In 1939’s Where There’s a Will by Rex Stout, Nero Wolfe gets visited by the famous Hawthorne sisters: June, wife of the U.S. Secretary of State; May, president of Varney College; and April, one of the greatest actresses ever. Their brother, Noel, one of the most powerful businessmen in the country, died in a hunting accident three days earlier at June and John Charles Dunne’s 25th anniversary party. The night before, the attorney, Glenn Prescott, read the will to the family, astonishing everyone by leaving an apple to June, a pear to May, and a peach to April, with the rest going to his mistress, Naomi Carn. To avoid a scandal, the sisters want to drop the issue, but Daisy, Noel’s widow, plans to contest the will. Daisy notoriously wears a veil after having been shot with an arrow by Noel and is full of bitterness and hatred.
When the group leaves at 4:00 at Wolfe’s time to go to his plant rooms, the famously lazy detective orders Archie to have Naomi Carn waiting for him at 6:00 when he comes downstairs. But when Archie arrives with the mistress, they find the entire Hawthorne/ Dunne family at Wolfe’s house, there unexpectedly to tell him that Daisy has already filed to contest the will. But before anyone gets very far, Inspector Cramer barges into the house and announces that they have discovered that Noel’s death was no accident but rather murder. This sends the entire family into chaos, and Wolfe gets hired by the already- beleaguered Secretary of State to find the murderer before it destroys the rest of his career.
Where There Is a Will is a fun mystery novel with a unique plot and a clever solution. Any Nero Wolfe book is well- written, with an effective mystery and creative characters. (Disclosure: I am a huge fan of the series and am a dues- paying member of the Wolfe Pack, the official Nero Wolfe society.) The basic premise of the will, along with the details of how Wolfe solves the case, provide a lof of fascination.
This book provides a fascinating plot, and it is interesting to see occasional mentions of the world political situation. In light of the fact that Stout served as head of the Writers’ War Board during World War II and was always active politically, such political statements, such as worry over news from Europe, have interest. A significant plot element is that Noel Hawthorne made a lot of money with seeming advanced knowledge of a loan to Argentina. This made Dunne appear to have colluded with his brother-in-law to help his relative make money, sending him on the brink of losing his position.
In any Nero Wolfe book, the humor and the characters provide the highlight of the book, and Where There Is a Will is no exception. Each character, both the regular ones and the guest stars of the book, has a strong personality. I feel that if I met one of them on the street, I’d know that person immediately.
The audio version of this book is performed by Michael Pritchard, perhaps my favorite narrator ever. Pritchard uses strong expression for all the elements of the book, with realistic voices for each character. Pritchard truly makes this book even more enjoyable than merely reading it would be.
I highly recommend Where There Is a Will as a good example of a Nero Wolfe book. By now, Stout had settled the key details of his books, but this book still maintains some of the freshness of the earlier books. Some reviewers like to make a big deal about the fact that this was the first book in which Stout included sex in any of his books, sex being a significant factor in most after this one. But I just like to focus on how fun the whole book is. I give it five stars!
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