• And Be a Villain: Montreal Standard May 7, 1949
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And Be a Villain: Montreal Standard May 7, 1949
And Be a Villain: Montreal Standard May 7, 1949

In And Be A Villain murder is broadcast live over the radio. It is the first of three Nero Wolfe novels that involve crime boss Arnold Zeck and his widespread operations. (The others are The Second Confession and In the Best Families.)

Opens with Wolfe's income tax payment. Motivated by money alone, Nero involves himself in a crime which has been broadcast over a great national network. A leading lady of the microphone interviews a racetrack tout and a professor of mathematics. In the course of the interview, as a plug for one of the sponsors, a noted soft-drink manufacturer, each guest is served a bottle of the beverage. To the astonishment of the radio public, the embarrassment of the soft-drink manufacturer, and the annoyance of the New York Police Department, the racetrack oracle instantly drops dead of cyanide poisoning. How did cyanide get into the drink? And how could anyone be sure that the tout would receive the fatal bottle? Or, for that matter, was the poisoned bottle intended for him at all?

This is only the beginning of a case more complicated than any Nero ever faced before. To solve it requires a degree of tramping around New York and rounding up of suspects far beyond the sedentary habits of Nero, and even beyond Archie Goodwin's capacity for swift motion and rapid-fire interrogation. There's only one thing for Nero to do. He must put the New York police force to work for him.

Selected as one of Stout's four best detective novels by Barzun and Taylor, And Be a Villain is also significant as the first novel in the Zeck trilogy, where Nero Wolfe faces off against a Moriarty-ish Napoleon of Crime by the name of Zeck. This story features some choice scenes of Wolfe ranting.

This is one of three Wolfe stories using clueing related to relatively arcane mathematical trivia: "The Zero Clue" in Three Men Out, And Be a Villain, and Death of a Doxy.

What IS the "the second approximation of the normal law of error,
sometimes called the generalized law of error?" (Chapter 8)

The original hardcover print of the book printed the formula in this way:

(Click the formula above to view a larger image)

CORRECTION from Later Printing of AND BE A VILLAIN
(Click the formula above to view a larger image)

Note that the formula "exponent" following the last brace on the far right, differ:

  • Early printing has -1/2 and the X & D raised to the 2nd power
  • Later printings have -1/3 and the X & D raised to the 3rd power

Wayne Holland & Lee-Ellen Van Voorhis, on the Wolfe Pack Facebook , discovered this interesting anomaly. Lee-Ellen took it one step further and asked her brother, a math graduate student, which one was accurate. Turns out the first printing correctly printed the "final exponent." Click here to read his detailed explanation as well as his discovery that there is a printing error in all versions: the initial "V" should be a "square root radical.

Super Sleuth: The Genesis of Arnold Zeck's Name

I often wonder how Rex Stout came up with the names of his characters.  A recent obituary in The New York Times may reveal the answer, at least in regard to a memorable Stout villain, Arnold Zeck.

Zeck figures in a trilogy of Wolfe novels:  And Be A Villain, 1948; The Second Confession, 1949, and In the Best Families, 1950.

Stout was always involved in the politics of his day and would certainly have been following the Nuremberg trials of 1947 and 1948.  There, one of the legal team that prosecuted I.G. Farben for war crimes was a lawyer named William A. Zeck.  Coincidence?  I don't think so.

The real Mr. Zeck died in 2002.  His wife, Belle Mayer Zeck, a co-prosecutor who married him after the trials, died on April 5, 2006.

by Ettagale Blauer


"That unspeakable prepared biscuit flour! Fritz and I have tried it. Those things she calls Sweeties! Pfui! And that salad dressing abomination -- we have tried that too, in an emergency. What they do to stomachs heaven knows, but that woman is ingeniously and deliberately conspiring in the corruption of millions of palates. She should be stopped!" (p. 16)


All the characters feel very distinct, and the "setting" of the radio show and the surrounding marketing and advertising industry feels very detailed and real. IMO, the story starts with a bang, has some great twists, no boring supporting characters or filler (not that there's no filler, but what there is, is interesting!) and never really stops. In Chapter One, Wolfe and Archie are having one of their characteristic wrangles about how to keep the brownstone running and solvent. Wolfe is irritating Archie by turning down well-paying jobs when it's almost time for them to pay their taxes... and then by sending a "man-sized check" to a World Government organization... and then by ignoring Archie and reading the poetry of Mark Van Doren instead of working!! 

