In the Best Families
|Cover artist||Bill English|
|September 29, 1950|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover)|
|Pages||246 pp. (first edition)|
|Preceded by||Three Doors to Death|
|Followed by||Curtains for Three|
In the Best Families (British title Even in the Best Families) is a Nero Wolfe detective novel by Rex Stout, first published by the Viking Press in 1950. The story was collected in the omnibus volumes Five of a Kind (Viking 1961) and Triple Zeck (Viking 1974).
This is the third of three Nero Wolfe books that involve crime boss Arnold Zeck and his widespread operations (the others are And Be a Villain and The Second Confession). In each book, Zeck – Wolfe's Moriarty – attempts to warn Wolfe off an investigation that Zeck believes will interfere with his criminal machinations. Each time, Wolfe refuses to cooperate, and there are consequences.
- Do not look for me.
- My very best regards and wishes. . . .
— Nero Wolfe's parting instruction, In The Best Families, chapter 6
A wealthy wife hires Nero Wolfe to learn the source of her husband's mysterious income. In short order, Arnold Zeck horns in, the wife is murdered, and Wolfe disappears.
Nero Wolfe is approached by Mrs. Sarah Rackham, a wealthy heiress, and her cousin Calvin Leeds, a breeder of Dobermans, to investigate Sarah's husband Barry. Even though he has no independent income and Sarah has cut off his allowance, he maintains a lavish lifestyle. Wolfe reluctantly accepts the job and a $10,000 retainer; the next day, a package is delivered to the brownstone, allegedly containing sausage but in truth hiding a tear gas bomb. The bomb was sent by Arnold Zeck, a shadowy criminal mastermind with whom Wolfe and Archie have crossed paths twice before. By phone, he warns Wolfe to drop the case and offers to refund Sarah's $10,000, making it clear that Barry is one of his operatives.
Wolfe disregards Zeck’s warning and sends Archie to the Rackham estate in Westchester County to begin his investigation, under the cover of investigating the earlier poisoning of one of Leeds' dogs. That night, Archie attends a dinner party at the Rackham mansion attended by the Rackhams and Leeds; Sarah’s daughter-in-law Annabel Frey; Sarah's flirtatious secretary Lina Darrow; Dana Hammond, a banker; and Oliver Pierce, a young politician in the New York State Assembly. After dinner, while the guests amuse themselves watching the television, Sarah goes for a walk with her dog, one of those trained by Leeds. Later that night, the dog is found outside Leeds' home, fatally wounded with a steak knife stuck into its side; it snarls and snaps when Leeds tries to comfort it. As he and Archie search the grounds, they find Sarah's body, stabbed to death. Archie calls Wolfe with the news and returns to the city, suspecting that Barry or someone else in Zeck's enterprise may be responsible.
When Archie arrives, however, he finds that Nero Wolfe has disappeared sometime in the night, with the only instructions left for Archie being ‘Do not look for me.’ A printed advertisement appears in the Gazette informing the world that Wolfe has retired from the detective business. Despite this, Wolfe’s disappearance creates trouble for Archie; the Westchester authorities refuse to believe Archie’s claims that he does not know where Wolfe is, and he is briefly detained as a material witness. In jail at White Plains, Archie shares a cell with an inmate called Max Christy, who implies that he is part of Zeck’s organisation, and offers to find work for Archie. After Archie is released, he is visited by Inspector Cramer who, like the Westchester authorities, is skeptical of Archie’s story, but reveals that he knows Wolfe is tangling with Zeck and warns him to back down. Hired by Annabel to continue the investigation into Sarah's murder, Archie’s efforts stall when those present on the night of her murder, suspicious of Archie, refuse to cooperate.
Over the following months, as the likelihood of Wolfe's return fades, Archie goes into business for himself and opens his own office. Four months after Wolfe’s disappearance, Archie is approached by Christy, who renews his offer of work for the organisation he represents. Although suspicious that he is being used in an attempt to find Wolfe, Archie agrees, hoping to find a way to connect Zeck to Sarah's murder. Christy puts Archie in touch with Pete Roeder, a high-ranking operative who hires him to tail Barry. During a private meeting with Archie, Roeder reveals that he is Wolfe, having lost a great deal of weight and changed his appearance.
