In the Best Families
|In the Best Families|
|Cover artist||Bill English|
|Publication date||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.
Mrs. Sarah Rackham, a wealthy heiress, and her cousin Calvin Leeds, a breeder of Dobermans, approach Nero Wolfe to investigate Rackham’s husband Barry. Barry Rackham is living outside of his means; with no independent income and his former allowances cut off by his wife, he nevertheless lives in a lavish fashion. Wolfe reluctantly accepts the job, but the next day a delivery of what is supposedly sausage is revealed to be a tear gas bomb. Immediately afterwards, Wolfe receives a phone call from Arnold Zeck, a shadowy criminal mastermind whom Wolfe has crossed paths with twice before. Zeck warns Wolfe to drop the case, making it clear that Rackham 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 an attack on one of Calvin Leeds’ dogs.
That night, Archie attends a dinner party at the Rackham mansion attended by the Rackhams and Leeds; Sarah Rackham’s daughter-in-law Annabel Frey; Mrs. Rackham’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 Rackham goes for a walk with her dog. That night, Sarah Rackham’s dog appears outside Leeds’ home with a knife stuck in its side, snarling and snapping when Leeds tries to comfort it. Leeds and Archie search the grounds, where they found Sarah Rackham brutally stabbed to death.
Archie notifies Wolfe of the development and, suspecting that Barry Rackham or other men employed by Zeck are responsible for Sarah Rackham’s murder, returns to the city as quickly as possible. When Archie arrives, he finds that Nero Wolfe has disappeared sometime in the night, leaving behind only three notes for Fritz Brenner, Theodore Horstmann and Archie himself. The only instructions left for Archie are ‘Do not look for me.’ Wolfe has also arranged for his old friend Marko Vukcic, acting with power of attorney, to put his house up for sale, to distribute the orchids and to find alternative employment for Fritz and Horstmann, and a printed advertisement appears in the Gazette informing the world that Wolfe has retired from the detective business.
Wolfe’s disappearance nevertheless creates trouble for Archie; the Westchester authorities refuse to believe Archie’s claims that he does not know where Wolfe is, and he is eventually detained as a material witness. In the jail at White Plains, Archie shares a cell with an inmate called Max Christy, who receives special treatment from the guards. Christy implies that he is part of Zeck’s organisation, and offers to find work for Archie in light of Wolfe’s disappearance. 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 Arnold Zeck and warns him to back down.
Over the following weeks and months, as the likelihood of Wolfe reappearing diminishes, Archie decides to go into business for himself. Hired by Annabel Frey to continue the investigation into Sarah Rackham’s murder, Archie’s efforts stall when those present on the night of her murder, suspicious of Archie, refuse to cooperate. Nevertheless, he soon finds himself earning more than Wolfe ever paid him as an independent operator, albeit for much less interesting work. Four months after Wolfe’s disappearance, Archie is approached by Max 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 in order to see if he can find a way to get to Arnold Zeck through it.
Archie is put in contact with Pete Roeder, a high-ranking member of Zeck's organisation recently arrived from the West Coast, and learns that he is being hired to tail none other than Barry Rackham. Archie has not given up on proving that Rackham killed his wife, and finds the job difficult to resist. When he meets with Roeder in private, however, Archie is shocked when 'Roeder' reveals that he is none other than Nero Wolfe in disguise. Wolfe reveals that he staged his disappearance because he knew that the death of Sarah Rackham would bring him into direct conflict with Arnold Zeck, and he has constructed an elaborate undercover identity as 'Roeder' in order to insinuate himself into Zeck’s inner circle and bring him down. He now needs Archie's help to spring his trap upon Zeck.
In order that the two can meet covertly, Archie convinces Lily Rowan to pose as ‘Roeder’s’ mistress in order to use her apartment as a meeting place; this, to Lily’s amusement and Wolfe's mortification, results in her being ‘the only woman in America who has necked with Nero Wolfe’. Under the guise of taking orders from ‘Roeder’, Archie hires Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin and Orrie Cather to help him shadow Barry Rackham. After a week, Rackham discovers the tail and confronts Archie, reacting with terror when he learns that Archie is operating on behalf of Arnold Zeck; after the death of his wife, Rackham attempted to leave Zeck’s employment, only for Zeck to begin pressuring him with exposure as a murderer.
Archie is taken to a secret location where he comes face to face with Arnold Zeck. Zeck denies that he is attempting to use Archie to locate the whereabouts of Nero Wolfe; instead, he wants Archie to ensure that Rackham returns to Zeck’s employment, as he is essential to a scheme that Zeck is planning under the management of ‘Roeder’. Zeck confirms that he has evidence that Rackham is guilty of murder, and intends to use it to persuade Rackham to cooperate. Archie manages to convince Rackham to confront Arnold Zeck face-to-face in order to settle the matter once and for all, but before Archie and Roeder can enact their plan, Archie learns that Lina Darrow has claimed to the Westchester authorities that Barry Rackham murdered his wife. As Rackham's arrest would thwart their plans, Archie reveals to the authorities that Darrow entered into a relationship with Rackham after his wife's murder and is lying because he refused to marry her.
Later that day, Archie takes Barry Rackham to meet Arnold Zeck and ‘Roeder’. During their confrontation, Archie manages to get the drop on Zeck, at which point ‘Roeder’ reveals that he is Nero Wolfe. Wolfe reveals that he has acquired enough evidence to destroy Zeck’s criminal empire and to see him imprisoned for life. In order to end their feud and satisfy his honor, Wolfe is willing to trade this evidence for the evidence that will convict Barry Rackham of murder. Before they can make the trade, however, Rackham panics and shoots Zeck, before being shot dead by Zeck’s bodyguards.
With Zeck dead and the danger hanging over them gone, Nero Wolfe returns to his home, intending to expose Sarah Rackham’s murderer. He summons those present on the night of her death and reveals that, contrary to suspicions, Barry Rackham did not murder his wife; the crime Arnold Zeck was blackmailing him with was an unrelated murder he had committed years before. Wolfe has deduced that Sarah Rackham’s murderer was in fact her cousin, Calvin Leeds. Leeds, the only one present who knew of Sarah Rackham’s intentions to hire Wolfe, was the one who alerted Zeck to the threat to his operations, and only Calvin Leeds, who had trained Sarah Rackham's dog as a puppy, could have safely attacked Sarah Rackham’s dog without it attacking him. Leeds hangs himself in his cell before his trial, and while Archie takes a well-earned vacation with Lily Rowan, Nero Wolfe resumes his usual lifestyle once again.
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 — Mrs. Rackham's cousin, a breeder of Doberman Pinschers
- Barry Rackham — The client's husband
- Lina Darrow — The client's personal secretary
- Annabel Frey — The client'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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