[Excerpt from book]
[A young man explains how he met the murder victim]
comments: It’s a while since I read a Rex Stout book – but this one sounded very appealing in TracyK’s post at her Bitter Tea and Mystery blog – her review is highly recommended, and explains more about the plot than I will. She said it was one of her favourites, so onto my list it went - and it is a corker, I absolutely loved it. The setup is this: Archie Goodwin, sidekick to private sleuth Nero Wolfe, and the narrator of the stories, is inveigled into going to a fancy dinner event in Manhattan. The assembled party includes a dysfunctional family, some eligible New York men, and a group of unmarried mothers. It is part of the rehabilitation of these women – they have been looked after by the family’s charity, their babies have been given up for adoption, and they are meant to be rebuilding their lives.
None of this stands up to much examination, but that doesn’t matter. One of the young mothers ends the evening dead – but who could wish that on her? And how did the cyanide get into her champagne glass? She had threatened suicide, and actually carried the poison around with her, and that would be a convenient verdict for everyone. But Archie was watching her, and says she certainly did not poison herself. (All this is nicely reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s Sparkling Cyanide – another excellent crime story.)
There is the usual flurry of events – witnesses are hauled into the Nero Wolfe brownstone, a client is found to pay for the investigation, and much pressure is put on Archie to let the suicide conclusion stand. There is some trailing round New York following people, and a memorable trip upstate to the home for unmarried mothers.
The book is full of fascinating glimpses of the morals of 1958. It is clear that Stout is very sympathetic and non-judgmental about the young woman whose lives have been upended by the conventions of the day. But still… it is also clear that Archie, that notorious ladies’ man, wouldn’t be walking out with them any day soon. Nero Wolfe says that if Archie is ever caught by a woman ‘she will have qualities that would make it impossible for her to share the fate of those forlorn creatures.’
Then there is this:
I learned that [he] had an old-fashioned streak. When I asked him what about her relations with men and got a vague answer, and made it more specific by asking if he thought she was a virgin, he said of course, since he had asked her to marry him. An old fogy at thirty-one.There is never the slightest consideration in the whole book of how the women might feel about giving their babies up (nor, of course, any idea that they might not do so). A very clear view of the way the world worked in those days.
And Archie’s encounter with the young pregnant women squeezing past his car on a snowy path is a memorable image
They would have been taken anywhere for a bunch of high school girls except for one thing: they were all too bulky around the middle.And they are all smiling at him – as Tracy says ‘It is such a small scene in the book but it has stuck with me for years.’
Archie has this interesting comment on dancing with the young women:
She danced cheerfully, and of course that was no good. You can’t dance cheerfully. Dancing is too important. It can be wild or solemn or gay or lewd or art for art’s sake, but it can’t be cheerful.I loved the way the story played out, the slow unearthing of the facts, the fascination of the setting. The solution was very slightly sub-par – the explanation of how Faith could have been poisoned when it seemed impossible was not really strong enough (imagine what John Dickson Carr would have done with that problem…) but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment. Tracy is absolutely right about this one.
VERY disappointingly, there are no clothes descriptions at all in Champagne for One. Such a missed opportunity, if I may say so, particularly as the young mothers would have dressed up for the social event. I have given them some feasibly smart dresses off my own bat, from Kristine:
The top picture is the right era, and had the feel of a man chatting up a young woman in a flower shop. From Kristine. Then I am always playing with the idea of what Archie might look like – and of course he always wears a hat and coat outdoors, so these were possibles.