After leaving the city, Wolfe had traveled to the West Coast in order to avoid a direct confrontation with Zeck. As Roeder, he established himself as a person who could be use of to Zeck, and he has now returned to New York in order to take charge of a new criminal scheme as one of Zeck's top lieutenants. He now needs Archie's help to spring a trap against Zeck and bring him down. Archie persuades Lily Rowan to pose as Roeder's mistress so that the three of them can use her apartment as a covert meeting place; at the same time, he hires Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin, and Orrie Cather to shadow Barry.
Barry soon notices the tail and confronts Archie, but the news that Zeck is interested in his movements terrifies him. He had tried to leave Zeck's employment after Sarah's death, only for Zeck to threaten to expose him as a murderer. Archie is called to a face-to-face meeting with Zeck, who assigns him to work under Roeder's supervision and advises him to find a way to bring Barry back into Zeck's ranks, then has another talk with Barry to persuade him to confront Zeck. He is briefly sidetracked by a meeting in Westchester with the district attorney and Lina, who now claims - among other things - that Barry's refusal to marry her points to his guilt as Sarah's murderer. Archie quickly realizes that her claims can help convict Barry, even though they are untrue, but refuses to agree with them so that Barry can remain free for the time being.
Later that day, Archie takes Barry to meet with Zeck and Roeder. During the meeting, Archie overpowers Zeck and ties him up, and Roeder reveals himself as Wolfe. He has gathered enough evidence to smash Zeck's criminal empire, but offers to trade it for the evidence that Zeck has against Barry. Zeck agrees to the deal, but as Archie unties him, Barry grabs a gun smuggled in by Wolfe and kills Zeck before being shot dead in turn by several bodyguards.
With Zeck dead, Wolfe returns to the brownstone, intent on exposing Sarah's murderer and earning the fee she paid him. He summons Leeds, Pierce, Hammond, Lina, and Annabel to his office and reveals that Sarah was murdered not by Barry, but by Leeds. He had used the same steak knife on both her and the dog, killing her first and then sinking the knife into the dog when it recognized its trainer and calmed down. Wolfe cites the fact that the dog had crawled to Leeds' doorstep and snarled at him when he tried to comfort it. Only Leeds could have informed Zeck of Sarah's visit to Wolfe's office and warned him of the threat to his operations. Barry had in fact committed an unrelated murder years earlier, a crime on which Zeck had legitimate evidence to use in blackmailing him.
As Archie takes a well-deserved vacation in Norway with Lily, he gets a letter from Wolfe describing the return to normal life in the brownstone - and Leeds' suicide by hanging in the White Plains jail before the start of his trial.
The unfamiliar word
In most Nero Wolfe novels and novellas, there is at least one unfamiliar word, usually spoken by Wolfe. In the Best Families contains the following:
- Trepidant. Just prior to the end of Chapter 2.
- Dissimulation, chapter 13. Wolfe sometimes withholds information from Archie so that he won't have to conceal knowledge by feigning ignorance. In the Best Families is arguably the best case for Wolfe's practice:
- "You should act as if ... you knew nothing. Under what circumstances would you do that most convincingly? You are capable of dissimulation, but why try you so severely?"
- Minim. Page 150 (Viking edition). Chapter 13. "A minim of cause for suspicion and I'm through."
Cast of characters
- Nero Wolfe — The private investigator
- Archie Goodwin — Wolfe's assistant, and the narrator of all Wolfe stories
- Sarah Rackham — Wolfe's client
- Calvin Leeds — Sarah's cousin, a breeder of Doberman Pinschers
- Barry Rackham — Sarah's husband
- Lina Darrow — Sarah's personal secretary
- Annabel Frey — Sarah's daughter-in-law
- Oliver Pierce and Dana Hammond — Rackham family friends
- Marko Vukcic — Wolfe's oldest friend
- Arnold Zeck — Chief of an organized crime syndicate
- Pete Roeder — A member of Zeck's syndicate
- Max Christy — A low-level hood working for Zeck
- Cleveland Archer — Westchester District Attorney
- Ben Dykes — Of the Westchester County Detectives
- Lily Rowan — Manhattan socialite and heiress, and Archie's main romantic interest throughout the corpus
- Inspector Cramer — Representing Manhattan Homicide
Reviews and commentary
- Julian Symons, Manchester Evening News (April 5, 1951) — In the fight to the death between master-detective and master-criminal the most ingenious and unlikely subterfuges are used. … All this is very improbable. It is the art of Mr. Stout to make it seem plausible. … Holmes was a fully realized character. There is only a handful of his successors to whom that compliment can be paid. One of them, certainly, is Nero Wolfe.
