PRISONER’S BASE (1952) by Rex Stout

Stout_Prisoners-Base_bantamThe late William L. De Andrea in his introduction to the Bantam edition (on the right) singles out this particular case for Nero Wolfe and his legman Archie Goodwin for having one of Rex Stout’s best plots. It also made for great television when adapted for the show starring Timothy Hutton and Maury Chaykin. It all begins when a stranger arrives at Wolfe’s brownstone looking for a place to stay …

I offer this review as part of Rich’s celebration of 1952 books over at Past Offences; Bev’s 2014 Vintage Golden Age Mystery Challenge; Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog; Katie’s Book to Movie Challenge at Doing Dewey (for reviews, click here).

“Archie!”
I wheeled and glared at him. He glared back. “Pfui,” he said.
“Nuts,” I said, and turned and went.

The Goodwin / Wolfe bromance is in full swing in this novel, beginning with the two having a trivial argument, leading to Archie tearing his salary cheque in half. When a mysterious young  woman, refusing to give her name or explain her motives, asks for room and board until 30 June, Archie says yes initially, partly because he knows this will annoy Wolfe, which it duly does. But then a lawyer arrives while the woman is in a room upstairs and explains that he is looking for Jennifer Eads, heiress to the Softdown towel company who will inherit control of the company on the 30th, and will pay Wolfe $10,000 for her return before then. It seems he is concerned that she may had gone off to Venezuela to talk to her former husband, who has a document she signed agreeing to give him half of everything she owns. Wolfe dismisses him and tells Eads that either she pays the same sum to stay hidden or he will give her an 11-hour head start and then earn the same sum from the lawyer, which would still be her money of course. She balks and heads off into the night – and sadly gets herself killed, as does her maid who had a key to the apartment. Archie takes it hard, blaming himself, and so goes it alone with focussing his attentions on the maid’s husbans, Jennifer’s ex-husband, and the five heads of the company who will now inherit an equal share in the company.

“I can get along without omniscience, but I can’t get along with a goddam strangler going around being grateful to me for sending his victim to him”

Stout-PB-1-hbThis has so much memorable character stuff along with its great plot – Archie and Wolfe fall out, he goes off to investigate alone; when he gets arrested Wolfe, having suffered the indignity of being manhandled and taken down to the police station, takes Archie on as a client; Archie falls for Sarah Jaffe, the delightfully scatterbrained widow of a Korean vet and helps her get over her grief; and because when a third death occurs while Archie was talking on the phone to the victim at the time, he joins the cops as a consultant to crack the case. But of course it is Wolfe, having gathered all the suspects together, who finally finds the ultimately simple but elegant solution to all three murders.

“What’s that noise you are making?”
“It’s something special,” I told him, “and takes a lot of practice. Don’t try it offhand. It’s a derisive chortle.”

This sees Stout and Wolfe at something like their postwar best and is truly a joy from start to finish. The TV version is almost as good, eliminating only one minor character entirely (the volatile husband of the maid) but is otherwise incredibly faithful, using nearly all the dialogue (and voice over) and sticking religiously to the narrative as it appears in the book – for fans it is hard to imagine this could have been done with any more love for its literary source and is splendid stuff throughout. Kari Matchett is perfect casting as Sarah Jaffe, and is one of the repertory of actors who appeared regularly throughout the show, usually in different roles every week (she plays Lily Rowan in some episodes in fact), an eccentric idea reminiscent of the stock company of actors employed in the Thin Man movies etc, but which is very unusual for modern TV – it works wonderfully well here, helping to sell the rarefied and artificial style to perfection.

The Goodwin-Wolfe interplay, as played by Timothy Hutton (who co-produced and in addition directed several episodes) and Maury Chaykin, is rendered very well and this first season, beautifully shot in eye-popping HD by Derek Rogers, makes for a great celebration of the world created by Stout, with a lovely big-band style score by Michael Small to help drive the stories along at a snappy pace – if you haven’t watched these, you really should.

DVD Availability: A&E released a decent but sadly panned and scanned version of the show several years ago – it has come out in some other territories since then, including Holland and Australia, but none in widescreen. However, the Australian release does present it in its 90-minute version (as opposed to two 45-minute episodes) with about 4 minutes of extra scenes.

