Some buried Caesar: A Nero Wolfe mystery
"Some Buried Caesar" was first published 70 years ago, and it's one of Stout's best early Wolfe novels. It's an "away from the brownstone" story. Wolfe travels to rural upstate New York to exhibit his albino orchids at a county fair. Odd for an agoraphobic, or at least travel-phobic man? Yes, but Wolfe was confronting someone Archie Goodwin, Wolfe's dogsbody, calls "an enemy". In Archie's words:
"The above-mentioned enemy that Wolfe was being gracious to was a short fat person in a dirty unpressed mohair suit, with keen little black eyes and two chins, by the name of Charles E. Shanks. I watched them and listened to them as I sipped the milk, because it was instructive. Shanks knew that the reason Wolfe had busted precedent and come to Crowfield to exhibit albinos which he had got by three new crosses with Paphiopedilum lawrenceanum hyeanum was to get an award over one Shanks had produced by crossing P. callosum sanderae with a new species from Burma, that Wolfe desired and intended to make a monkey of Shanks because Shanks had fought shy of the metropolitan show and had also twice refused Wolfe's offers to trade albinos, and that one good look at the entries in direct comparison made it practically certain that the judges' decision would render Shanks not only a monkey but even a baboon. Furthermore, Wolfe knew that Shanks knew that they both knew, but hearing them gabbing away you might have thought that when a floriculturist wipes his brow it is to remove not sweat but his excess of brotherly love, which is why, knowing the stage of vindictiveness Wolfe had had to arrive at before he decided on that trip, I say it was instructive to listen to them."
As always, Archie tells the story, in his own cheeky & genuine way, with many sharp observations. It's not Stout's terse late-style, but it's still very much Archie and lots of fun!
In "Some Buried Caesar", Archie's long-term "lady friend", Lily Rowan, makes her first appearance. This isn't the Lily of later Wolfe novels, but there are several Lily-Archie sparks & dialogues, right from the beginning where she calls him, "Escamillo" -- the manly bullfighter who stole Carmen away from her solider lover in Bizet's opera, "Carmen". That has ironic bite in context, a context I won't share. I'm not giving any plot hints, because surprises start in the first chapter, and why spoil them?
But to tease you into the book, let me add some dialogues from Archie/Lilly. This begins with Archie:
"Oh, possibly Clyde's father sicked them on. I know when I mentioned your name to him last night and said you were there, he nearly popped open. I got the impression he had seen you once in a nightmare. Not that I think you belong in a nightmare, with your complexion and so on, but that was the impression I got."
"He's just a pain." She shrugged indifferently. "He has no right to be talking about me. Anyway, not to you." Her eyes moved up me and over me, up from my chest over my face to the top of my head, and then slowly traveled down again. "Not to you, Escamillo," she said. I wanted to slap her, because her tone, and the look in her eyes going over me, made me feel like a potato she was peeling. She asked, "What did he say?"
And a little later, again starting with Archie:
"Did you and Clyde get engaged?"
"No." She looked at me, and the corner of her mouth turned up, and I saw her breasts gently putting the weave of the jersey to more strain as she breathed a deep one. "No, Escamillo." She peeled her potato again. "I don't suppose I'll marry. Because marriage is really nothing but an economic arrangement, and I'm lucky because I don't have to let the economic part enter into it."
There are wonderful bits of description, plot twists & dialogues on almost every page. Highlights include the surprises in the first few chapters, Archie's time in jail, and the denouement at the end. If you want a plot summary, go to Wikipedia, which has plot summaries of all Wolfe novels.
And a fun Archie description of a New York county fair in the Great Depression 1930's:
"It was another fine day and the crowd was kicking up quite a dust. Banners, balloons, booby booths, and bingo games were all doing a rushing business, not to mention hotdogs, orange drinks, popcorn, snake charmers, lucky wheels, shooting galleries, take a slam and win a ham, two-bit fountain pens, and Madam Shasta who reads the future and will let you in on it for one thin dime. I passed a platform whereon stood a girl wearing a grin and a pure gold brassiere and a Fuller brush skirt eleven inches long, and beside her a hoarse guy in a black derby yelling that the mystic secret Dingaroola Dance would start inside the tent in eight minutes. Fifty people stood gazing up at her and listening to him, the men looking as if they might be willing to take one more crack at the mystic, and the women looking cool and contemptuous. I moseyed along. The crowd got thicker, that being the main avenue leading to the grandstand entrance. I got tripped up by a kid diving betwen my legs in an effort to resume contact with mamma, was glared at by a hefty milkmaid, not bad-looking, who got her toe caught under my shoe, wriggled away from the tip of a toy parasol which a sweet little girl kept digging into my ribs with, and finally left the worst of the happy throng behind and made it to the Methodist grub tent, having passed by the Baptists with the snooty feeling of a man-about-town who is in the know."
All right, this isn't the "every word carrying its weight", mature-style Stout. Later Stout probably wouldn't have detoured the action, but I for one don't mind the detour when I'm having a good time. In "Some Buried Ceasar, I'm never impatient for Archie to get on with it, only glorying in the now-gone world Stout is weaving.
I've given extended Wolfe quotes mainly for the newcomers, and even for some old fans who have discarded Stout's earlier work. I love this writing, and I delight not only in reading, but also in re-reading, even knowing what's next. If these quotes entice or even just intrigue, buy this and give it a read. If you're a first-timer, or one whose fallen away, you may become/re-become a Wolfe fan, or as we say, a member of the Wolfe Pack!