And Be a Villain

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And Be a Villain
Author Rex Stout
Cover artist Bill English
Country United States
Language English
Series Nero Wolfe
Genre Detective fiction
Publisher Viking Press
Publication date
September 27, 1948
Media type Print (Hardcover)
Pages 216 pp. (first edition)
Preceded by Too Many Women
Followed by Trouble in Triplicate

And Be a Villain (British title More Deaths Than One) is a Nero Wolfe detective novel by Rex Stout, first published by the Viking Press in 1948. The story was collected in the omnibus volumes Full House (Viking 1961) and Triple Zeck (Viking 1974).

Plot introduction[edit]

"I have to talk with that girl. Go and bring her."
I had known it was coming. "Conscious?" I asked casually.
"I said with her, not to her. She must be able to talk. You could revive her after you get her here. I should have sent you in the first place, knowing how you are with young women."
"Thank you very much. She's not a young woman, she's a minor. She wears socks."
"Yes, sir."
"Get her."

— Wolfe and Archie discussing the recalcitrant Nancylee Shepherd, And Be a Villain, chapter 8

A radio show guest is poisoned on the air during a plug for the show's sponsor, a soft-drink manufacturer. The negative publicity, and the low bank balance at tax time, brings Nero Wolfe into the case — and into his first recorded encounter with a shadowy master criminal.

And Be a Villain is the first of three Nero Wolfe books that involve crime syndicate leader Arnold Zeck and his widespread operations. The others in the Zeck Trilogy are The Second Confession and In the Best Families. In each book, Zeck — Wolfe's Moriarty — telephones Wolfe to warn him off an investigation that Zeck believes will interfere with his crime syndicate. Each time, Wolfe refuses to cooperate, and anticipates that there will be consequences.

The title is from Act I, Scene V, line 114 of William Shakespeare's Hamlet, in which the prince says of his murderous uncle Claudius, "That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain." Remarking on the change from Stout's title to More Deaths Than One for the British edition, Rev. Fredrick G. Gotwald wrote, "It seems strange that the name was changed in a country from which the original came."[1]

Plot summary[edit]

Collins Crime Club released the British first edition of More Deaths Than One (And Be a Villain) on February 21, 1949, with a dustjacket design by Leslie Stead

Cyril Orchard, the publisher of a weekly horse racing almanac, dies after being poisoned with cyanide during a live soft drink commercial on a popular radio talk show hosted by Madeline Fraser. A media sensation, the case attracts the attention of Nero Wolfe, who is facing a hefty income tax bill. Archie Goodwin is promptly dispatched to convince Fraser, her staff and a conglomerate of the producers and sponsors to hire Wolfe’s services to investigate the crime.

The police investigation has revealed eight suspects: Fraser herself; Deborah Koppel, Fraser's best friend and business manager; Tully Strong, the secretary of the show's Sponsor's Council; Fraser’s on-air sidekick Bill Meadows; Nathan Straub, a representative of the advertising agency who in turn represent several of Fraser’s sponsors; script-writer Elinor Vance; Nancylee Shepherd, a teenage admirer of Fraser’s and head of a fan-club; and F.O. Savarese, an assistant professor of mathematics and the show’s other guest. In an effort to determine as much as he can and try and find an in-road into solving the mystery, Wolfe meets with them as a group and separately, but is unable to determine much of apparent use.

Nancylee has been in hiding with her mother in Atlantic City since the affair began to avoid the attentions of the media. Although Saul Panzer is unable to convince the women to return to New York City, Archie manages to trick the two with a faked communication from Nancylee’s father, which convinces them to go to Wolfe's brownstone. During their interview, Wolfe learns that a separate bottle of Hi-Spot, the soft drink, identified with a piece of tape around the neck, is always provided for the commercial. Wolfe presses Fraser’s inner-circle with this information, and it is eventually revealed that Fraser is unable to drink Hi-Spot as it gives her indigestion. She thus drinks chilled coffee out of the specially marked bottle during the commercial. As it was the marked bottle that contained the cyanide, this indicates that Fraser was the murderer’s intended victim, not Orchard.