Prisoner’s Base / Nero Wolfe Mysteries (2002)
Director: Neill Fearnley
Producer: Howard Braunstein, Timothy Hutton, Michael Jaffe, Susan Murdoch
Screenplay: Lee Goldberg & William Rabkin
Cinematography: Derek Rogers
Art Direction: Lindsey Hermer-Bell
Music: Michael Small
Cast: Timothy Hutton, Maury Chaykin, Bill Smitrovich, Colin Fox, Kari Matchett, Shauna Black, Saul Rubinek, James Tolkan, Ron Rifkin, Conrad Dunn

I offer this review as part of Bev’s 2014 Vintage Golden Age Mystery Challenge in the ‘Detective team’ category:

vintage-golden-card-marked-21

***** (4 fedora tips out of 5)

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41 Responses to PRISONER’S BASE (1952) by Rex Stout

  1. Sergio – Oh, I’m so glad you enjoyed this one. It is classic Stout isn’t it? And I though the television adaptation was great. Of course, I’m biased, because I always liked Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton as Wolfe and Goodwin respectively. That said though, I think it stays close enough to the original to satisfy the cranky purist in my, but still adds the ‘stuff’ that a good TV adaptation needs. Thanks as ever for the terrific insights.

  2. Colin says:

    Wonderful! I’ve been hoping for a while now that you’d get round to looking at more Stout. I really enjoyed this book and agree wholeheartedly that the dialogue sparkles (but that’s not really so unusual) and the character stuff satisfies. I think the plot’s a good one as well, which isn’t always the case with Stout.
    Never seen the TV show – well, bits and pieces only – so must add that to the list.

    • Thansk Colin – yes, I agree, not always easy to remembr the Stout plots but the characters and the world are wonderful get immersed in. The TV version, especially season 1, is nigh on perfection frankly – if you love the books you’ll probably love the series, simple as that …

      • Colin says:

        I’m in the mood for some Wolfe at the moment and plan to read the Zeck trilogy (which I’ve never gotten round to before) in the autumn.

        • The Zeck books are great, and definitely to be read in the right order!

          • Colin says:

            Don’t worry, I have them right – I think…

          • Definitely And Be a Villain first, The Second Confession and finally Even in the Best Families – just thought we’d get that straight! :)

          • Colin says:

            Phew! That’s the way I have them lined up – looking forward to getting stuck in to all three.

          • :) I saved them up for ages actually and I’m glad to say that, for me at least, they really paid off. I also really like the collection of novellas like Black Orchidsd and Curtains for Three – they are usually 70 pages per novella and really work well at that length (and were perfect when adapted for the TV show too).

          • Colin says:

            Oh yes. I’m a big fan of the short stories/novellas too and have actually read more of those of late. I think the last full novel I read was Some Buried Caesar, which was a cracker.

          • Actually, I have it but have yet to read it – thanks for the reminder chum.

          • Colin says:

            My reminding you about mystery stories to read may well be a first!
            I practically guarantee you’ll enjoy the book when you get to it.

          • Can;t wait chum – I’d be on it right away if onyl I didn’t have my reading for the next 3 months mortgaged to conquer Bev’s fiendish reading challenge … :)

  3. TracyK says:

    When you said that you were reviewing this one, I could not remember the plot, but now it all comes back. I like the stock company used in these episodes. Kari Matchett is a favorite. I am going to have to watch this one again soon.

    DeAndrea and his wife Jane Haddam both were big fans of the Nero Wolfe books. I have read most of Haddam’s book (not the earlier ones using her own name) but haven’t tried DeAndrea’s books yet.

    • Thanks TracyK – It’s been a while since I read DeAndreea but he loved the combination of hardboiled Archie and the traditional cosy whodunit that comes with genius detective Wolfe. Stout deserves to be remembered just for that great combination. Not read anythign by Haddam / Papazoglou but have some on the shelves.

      • TracyK says:

        I have not read any of the Papazoglou books yet either. I plan to. The absolute best Haddam book is the first one… NOT A CREATURE WAS STIRRING.

        • Thanks for that TracyK – pretty sure that is not one of the ones I have – in fact, hang on … darn, was hoping to find the one I thought I had on the shelf, but nothing … right, may well start with Stirring then, thanks!

  4. Santosh Iyer says:

    I have read the book and also seen the TV episode. I enjoyed the TV film more than the book, since several irrelevant portions of the book are omitted from the film making it fast paced.
    The suspense is maintained throughout. It is not only a very good murder mystery but a decent comedy as well.

  5. Santosh Iyer says:

    The TV film consists of 2 episodes. At the end of first episode, when the credits are displayed, one actor is shown as representing two characters. I am sure that if the Puzzle Doxtor was reviewing it, he would have warned against this “spoiler” !