- J. Kenneth Van Dover, At Wolfe's Door — The reader is more affected by the reactions of the detective than by the actions of the criminal — even those of a criminal mastermind. This suggests both the special strength and the special weakness of the Wolfe series. The murder of Mrs. Rackham is poorly motivated, but Wolfe's solution of the case is neat. Archie continues his dalliance with Lily Rowan. And there is a sign of changing times when the Rackham house party turns down the lights and devotes itself to watching three television programs. After 1950, it seems, the inquiring detective cannot depend upon an evening of revealing conversation with the upper class.
Nero Wolfe (Paramount Television)
In the Best Families was adapted as the seventh episode of Nero Wolfe (1981), an NBC TV series starring William Conrad as Nero Wolfe and Lee Horsley as Archie Goodwin. Other members of the regular cast include George Voskovec (Fritz Brenner), Robert Coote (Theodore Horstmann), George Wyner (Saul Panzer) and Allan Miller (Inspector Cramer). Guest stars include Linden Chiles (Calvin Leeds), Juanin Clay (Annabel Frey), Lawrence Casey (Barry Rackham), Burr DeBenning (Max Christy), Diana Douglas (Sarah Rackham), Robert Loggia (Arnold Dorso [Zeck]) and Alex Rodine (Marko Vukcic). Directed by George McCowan from a teleplay by Alfred Hayes, "In the Best Families" aired March 6, 1981.
- In his limited-edition pamphlet, Collecting Mystery Fiction #9, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe Part I, Otto Penzler describes the first edition of In the Best Families: "Yellow cloth, front cover and spine printed with purple; rear cover blank. Issued in a purple, black and white dust wrapper."
- In April 2006, Firsts: The Book Collector's Magazine estimated that the first edition of In the Best Families had a value of between $300 and $500. The estimate is for a copy in very good to fine condition in a like dustjacket.
- 1950, abridged in The Montreal Gazette and The Newark Evening News during 1950
- 1951, New York: Viking (Mystery Guild), January 1951, 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 always taller (usually a quarter of an inch) than first editions.
- Book club editions are bound in cardboard, and first editions are bound in cloth (or have at least a cloth spine).
- 1951, London: Collins Crime Club, April 1951, hardcover (as Even in the Best Families)
- 1953, New York: Bantam #1173, October 1953, paperback
- 1961, New York: The Viking Press, Five of a Kind: The Third Nero Wolfe Omnibus (with The Rubber Band and Three Doors to Death), July 10, 1961, hardcover
- 1964, London: Panther #1752, October 1964, paperback
- 1974, New York: The Viking Press, Triple Zeck: A Nero Wolfe Omnibus (with And Be a Villain and The Second Confession), April 5, 1974, hardcover
- 1980, London: Collins Crime Club Jubilee Edition, 1980, hardcover
- 1992, London: Scribners ISBN 0-356-20107-4, 1992, hardcover (introduction by Julian Symons)(as Even in the Best Families)
- 1995, New York: Bantam Crime Line ISBN 0-553-27776-6 February 1995, paperback, Rex Stout Library edition with introduction by Patricia Sprinkle
- 2000, Auburn, California: The Audio Partners Publishing Corp., Mystery Masters ISBN 1-57270-146-3 July 2000, audio cassette (unabridged, read by Michael Prichard)
- 2010, New York: Bantam ISBN 978-0-307-75601-5 July 21, 2010, e-book
- In the Best Families, chapter 13; Viking edition, p. 145.
- Other editions, such as the 1995 Bantam, use minimum rather than minim.
- Symons, Julian, Manchester Evening News, April 5, 1951; quoted in McAleer, John, Rex Stout: A Biography. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1977 ISBN 0-316-55340-9 page 382
- Van Dover, J. Kenneth, At Wolfe's Door: The Nero Wolfe Novels of Rex Stout (1991, Borgo Press, Mitford Series; second edition 2003, James A. Rock & Co., Publishers; Hardcover ISBN 0-918736-51-X / Paperback ISBN 0-918736-52-8); p. 26
- Townsend, Guy M., Rex Stout: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography (1980, New York: Garland Publishing; ISBN 0-8240-9479-4), pp. 27–28. John McAleer, Judson Sapp and Arriean Schemer are associate editors of this definitive publication history.
- 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. 25-26
- 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
- Penzler, Otto, Collecting Mystery Fiction #9, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe Part I, pp. 19–20
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