Seeing an opportunity to claim his fee without further work, Wolfe shares the information with Inspector Cramer on condition that, if and when Cramer exposes the murderer, he will tell Wolfe’s clients that the case would not have been solved without Wolfe’s input. Frustrated with Wolfe’s indolence during the weeks that follow, Archie contacts Lon Cohen, Wolfe’s friend at the Gazette, and convinces him to arrange for an editorial criticising Wolfe’s lack of progress in the case to be published. Stung by the criticism, Wolfe resumes work, but to Archie and Cramer’s surprise begins asking questions about a different murder victim: Beula Poole, the publisher of an independent political and economics journal, who was shot dead in her offices weeks before. Although the murders appear to be unconnected, Wolfe is skeptical that two newsletter publishers would be murdered within weeks of each other without any link.

Wolfe puts an advertisement in the local newspapers seeking information about subscribers to either publication, which gains two responses. The first is from a prominent Park Avenue doctor, W. T. Michaels, who reveals that his patients received poison pen letters implying unethical relations between Michaels and several of his female patients—letters that stopped after Michaels, on the urging of an unknown caller, subscribed to Poole's newsletter for a year. The second response is from Arnold Zeck, the sinister and shadowy head of an extensive crime syndicate. Zeck and Wolfe have crossed paths twice before, and Zeck, concerned that Wolfe is investigating his operations, tries to intimidate Wolfe into backing down. Wolfe, unfazed, informs Zeck that he has no intention of starting a conflict, but will follow his investigation as far as he needs to.

Wolfe thus manages to confirm his suspicions that the newsletters are in fact the front for a sophisticated blackmail operation. The victims receive letters making vague threats to reveal information that would destroy their reputations; if they subscribe to one of the newsletters for one year, though, the information will not be disclosed. The police have already determined the blackmail link, but it has brought them no further success. However, when the blackmail story is published in the newspapers, Walter Anderson, the president of the soft drink company, attempts to end Wolfe’s investigation. Claiming to be sickened by the sensationalist tone that the matter is now taking, he offers to pay Wolfe his full fee if he will drop the matter. Anderson also reveals that he has ended his company's contract as a sponsor of Fraser’s radio show.

With no leads, Wolfe sends Archie to Fraser and her entourage with a fake letter implicating Elinor Vance in order to try and shake a response out of the suspects. During the meeting, Deborah Koppel dies after eating a piece of candy laced with cyanide. The police announce they will search all those present at her death, including Archie. Archie, not wanting the letter to be revealed, refuses, and is arrested as a material witness. The police discover the letter on Archie and threaten to charge him with obstructing justice, but they are interrupted by a phone call from a local news radio station, who reveal that Nero Wolfe has contacted them. Wolfe claims to know the identity of the murderer and promises to reveal it on air that night. To avoid public humiliation, the police reluctantly dismiss the charges against Archie, and in return Wolfe invites the police—and the suspects—to his office that night to reveal the identity of the murderer.

Once everyone has arrived, Wolfe presses Anderson to reveal the real reason he tried to terminate his contract with Wolfe and Fraser’s show. Anderson had discovered information that someone connected to the show was about to be exposed in a manner that would bring the show and its sponsors into disgrace, and it is revealed that Madeline Fraser herself received letters from the blackmail syndicate implying that she had murdered her husband with cyanide years previously. However, while the blackmailers had previously created false claims about their victims, in this case they had unwittingly stumbled upon the truth - Fraser had in fact murdered her husband. Fearing that her secret had been exposed, Fraser murdered Poole and Orchard. Deborah Koppel, the sister of Fraser's deceased husband, had begun to suspect that the letters were true, prompting Fraser to murder her as well.

Although Fraser has cleverly concealed her tracks, evidence is located in Michigan that reveals that her husband’s suicide note was forged. She is consequently charged and convicted of murder. The novel ends with Wolfe receiving a phone call from Zeck congratulating him on solving the crime. Zeck, whose involvement in the matter remains unknown to the public, once again warns Wolfe not to interfere in his affairs, a promise that Wolfe is unable to make.

The unfamiliar word[edit]

"Readers of the Wolfe saga often have to turn to the dictionary because of the erudite vocabulary of Wolfe and sometimes of Archie," wrote Rev. Frederick G. Gotwald.[2]

"Like all of us, Wolfe has his favorite words, phrases, and sayings," wrote William S. Baring-Gould. "Among the words, many are unusual and some are abstruse."[3]

Examples of unfamiliar words — or unfamiliar uses of words that some would otherwise consider familiar — are found throughout the corpus, often in the give-and-take between Wolfe and Archie. And Be A Villain contains several examples, including the following:

  • Temerarious. Chapter 15.
  • Chambrer. Chapter 17. (This verb might well have been apt in the middle of the 20th century, but not toward the beginning of the 21st.)
  • Fructify. Chapter 19.
  • Dysgenic. Chapter 20.