    • Yes, I noticed that – admittedly at the end of episode 1, when Mrs Jaffe exits, you have no reason for knowing that the two-name business is relevant but obviously one tends to get suspicious. The two episodes were often screened toogether as a single movie-length entry so a single set of titles were created and uplicated – but I agree, definitely spoilerish :)

  6. Excellent review. It’s been many years since I devoured a load of Nero Wolfe titles (possibly 20 or 30 – years that is!) so much has faded from memory – and I find there’s always the problem that if you read a lot of a series at the same time (Maigret being a case in point) they can tend to blur together a bit. But this rings bells in the memory – maybe I should start rediscovering Stout’s books!

    • Thanks very much Karen – actually, I find that they blur together even jyst after a few months! But that just makes the pleasure of getting reacquainted all the greater :)

  7. I’ve liked any Stouts that I have read, but I don’t think this is among them – and didn’t see the TV series at all. TracyK’s reviews always make me feel I should read more of him, and now that you’ve weighed in too it’s hard to resist!

    • Just give in Moira! Having said that, I am not sure how well they stand up from a sartorial standpoint though Stout is inscredibly precise about eveything, from furnishing to Wolfe’s yellow pajamas!

  8. Some purists nit-picked this TV series into the ground, but I enjoyed it. Hopefully a Blu-ray version will show up in the U.S. sometime soon. I liked the novel, too. But my favorite Nero Wolfe novel is THE GOLDEN SPIDERS.

    • Thanks George – a Blu-ray, in widescreen, would be absolutely great! I recently watched a new Italian adaptation of Spiders in which Archie and Wolfe relocated to Italy (!) and the boy is turned into Chinese girl – and it still worked! This should tell us you something about the strength of the original novel!

  9. Yvette says:

    One of my favorite Wolfe books even if the blood-letting does get a little out of hand AND even if two characters we’d come to know and like get killed. There, I can say no more. I love the scene when Archie becomes Wolfe’s client. Perfection. Rex Stout always kept Wolfe and Archie’s personalities in the forefront no matter what was happening. Even if Wolfe could, occasionally, behave appallingly. Stout never ever played false with them. If you know what I mean. It was so helpful that he was a genius. :)

  10. Kelly says:

    I’m going to have to look up that show. I love the idea of a stock cast, and I’ve just discovered (what took me so long?) that I’m a Hutton fan, thanks to watching LEVERAGE on Netflix.

  11. John says:

    Let me start with an almost entirely off topic exclamation: That’s” Mr. Pinstripe Suit” by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy in the montage you posted! Love that group. Been years since I listened to the many CDs of their music I own.

    Timothy Hutton may not be the ideal actor to play Archie Goodwin, but he and Chaykin were damn good in those shows. Great chemistry. I liked the idea of their stock company of actors and Kari Matchett was always interesting whatever she did in the series. She did especially fine work in Too Many Clients, another two part movie. I haven’t read many of the novels because I just can’t get excited about Nero Wolfe and company on paper, but you make a great case for this one. If I have it I’ll make sure it’s the next Nero Wolfe book I read.

    • Thanks chum – I couldn’t resist using that clip as I still love those bands from the Swing revival such as Big Bad Voodoo, Brian Setzer, Royal Crown Revue (even the dodgily named Cherry Poppin’ Daddies) – as for Stout, I used to feel the same way as you, but I am now completely sold on the atmosphere, humour and characters from the books, which I thought was captured so well in the show (loved Hutton’s delivery also as director of The Doorbell Rang).

  12. Sergio, you’ll have to excuse me for playing the dumb witness here for I have read nothing by Rex Stout although I do know about Wolfe and Goodwin. As far as “Prisoner’s Base,” goes, I think Stout weaves a nice little plot around the two of them taking care to give each character his own space so that neither stands out more than the other. I’ll have to give Stout a push up my TBR pile.

  13. Bev Hankins says:

    The title Prisoner’s Base did nothing for me…so I thought I hadn’t read it. But then your delightful review told me all about the plot and I know I did read it (in the mists of time, apparently). Or maybe it was one of the episodes that I managed to watch….now I’m going to have get my hands on a copy and (re) read it and be sure!

  14. kathy d. says:

    I haven’t read this one, but I am very fond of Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe. Somehow, revisiting the West Side brownstone is an anchor in the sea of chaotic world events. If only we could partake of Fritz’s dinners!
    I adore the TV series with Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton — great chemistry. I think Hutton does an excellent job of portraying Archie, wisecracks and all. Love the music, decor, the ambiance.
    On the books, I read some as a teenager years ago. But when I began reading readers’ blogs, got reinspired to dig into the canon by Yvette’s hilarious posts about the dynamic duo. And keep meaning to read more of the books I haven’t opened yet. What a treat!

  15. Pingback: Where’s Papa going with that ax? The #1952book challenge | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

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