Lost Civilizations and Found Adventures:
A Reluctant Confession About The Second Confession
The Second Confession, by Rex Stout (1949). PB
One of the lovely things about Rex Stout is the amazingly complex, yet simple style of his mysteries. Nero Wolfe mysteries are small, quaint things. They are not massive door stops of overwrought purple prose, nor books with angry titles and salacious covers. They are so plain and seemingly every-day boring that you might be dismissive, until you begin to unwrap the plain paper wrapper and discover that actually the package contains a wealth of nuanced brilliance. Sometimes the greatest treasures are hidden in plain sight.
I often find myself going through this process during the reads. Oh, what a simple title. Oh, what a boring character with such an annoying manner. Oh, what a simple little mystery. But then, by the end, you have had a series of “Oh my!” moments and are once again standing in that office inside the brownstone on West 35th Street, facing his desk and acknowledging just what a genius Nero Wolfe truly is.
Rex Stout, the author of America’s most famous master detective series, deserves an award. Oh, wait, he was given several. Sigh. Well, might as well open a few beers, sit back, and listen to what Nero Wolfe has to say. He is, after all, the greatest genius of them all. Besides, regardless of your opinion or contrary thoughts on the matter, he will set you straight. It is always his way or the highway. “Usually when you hire a man to do something he thinks you’re the boss. When you hire Wolfe he thinks he’s the boss.”
The Second Confession is the second book to feature archvillain Arnold Zeck, a crimelord who is someone to be feared and the only recurrent villain in the Nero Wolfe series (he appeared in three of the books). It was one of those moments when I picked it up that I thought, “Boring title. Did he name this book that because it is the second Zeck novel?” Of course not, and the title actually works doubly well once you finish the book (see what I did there?). I do not know how much pre-planning Rex Stout put into his series (I suspect quite a bit) but it has to be more than coincidental that Arnold Zeck makes his first appearance in the thirteenth book in the series, And Be A Villain. I am eventually going to do a review of all three books in the Zeck arc, but today we are focusing only on this second book, because of its subject matter is now timely again.
The Second Confession starts in an odd way, before it grows to involve a murder. Nero Wolfe is approached by a prominent industrialist with the seemingly simple task of discovering if a lawyer by the name of Louis Rony is a card-carrying Communist or not. The magnate is asking because Rony is courting his daughter for marriage and he suspects the man to be a Communist, so if he can uncover proof he can break off the engagement. Nero Wolfe is the desperate last chance, because in fact the industrialist has been trying to prove this against the man for some time, with several other detective agencies failing to find evidence. Naturally, Nero Wolfe is a very reluctant to enter this domestic quagmire.
The reason I wanted to review this book today is because of this Communist themed plot. The news is filled with renewed threats and plots from Russia, its oligarchic master Putin, and the growing web of connections and seeming collusion with President Trump’s administration. The Second Confession first appeared in 1949 at the dawn of the Cold War. The threat of Communism came to dominate American politics for the next fifty years, and lead to such extremities as Red Scares, blacklistings, and Communist witch hunts by zealots such as Senator McCarthy. This was the start of it all and the fear of Communism was very real in 1949.
Of course the gentle beginning of a simple task at a dinner party with Archie trying to discern if Rony was in fact a card-carrying Commie, soon takes a turn as he begins to unpeel the layers of the onion of familial and business machinations and is drugged for his trouble. The plot jumps off a cliff when Nero Wolfe’s very own Moriarty enters the case. See, a simple thread leads to a very complex knot. Things get interesting very quickly, however, because Arnold Zeck calls to warn Nero Wolfe to call off the investigation. Now, Nero Wolfe knows he has accidentally grabbed a major tiger by the tale. Arnold Zeck is a mafia don type leader of an international crime cartel and the only man whom Nero Wolfe fears. It is interesting that the Zeck character always elicits fear and Nero is honest about it.
“Wolfe shook his head. ‘You’re expecting a good deal of yourself. I’m more than twice your age, and up with you in self-esteem, but I’m afraid of someone.’”
This is very different from Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty. Sherlock always expressed fascination and admiration for the evil intellect of Moriarty, but he doesn’t outright fear the man. Nero Wolfe fears Arnold Zeck. He repeatedly has to scold Archie for mentioning him or attempting to go after him. In fact he orders Archie to never even say his name. He makes it extremely clear that Arnold Zeck is not just a crime lord, but an extremely evil, psychotic killer.
