|Cover artist||Bill English|
|October 24, 1952|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover)|
|Pages||186 pp. (first edition)|
|Preceded by||Triple Jeopardy|
|Followed by||The Golden Spiders|
As far as I know, no electrons had darted in either direction when I first laid eyes on Priscilla Eads, nor had I felt faint or dizzy at any point during my association with her, but the fact remains that I have never had swifter or stronger hunches than the two that were connected with her. Monday evening, before Helmar had said much more than twenty words about his missing ward, I had said to myself, "She's upstairs," and knew it. Tuesday morning, when I saw Inspector Cramer of Manhattan Homicide on the stoop, I said to myself, "She's dead," and knew it.
— Archie, reflecting, in Prisoner's Base, chapter 3.
A young woman who will shortly inherit control of a large manufacturing firm wants to rent a room in Nero Wolfe's house. Wolfe, outraged, puts her out; she is found murdered later that night. With no client in sight, Wolfe is not interested, but Archie feels responsible. His first step is to crash a meeting of the manufacturer's board of directors.
The 1992 Bantam edition reprints the typewritten title page of Rex Stout's 1952 manuscript, showing that the book's original title was Dare-Base. Dare-Base is a children's game, a variation on tag, also called prisoner's base.
"The title on my manuscript was Dare-Base, from a game we played in Kansas when I was a boy," Rex Stout told biographer John McAleer. "My publisher, Harold Guinzburg, said it was better known as prisoner's base."
Late one night, Archie muses that the situation faced by one of the characters is like the game — it's up to her to get from one base to another without being tagged. But she does get tagged.
Following an argument between Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin over Goodwin’s weekly paycheck, a young woman arrives at Wolfe’s brownstone with a suitcase and an unusual request; she wants to rent a room for the week on the condition that her identity and presence remain secret. In order to bring some money into the household funds -- and to annoy Wolfe -- Archie agrees to bring the woman’s request to Wolfe’s consideration. Although Wolfe rejects the idea out of hand, before Archie can have the woman removed Wolfe is approached by Perry Helmar, a lawyer who wants to hire Wolfe to find his ward, Priscilla Eads, who has disappeared one week before her twenty-fifth birthday. From the description Helmar provides, Archie realizes that their houseguest is Priscilla Eads.
Wolfe does not accept Helmar’s job immediately, but instead offers to house Eads if she will pay the $10,000 fee that he would have otherwise received from Helmar. When Eads refuses, Wolfe has Archie remove her from the brownstone on the promise that he will not accept Helmar’s job nor start looking for her until the following morning. The next morning, before Wolfe can accept Helmar’s proposal, Inspector Cramer arrives at the brownstone and informs Archie that Priscilla Eads has been murdered, with Archie’s fingerprints found on her luggage. On top of Eads’ death, her maid Margaret Fomos was also murdered, and as Eads was strangled in her own apartment the police have assumed that the killer murdered Fomos to steal her keys and to conceal his identity.
With no fee in sight, Wolfe refuses to involve himself in the matter. Feeling guilty over letting Eads go to her death, Archie is infuriated by Wolfe’s attitude and storms out of the brownstone to begin his own investigation. He arrives at the Snowdown corporation, a towel manufacturer that Eads would have inherited a controlling stake in on her twenty-fifth birthday, and infiltrates an executive meeting by allowing those present to believe he is a police detective. He learns that the stock Eads would have inherited will instead be divided between the chief officers of the corporation, including Perry Helmar, before the meeting is interrupted by Lieutenant Rowcliffe of the NYPD, who exposes Archie and arrests him. Assuming that Archie is acting on behalf of Wolfe, in a moment of over-zealousness Rowcliffe also has Wolfe arrested and brought to the district attorney. Although the mistake is soon cleared up, Wolfe is outraged by Rowcliffe’s actions and insolent attitude and informs the authorities that Archie is now his client; he intends to solve Priscilla Eads’ murder.
