The Silent Speaker: First Edition
The Silent Speaker: First Editioin

Dictaphone MachineThere has been no new full-length Nero Wolfe mystery novel in six years, a wartime shortage which we are delighted to remedy. The brilliant deductive methods of the fabulous fat man, beloved by so many thousands of readers, are put to another stiff test. It is a pleasure to report that Archie is back from the wars as Wolfe's leg man (Nero himself has been a consultant for the War Department).

A murder has been committed, so daring and with such vital national implications that the whole country is shaken. The newspapers are having a field day; the corridors in Washington are buzzing with gossip. The murder took place at the Waldorf, just before the annual dinner of the National Industrial Association, as the guests sipped cocktails in the adjoining room. The murdered man was none other than Cheney Boone, the Director of the Bureau of Price Regulation, who was scheduled to be the principal speaker before this group of the country's leading business men, industrialists, and manufacturers. Why has he been silenced -- and by whom?

Again Rex Stout proves that he is still the old maestro in the field of the murder story lightened with wit and written with intelligence and skill. The Viking Press, which has not published a mystery for years, is proud to re-enter the field with this odds-on favorite.

dicataphone wax cylinder"I was aware that Wolfe could move without delay when he had to, and, knowing what his attitude was toward anybody's hand touching him, I had prepared myself for motion when I saw Ash grab his arm, but the speed and precision with which he slapped Ash on the side of his jaw were a real surprise, not only to me but to Ash himself." (p. 199)

"Fritz was standing there, four feet back from the door to the office, which was standing open, staring wide-eyed at me. When he saw I was looking at him he beckoned me to come, and the thought popped into my mind that, with guests present and Wolfe making an oration, that was precisely how Fritz would act if the house was on fire." (p. 118)

One of my favorites: the clash between the National Industry Association and the Bureau of Public Regulation, as played out in the murder of Cheney Boone. At one point, Inspector Cramer is fired; Wolfe is actually arrested (for the first time), and has recourse to violence against the person of Inspector Ash, Cramer's replacement. [Winnifred Louis]

I always enjoy reading books written in the 1940s for the way they depict contemporary life, and routines interrupted by the war. There's a slight, but nevertheless jarring impact when the story suddenly includes, say, armed guards atop a dam in Chandler's Lady in the Lake. Then there's Rex Stout's The Silent Speaker, the first Nero Wolfe novel to be published after the war, when US industry was still "hampered," I suppose they'd say, by the government's strict price controls.
Photo from CBS archives
CBS Listening Post CylindersIt's actually a neat little mirror of what's going on in Wolfe's brownstone. With the war over and Archie returned to civilian life, there's nothing our heroes would rather do than get back to work and make a little money. So would the captains of American industry, who don't appreciate the government dragging its feet in getting price restrictions lifted. So when a representative of the Bureau of Price Regulation ends up beaten to death with a monkey wrench just before he was to give a major speech to those captains of industry, Wolfe and Archie have dozens of potential killers to consider. Naturally, the narrative quickly reduces the number of suspects to only about nine or ten really interesting characters, particularly Phoebe Gunther, who immediately makes a case for herself in Archie's heart.

After finishing the book, I read that the producers of A&E's A Nero Wolfe Mystery adapted it in two parts. I was already thinking what a terrific two-part teleplay this would make, as right about halfway through the book, Wolfe has made one of his usual assemblages of relevant parties, with Archie diligently taking notes, when Fritz interrupts to get Archie's attention. One invited guest never made it to the brownstone; Fritz has found her body out front, beneath the street level and the entry stairs. It's just a deliciously mean twist to the story, which is never less than enthralling. Certainly, this is a novel which I will delight in rereading once I make it through the canon in a year or so's time. Recommended. []

OTHER: Missing Cylinders

The concept of the dictation machine was somewhat novel in the 1940s. Rex Stout would have knowledge of it because during the war years (1941-1945) he virtually stopped writing and devoted his time to a variety of war-support efforts, including work for The Writers War Board and on a CBS radio program. "Our Secret Weapon," written by the members of the WWB. The photo above is from the CBS archives.