, and the episode adds a nice coda of him and Wolfe silently sharing wine and beer.

         — Copyright © 2024 by Matthew R. Bradley.

Up next: Too Many Clients- –

Editions cited

         Plot It Yourself: Bantam (1960)
         3 [sic] at Wolfe’s Door in Seven Complete Nero Wolfe Novels: Avenel (1983)

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