As Helmar and the Snowdown executives are potential suspects with no reason to trust Wolfe or Archie, Wolfe orders Archie to find some leverage by interviewing Sarah Jaffee, a childhood friend of Eads and a young war widow who has been deeply traumatized by her grief over her husband’s death while fighting in Korea earlier that year. Although Jaffee is reluctant to involve herself in the corporate affairs of Snowdown, Archie earns her gratitude by disposing of her late husband’s hat and coat, a task that Jaffee had been unable to bring herself to do. As a result of Archie's act of kindness, Wolfe manages to persuade her to initiate legal action enjoining the Snowdown executives from exercising ownership of the stock they will inherit until it is determined that none of them have any involvement in the death of either Eads or Margaret Fomos. The threat of injunction is sufficient to bring the Snowdown officers to Wolfe, but they are joined by an unexpected visitor -- Eric Hagh, Priscilla Eads’ ex-husband, who produces a document apparently signed by Eads which he claims gives him a valid claim on Eads’ inheritance. After the meeting, Archie receives a late night phone call from Sarah Jaffee, who appears to have mislaid her keys. Seeing the similarity of the situation to the murder of Priscilla Eads, Archie urges her to leave the apartment and rushes to meet her, but by the time he arrives she has been murdered.
Further angered and guilt-ridden over Jaffee’s death, Archie convinces the police to allow him to assist in the investigation, but attempts to interrogate those present at Wolfe’s meeting prove fruitless. Archie discovers that Wolfe has given Saul Panzer a large sum of money to conduct his own investigation. Frustrated and out of ideas, the authorities reluctantly convince Archie to persuade Wolfe to re-enact the meeting at his office. To Archie’s surprise, Wolfe agrees to the idea, but before the re-enactment can commence Wolfe announces that he will instead identify the murderer. He reveals that the assumption that Margaret Fomos was murdered to prevent her from revealing the killer’s identity was flawed; the murderer in fact killed them because he knew that they would not be able to identify him. Wolfe reveals evidence uncovered by Saul Panzer that the man calling himself Eric Hagh is in fact Siegfried Muecke, a gambler who stole Hagh’s identity after Hagh died in an avalanche in the Andes. Muecke intended to claim Hagh’s inheritance for himself and murdered Fomos, Eads and Jaffee because all three women knew what Eric Hagh really looked like and would immediately realize that he was an impostor. The novel ends with Muecke under arrest and Wolfe turning his attention to another thorny matter -- whether, as his 'client', Archie owes him a fee.
The unfamiliar word
In most Nero Wolfe novels and novellas, there is at least one unfamiliar word, usually spoken by Wolfe. Prisoner's Base contains these three:
- Contemn: to treat or regard with disdain, scorn, or contempt. Chapter 3, Wolfe to Priscilla Eads: "I'm glad you contemn it as blackmail, since I like to pretend that I earn at least a fraction of what I collect...."
- Juridical. Chapter 9.
- Wroth: intensely angry, highly incensed. Chapter 15, Archie's description of Wolfe's tone: "He was gruff but not wroth."
Cast of characters
- Nero Wolfe — The private investigator
- Archie Goodwin — Wolfe's assistant (and the narrator of all Wolfe stories)
- Priscilla Eads — Majority stockholder-to-be in Softdown, a large manufacturing corporation
- Perry Helmar — Softdown's counsel and trustee of Miss Eads' inheritance
- Andy Fomos — Widower of Miss Eads' longtime maid
- Sarah Jaffee — Childhood friend of Miss Eads and minority stockholder in Softdown
- Eric Hagh — Miss Eads' ex-husband, a resident of Venezuela, and holder of a document granting him half of Miss Eads' inheritance
- Albert M. "Dewdrop" Irby — Mr. Hagh's lawyer
- Jay Brucker, Viola Duday, Oliver Pitkin, Bernard Quest — Officers of the Softdown Corporation
- Inspector Cramer and Sergeant Purley Stebbins — Representing Manhattan Homicide
Reviews and commentary
- Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor, A Catalogue of Crime — Archie is Nero's client, because he feels responsible for the death of a young woman who sought asylum at Nero's house. In the sequel two other women are strangled as the result of a stupid will and a claim on it foolishly certified. The case is complex, the parties are hostile (so are Nero and Archie) and for once the police behave reasonably and civilly.