Nevertheless, Nero Wolfe persists in his investigation. He knows the risk and offers Archie an out. Archie declines and remains at his side. Nero Wolfe reveals to Archie that he has a secret bank account set up for either battle or retirement. If they must they will flee the brownstone and hide there to fight Zeck, or, if Nero is killed, Archie is to retire there and live off the money. Of course, when Nero Wolfe persists, things turn very violent. This is a very personal violence, an emotional violence more than just a act of destruction. I find the psychology of this fascinating, because it is akin to a rape or psychological intimidation rather than an attempt at murder. It shows the depths of Zeck’s evil.
One side note on the style of Rex Stout. He never shows much outright violence in the books. There are not many gruesome details or scenes of heads erupting and bloody sprays or pools of scarlet in these books. He describes things fine and you definitely know what is happening, but often it comes second hand, in description from Archie or a client telling Nero Wolfe the overview as he rocks back in his chair sipping beer. A perfect example of this oddness happened in this book. We have one of the most dramatic moments in the series, when Zeck directly attacks Nero Wolfe in his home and destroys his plant room with no less than machine guns, and yet we are told this scene in an offhand, almost secondary observational mention of its effect on Nero Wolfe:
Then I saw I wasn’t standing on the stone of the stoop but on a piece of glass, and if I didn’t like that piece there were plenty of others. They were all over the stoop, the steps, the areaway, and the sidewalk. I looked straight up and another piece came flying down, missed me by a good inch, and crashed and tinkled at my feet. I backed across the sill, shut the door, and turned to face Wolfe who was standing in the hall looking bewildered.
That is all we get about the greatest personal assault on his home, with thugs machine gunning his rooftop flower gardens to smithereens. Odd, and yet so Stoutian that it is perfect. There is no need for pages of descriptions of angry gunmen, smoking machine guns clattered and belching a stream of hot lead into all the glass and tables and plants. He could have spent a dozen pages probably detailing the damage to different beautiful species of orchids, since in that rooftop hothouse Nero Wolfe had over 10,000 orchids in “glorious, exultant bloom.” Anyone who has read this series knows that orchids are Wolfe’s one overriding obsession. This is the point. Nero Wolfe is a creature of habit. It would have been incredibly easy to blow up the home he never leaves, poison the food at his favorite restaurant, or, as in this scene, to simply machine gun Nero Wolfe and Archie to death on the steps of their brownstone. Murder was not the purpose of this attack. It was not an assassination of the body, but of the soul. This was an incredibly cruel, personal desecration of Nero Wolfe’s sanctum sanctorum.
In perhaps the most pure moment of clarity in the series, we see Nero Wolfe become a man of instant action. The threat is real. He is up and leaving without hesitation, ready to leave his home and life without second thought. He prepares to go into semipermanent seclusion at his secret hideout until he can take down Arnold Zeck or is killed doing so. This is a revelation into Nero Wolfe’s character and, surprisingly, not a surprise at all for those of us who have spent years watching him never leave his house, to barely shuffle from bed to desk to plant room to dinner table. As his Montenegran freedom fighter past has alluded to, Nero Wolfe is very definitely a man of action when needed.
There is an odd twist in the plot when the subject of the Communist hunt, Rony, is murdered and Zeck then apologizes to Nero Wolfe, pays his greenhouse damages, and attempts to hire him to solve Rony’s murder, because Rony is his tool. Nero Wolfe declines to work with Zeck in any way, and yet undertakes solving the murder.
Nero Wolfe does so in a most satisfactory, yet convoluted way that involves everyone from the mightiest politicians to the most powerful crime lord, from the greatest of capitalists to the leaders of the Communist Party. I do not want to give away the climax, but he not only captures the murderer, not only unmasks the man’s dual identities, but he also maneuvers him into making two confessions. Plus, he chastises the man in that devastating way that only Nero Wolfe can and tells the man he is no longer human. One feels he is also, by extension, referring to Arnold Zeck and his ilk. Such is the brilliance of Nero Wolfe.
I must confess, this is one of my favorite mysteries.