Archie needles Wolfe about all this until Wolfe tells him angrily "Leave the room!" ... Archie does not leave the room. 

But, his needling has worked: Wolfe starts fishing around for a case!

The Case

Wolfe gets himself hired to solve a murder, that of Mr. Orchard, who published a horse-racing tip sheet. The murder happened on live radio, which is exciting. Archie and Wolfe are looking into this without much luck until Chapter 12, when they finally learn radio host Madeline Fraser's terrible secret-- that she's allergic to Starlite, the fizzy soda drink that she has to actually serve and drink, live, on her radio show. Once they know the cyanide was actually in Madeline's bottle of fake Starlite (aka cold coffee) everything gets shaken up and twisted around-- as Cramer says, "We've got to start all over. It's one of those goddam babies where the wrong person got killed."

By Chapter 19 Wolfe, Archie and Cramer have the whole blackmail scheme figured out, and understand how it played into the deaths of Mr. Orchard and Ms. Poole (although it is still confusing them that Orchard was killed, when the poison was in Madeline's coffee.) They've also managed to cross Arnold Zeck!

Wolfe at this point advises Cramer to put extra men on Elinor Vance, to see if she's been getting anonymous letters and hopefully to find some. (He doesn't explain why to Cramer, and I'm not sure why either...) Wolfe also comes up with a plan of his own: write a fake blackmail letter, addressed to Elinor Vance, and send Archie over to Madeline's to show it around and get reactions. While they're over there, Deborah Koppel dies of eating a poisoned cookie. (She had previously tried to leave town, and Wolfe suspects she was going back to her hometown to re-examine her brother's suicide note.)

(I feel like Elinor really only exists to be a red herring. In hindsight, we ought to realize that she's a red herring, because she's the only woman who DOESN'T have a mysterious, possibly blackmail-worthy death in her past-- Deborah and Madeline both have the death of Lawrence Koppel (Deborah's brother and Madeline's husband) which should make us suspicious right away. And then once Deborah Koppel dies, I think the murderer's identity is obvious-- the only reasonable suspects are Deborah and Madeline, and if it wasn't Deborah... Plus, Madeline had more access to her fake Starlite bottle.)

After some wrangling with the cops, Cramer is ordered to assemble everyone in the office for an interrogation, and he's nice enough to lampshade that it's not actually likely that these people would *want* to assemble in Wolfe's office, late at night, to be interrogated:

Cramer: "Maybe we can't get them."
Archie: "You can try. You're an inspector and murder is a very bad crime."

Once everyone is in the office, Wolfe addresses the room, and ANNOYS ME, because masculine pronouns are not universal! For a guy who will not let "infer" and "imply" be used interchangeably, and who won't allow "contact" to be used as a verb, Wolfe is pretty careless with his words here:

"I should begin," he said with just a trace of peevishness, "by admitting that I am in a highly vulnerable position. I have told Mr Cramer that when he leaves here he will take a murderer with him; but though I know who the murderer is, I haven't a morsel of evidence against him, and neither has anyone else. Still--"


Obviously the murderer is Madeline (okay, I say "obviously" but I totally never get who the murderer is before Wolfe tells. But if I have to write the recap then I get to pretend that I do. *G*) Wolfe tells Archie to sit next to her just in case she still has her gun with her, because she is "deft as a bear's tongue." But nothing happens, the case is solved and Wolfe gets paid! 

THE END... or is it? We end in the office, with Archie listening in as Wolfe is thanked by Zeck for staying out of *his* side of the case...