Gambit

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by Rex Stout (1962)
Slapdash Review

A late Nero Wolfe novel, written in 1962 by a 75-year-old Rex Stout trying to pretend he's still the 30-ish narrator of all Nero Wolfe stories, Wolfe's wisecracking semi-tough assistant Archie Goodwin. Stout is capable of pulling off that trick, but it does not quite succeed here in Gambit. Stout was much more successful in some even later stories, such as the superb A Right to Die (1964), The Doorbell Rang (1965), Death of a Doxy (1966), Death of a Dude (1969), and the final A Family Affair (1975) written when Stout was 88. Unfortunately, Gambit cannot compare with the quality of those five even later novels.

Gambit once again, similarly to (for example) Might As Well Be Dead (1956), marks Rex Stout's resignation in terms of the standard dénouement of a whodunnit as it is known in classic mystery novels. It's as if you could see Rex Stout throwing up his hands, saying in an apologetic voice to his readers: “Sorry, folks, I simply cannot think of any surprising resolution to this mystery. So, the name of the murderer is XY; and since we still have 30 pages or so left to go, let's just watch together how Nero Wolfe catches the culprit.”

Fortunately, the value of Nero Wolfe mysteries does not lie in their mystery aspect – otherwise Gambit would have to be called a total failure. Archie Goodwin exaggerates a lot when he says Wolfe's charade at the end of Gambit is among the finest Wolfe ever concocted; not so – the charade is all too obvious and disappointing. What's even worse, the mechanism of catching the culprit (4-word SPOILER: microphones in a restaurant) is the same as in an earlier Nero Wolfe novel, and both Goodwin and Wolfe unabashedly admit the fact, even seem to take pride in it. Unfortunately, all of that is at the expense of the fun a reader rightfully expects from the conclusion of a mystery.

At that, Gambit starts off promisingly: the murder of a chess player and a seemingly intricate plot. However, the excitement evaporates as the story progresses. The worst segment of Gambit are definitely its final few chapters; it's not just that they're not surprising or exciting – they're also too drawn out, with Nero Wolfe and others reiterating all over again everything the reader was already presented with on the foregoing pages.

So, is Gambit a totally worthless novel? Not at all. That's because, as already stated, what really matters in Nero Wolfe mysteries is not the whodunnit. The important thing is the Wolfe & Archie microcosm, the (frequently humorous) relationships and tensions of people who inhabit it. The microcosm includes outsiders such as (most prominently) Inspector Cramer (in fine form in Gambit) and the three helpers Saul, Fred, and Orrie. Through the microcosm, you also get a regular glimpse of the life and morals of New York's upper class. All of these crucial ingredients of Nero Wolfe stories are well represented in Gambit.

What's more, this particular story opens with one of the best chapters in the entire Wolfe Corpus, showing the Big Detective burning the Big (Merriam Webster) Dictionary in the fireplace of his front room; he continues to engage in this fascinating activity throughout the entire opening chapter.

Rated D+ on a scale of A+ to F-.

--Faterson 13:48, 6 October 2007 (CEST)
[original writing time between 12:04:30 & 12:36:35 (CET) on Wednesday, 16 May 2007]

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