Radio talk show host Madeline Fraser's worst nightmare comes true when one of her on-air guests collapses at the mike after drinking a glass of the sponsor's beverage.
As with all of Stout's Wolfe mysteries, the setting is contemporary with the time of its writing - in this case, 18 March - 3 April 1948, which makes it a period piece today. Radio, rather than television, was the dominant communication medium in the United States. Commercials were live, rather than pre-recorded; in the case of a talk show, the host would participate in the commercial in front of a live studio audience. (This persisted even into the early years of television. A Timex commercial that went seriously wrong, wherein the watch couldn't even be *found* after the it's-still-ticking test, persisted for decades in Johnny Carson's list of funniest incidents on his show, for example.) And at that time, a national income tax was a relatively new feature of life in the United States, and fell due on the 15th of March. All these factors matter in setting the stage for this story.
Hi-Spot, one of the sponsors of the Madeleine Fraser show, revelled in her live commercials for their product, wherein she and her guests would drink 'the drink you dream of.' But the PR dream turned into a nightmare when someone spiked one glass with cyanide, and Cyril Orchard, one of the show's guests in a discussion of gambling, died 'live' on the air.
But was the editor of _Track Almanac_ the intended victim? Among the suspects - some of whom may have been intended victims - emotions, blood, and money may have become entangled. Deborah Koppel, Fraser's business manager, is also her sister-in-law through Fraser's late husband - and her principal beneficiary. Does she blame Fraser for her brother's death?Read more ›
A few amusing vignettes, granted, but the writing (apart from literally one or two good lines) was middling at best, and the plot was hardly original or surprising -- although perhaps Madeline Fraser's secret would have been much more shocking in 1948 than it is today.
But the worst thing about this book was Wolfe himself. I just didn't find him convincing at all. (The other characters, though, were much more so, especially Archie, who admittedly was the narrator, which must work in his favour believability-wise.)
That's the problem with eccentic geniuses, I guess. You need to be a very good writer to pull them off. And Stout just ain't quite there. (Conan Doyle, whose Holmes & Watson Stout's Wolfe and Goodwin seem to be poor imitations of, was more successful with his great detective. Holmes, though equally eccentric, was somehow always palpably real. The character of Nero Wolfe, on the other hand, just seems artificial and contrived.)
That said, the episodes with Nancylee were funny. And the glimpses of the big-money sponsors' machinations were quite diverting too. Same goes for Archie and the way he reveals to the reader his frustrations with the "genius" Wolfe. It's just a shame the supporting characters are so much more compelling than the central one.