I dunno.... Sounds like it's steeped in Mid-Century Modern Masculinity. :^0ReplyDelete
It is! When I quite like a book, I have my phrases ready 'very much of its time' and 'sociological document'.Delete
This is obviously very much of its time, but sometimes I think we haven't really moved on at all where attitudes to women are concerned. I've never read any Rex Stout. Is this a good one to start with?ReplyDelete
I know what you mean. It probably is a good one, although late in the oeuvre and having those problematic attitudes. But I thought it also had all the great aspects of the Nero Wolfe books, and introduces you nicely to all the regulars.Delete
This is a lovely post on Champagne for One, and I am glad that you liked it. (And thank you for mentioning my post.) I have been reading Nero Wolfe / Archie Goodwin stories since my teens, and it wasn't until I was in my forties and reading them in order that I began to notice Archie's sexist attitudes and stereotyping of "older" women (aged 40 and above). Of course, Archie's attitudes did not have to mirror Rex Stout's but still... It did not stop me reading them, though. I cannot remember if I noticed an improvement in his attitudes in the later books written in the 1970s. I have read those less often.ReplyDelete
As to imagining how Archie looks, I have done a lot of that with little success. Of the two TV adaptations, I have liked how Timothy Hutton does the role in the 2001 series, and I liked Lee Horsley in the 1981 series that starred William Conrad (only 14 episodes). But no one really does it perfectly.
Thanks Tracy - I'm really glad you put me onto this one.Since both you and Bill (below) mention Timothy Hutton I went and took a look, and he looked great to me as Archie.Delete
I think, like you, I will keep thinking of the unmarried mothers in their home upstate...
" I began to notice Archie's sexist attitudes and stereotyping of "older" women (aged 40 and above)." Read Stout's account of Archie's work with a middle aged California housewife in "Murder by the Book." There are unsuspected depths to Archie.Delete
Hmm - do I want to be put off him ;)? We just have to use our judgement I guess...Delete
I like your picture of Archie. I usually think of him in the figure of Timothy Hutton. On a tangent my favourite character on that series from 2000 - 2001 was Kari Matchett who played Lily Rowan and a few other characters. She was born just down the highway from Melfort, 60 km. at Spalding.ReplyDelete
That is interesting, Bill, Kari Matchett is one of my son's favorite actors in that show. We also liked her in Leverage.Delete
Bill and Tracy: Having looked up Timothy Hutton, I of course then looked up Keri Matchett, whom I hadn't otherwise heard of. She looked wonderful - but very different in that role than in other photos of her. I will look out for her.Delete
I wonder if the Nero Wolfe TV series wasn't shown in the UK? I am not aware of it, though that could be just that it passed me by.
I've got that pattern (top one)! Now all I need is a "5-pounds-thinner" girdle from Playtex...ReplyDelete
Have a read of Amy Vanderbilt from the 50s. She doesn't even mention unmarried mothers, but her opinions on second marriages of divorcees are chilling. The ceremony must be VERY quiet, with hardly any guests, NO newspaper announcement and /certainly not/ a white dress. A punitive tailored suit and dowdy hat must be worn. (Sorry I chucked the book now.)
I bought a dress similar to that last summer, that's partly why I noticed this one.Delete
Yes I'd heard that about second marriages. And also, was it not the case that the children of either partner shouldn't attend? Oh and the bride to carry a prayerbook rather than flowers. Always the good old days...
Can't resist... in 1957 when I was 7, my mom, a divorcee (gasp!), married my stepfather. She wore a very nice cocktail dress and carried flowers. I was supposed to be the flower girl. Oh, the utter bliss! BUT.... someone got to her and told her NO flower girls at second weddings.Delete
Years later mom said she regretted listening to that advice, and should have just gone ahead with the plan.
That must have been quite the disappointment for you at that age. Less room for busybodies these days - or probably not, but people feel more able to ignore them I think. And good for your mom with the white dress and flowers.Delete
Another author I should try at least one book by.ReplyDelete
Can't believe Tracy and I haven't persuaded you to at least one yet!Delete
Stout often has Archie comment knowledgably on the clothes a character is wearing (male or female) and set one of his Nero Wolfe mysteries - Man Alive - in a couture house. His second wife, Pola Hoffman, was a very influential textile designer in the NY fashion business on the 40s and 50s. She studied at the Kunstgewerbe in Vienna and is possibly the source for some of his insights on fabric and fashion.ReplyDelete
I know - unexpected moments! There's one called Red Threads that I blogged on a couple of years ago (2 posts!) which is full of fashion details, although it suffers from the lack of Nero Wolfe and Archie. You would totally be certain Stout's wife gave him the details.Delete