Cast of characters[edit]

  • Nero Wolfe — The private investigator
  • Archie Goodwin — Wolfe's assistant, and the narrator of all Wolfe stories
  • Cyril Orchard and Beula Poole — Publishers of high priced newsletters, both murder victims
  • Madeline Fraser — The host of a radio talk show and one of Wolfe's clients
  • Deborah Koppel — Miss Fraser's manager and sister-in-law
  • Bill Meadows — Miss Fraser's "sidekick" on the radio
  • Elinor Vance — Scriptwriter for the show
  • Tully Strong — Secretary of the show's Sponsors' Council
  • F. O. Savarese — Mathematics professor who appeared on the radio show during which the first murder occurred
  • Nathan Straub — Member of an advertising agency that represents the show's sponsors
  • Nancylee Shepherd — Teenage organizer of a very successful Madeline Fraser fan club
  • Walter Anderson — President of the firm that makes Hi-Spot
  • W. T. Michaels — A medical doctor and victim of extortion
  • Lon Cohen — An editor at the Gazette
  • Inspector Cramer, Lieutenant George Rowcliff, and Sergeant Purley Stebbins — Representing Manhattan Homicide

Problematic probability[edit]

In Chapter 8, Professor Savarese provides a formula for the normal curve, touting it as a tool that could be used in crime detection. Unfortunately, the typesetting process let the professor down. Over time, different editions of And Be a Villain represent the formula differently, changing (for example) exponents from 2 to 3. Furthermore, the equation contains a mysterious "V" which is in fact just the leftmost portion of a radical sign. A more accurate discussion of the probability density function can be found at Normal distribution.

Reviews and commentary[edit]

  • Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor, A Catalogue of Crime — A first-rate sample of the author's art, this tale brings us face to face with the radio advertising of a beverage which the lady who promotes it cannot abide. Hence hanky-panky with the bottle of substitute liquid and resulting doubt as to whom the dose was intended for. Archie is spectacular in word and deed.[4]
  • The New York Times Book Review (September 26, 1948) — The income tax has made such a dent in Nero Wolfe's bank balance that he finds it necessary to look for work instead of waiting for it to come to him as is his usual custom. He selects a case upon which the New York Police Department has been working for six days without getting anywhere, and he sends Archie Goodwin out as his envoy to persuade the people involved that it would be to their interest to employ Wolfe. The case has to do with what happened on a radio program sponsored by the manufacturers of a beverage called Hi-Spot. Cyril Orchard, a guest on the program, drank a glass of Hi-Spot and dropped dead. The other persons present drank the same beverage, but there was no cyanide in their glasses. So much, and nothing more of any consequence, is known to the police. Nobody admits to remembering who poured Orchard's drink or who handed him the glass. Archie's patience is sorely tried when weeks pass by with scarcely any progress being made. It seems to him that Wolfe is not even trying, but he is mistaken. Wolfe is thinking, and when that giant intellect goes to work let the malefactor beware. The story is enlivened by Archie's expert needling of his employer and by Wolfe's lively passages at arms with the bigwigs of the Homicide Department.
  • Saturday Review of Literature (October 9, 1949) — Poisoning, in radio studio, of beverage maker's guest, provides action and needed funds for Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Nero "takes crazy dive into two-foot tank" and snares blackmail killer in hurricane off-stage finish of major adventure.

Publication history[edit]

In his limited-edition pamphlet, Collecting Mystery Fiction #9, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe Part I, Otto Penzler describes the first edition of And Be a Villain: "Gray cloth, front cover and spine printed with red lettering and green rules; rear cover blank. Issued in a black, white, red and green dust wrapper. ... With this title, The Mystery Guild began to publish the Nero Wolfe books. The cover of its [book club] edition is smooth, while the trade edition is heavily textured."[6]
In April 2006, Firsts: The Book Collector's Magazine estimated that the first edition of And Be a Villain had a value of between $300 and $500. The estimate is for a copy in very good to fine condition in a like dustjacket.[7]
  • 1948, New York: Viking (Mystery Guild), November 1948, hardcover
The far less valuable Viking book club edition may be distinguished from the first edition in three ways:
  • The dust jacket has "Book Club Edition" printed on the inside front flap, and the price is absent (first editions may be price clipped if they were given as gifts).
  • Book club editions are sometimes thinner and 1950s and newer Viking BCEs are taller (usually a quarter of an inch) than first editions, but the BCE of And Be a Villain (and perhaps some other pre-1950s Viking Nero Wolfe BCEs) is the same height as the first edition.
  • Book club editions are bound in cardboard, and first editions are bound in cloth (or have at least a cloth spine).[8]
Another distinguishing characteristic of the Nero Wolfe Viking first editions is the appearance of a listing of other books by Rex Stout preceding the title page. Such a listing does not appear in the BCEs.
  • 1948, New York: Book League of America, December 1948, hardcover
  • 1948, Toronto: Macmillan, 1948, hardcover
  • 1948, London: Collins (White Circle) #223c, 1948, paperback (as More Deaths Than One)
  • 1949, London: Collins Crime Club, February 21, 1949, hardcover (as More Deaths Than One)
  • 1950, New York: Bantam #824, September 1950, paperback
  • 1955, New York: The Viking Press, Full House: A Nero Wolfe Omnibus (with The League of Frightened Men and Curtains for Three), May 15, 1955, hardcover
  • 1958, London: Fontana #255, 1958, paperback (as More Deaths Than One)
  • 1964, London: Panther, 1964, paperback (as And Be a Villain)
  • 1973, London: Tom Stacey, 1973, hardcover (as More Deaths Than One)
  • 1974, New York: The Viking Press, Triple Zeck: A Nero Wolfe Omnibus (with The Second Confession and In the Best Families), April 5, 1974, hardcover
  • 1975, Tiptree, Essex: Severn House Publishers, 1975, hardcover (as More Deaths Than One)
  • 1976, London: Penguin, The First Rex Stout Omnibus (with The Doorbell Rang and The Second Confession), 1976, paperback (as More Deaths Than One)
  • 1984, New York: Bantam ISBN 0-553-23931-7 March 1984, paperback
  • 1992, London: Little, Brown and Company (UK) Limited ISBN 0-316-90314-0, hardcover (as More Deaths Than One)
  • 1994, New York: Bantam Crime Line ISBN 0-553-23931-7 May 1994, paperback, Rex Stout Library edition with introduction by Martin Meyers and Annette Meyers (Maan Meyers)
  • 2005, Auburn, California: The Audio Partners Publishing Corp., Mystery Masters ISBN 1-57270-498-5 December 10, 2005, audio CD (unabridged, read by Michael Prichard)
  • 2011, New York: Bantam Crimeline ISBN 978-0-307-78390-5 February 23, 2011, e-book


  1. ^ Gotwald, Rev. Frederick G., The Nero Wolfe Companion, volume 3, page 49
  2. ^ Gotwald, Rev. Frederick G., The Nero Wolfe Handbook (1985; revised 1992, 2000), page 234
  3. ^ Baring-Gould, William S., Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street. New York: Viking Press, 1969, hardcover, page 9
  4. ^ Barzun, Jacques and Taylor, Wendell Hertig. A Catalogue of Crime. New York: Harper & Row. 1971, revised and enlarged edition 1989. ISBN 0-06-015796-8
  5. ^ Townsend, Guy M., Rex Stout: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography (1980, New York: Garland Publishing; ISBN 0-8240-9479-4), pp. 25–26. John McAleer, Judson Sapp and Arriean Schemer are associate editors of this definitive publication history.
  6. ^ Penzler, Otto, Collecting Mystery Fiction #9, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe Part I (2001, New York: The Mysterious Bookshop, limited edition of 250 copies), pp. 22-23
  7. ^ Smiley, Robin H., "Rex Stout: A Checklist of Primary First Editions." Firsts: The Book Collector's Magazine (Volume 16, Number 4), April 2006, p. 33
  8. ^ Penzler, Otto, Collecting Mystery Fiction #9, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe Part I, pp. 19–20

External links[edit]

Quotations related to And Be a Villain at Wikiquote