- Anthony Boucher, The New York Times Book Review (November 9, 1952) — Pure detection (fleshed, of course, with humor and characterization) remains the trademark of Rex Stout. Prisoner's Base is a bit more conventional than last year's fine Murder by the Book, but still very solidly gratifying. Nero Wolfe refuses sanctuary to a potential client, thereby indirectly causing her death; the resultant investigation places Archie Goodwin in the doubly unheard-of position of being Nero's client himself and working closely with the New York Police Department. The solution is surprising, the construction tight; in this particular vein only Mr. Stout himself is apt to produce a better book.
- The New Yorker (November 1, 1952) — An expert job, tailored to the last detail to the demands of Mr. Stout's admirers.
- Saturday Review of Literature (November 1, 1952) — Archie Goodwin and cops work hard to bring this one off. Good.
A Nero Wolfe Mystery (A&E Network)
Prisoner's Base was adapted for the first season of the A&E TV series A Nero Wolfe Mystery (2001–2002). The teleplay for the episode, written by Lee Goldberg and William Rabkin, was nominated for an Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America. Directed by Neill Fearnley, "Prisoner's Base" made its debut in two one-hour episodes airing May 13 and 20, 2001, on A&E.
Timothy Hutton is Archie Goodwin; Maury Chaykin is Nero Wolfe. Other members of the cast (in credits order) are Bill Smitrovich (Inspector Cramer), Saul Rubinek (Lon Cohen), Colin Fox (Fritz Brenner), James Tolkan (Bernard Quest). Ron Rifkin (Perry Helmar), Kari Matchett (Sarah Jaffee), Shauna Black (Priscilla Eads), Conrad Dunn (Saul Panzer), Nicky Guadagni (Viola Duday), R.D. Reid (Sergeant Purley Stebbins), Steve Cumyn (Eric Hagh), Gary Reineke (Oliver Pitkin), Hrant Alianak (Nathaniel Parker), David Schurmann (Jay Brucker) and Wayne Best (Albert Irby).
"Prisoner's Base" is one of the Nero Wolfe episodes released on Region 4 DVD in Australia by Magna Pacific, under license by FremantleMedia Enterprises. Nero Wolfe — Collection Two (2008) was the first release of an episode containing scenes not available on the A&E Home Video release. The international version presents "Prisoner's Base" as a 90-minute film with a single set of titles and credits, and it includes three scenes (3.5 minutes) found on pp. 3–5, 21 and 27–28 of the script written by Lee Goldberg and William Rabkin. The A&E and Magna Pacific DVD releases present the episode in 4:3 pan and scan rather than its 16:9 aspect ratio for widescreen viewing.
- In his limited-edition pamphlet, Collecting Mystery Fiction #9, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe Part I, Otto Penzler describes the first edition of Prisoner's Base: "Green cloth, front cover and spine printed with black; rear cover blank. Issued in a black, green and white dust wrapper."
- In April 2006, Firsts: The Book Collector's Magazine estimated that the first edition of Prisoner's Base had a value of between $300 and $500. The estimate is for a copy in very good to fine condition in a like dustjacket.
- 1952, Toronto: Macmillan, 1952, hardcover
- 1953, New York: Viking Press (Mystery Guild), February 1953
- 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).
- 1953, London: Collins Crime Club, June 8, 1953, hardcover (as Out Goes She)
- 1955, New York: Bantam #1326, April 1955, paperback
- 1965, London: Fontana, 1965, paperback (as Out Goes She)
- 1992, New York: Bantam Crimeline ISBN 0-553-24269-5 October 1, 1992, paperback, Rex Stout Library edition with introduction by William DeAndrea. This edition is missing the final chapter (17) which is 1.5 pages in length in the hardcover editions.
- 2008, North Kingstown, Rhode Island: BBC Audiobooks America, Mystery Masters ISBN 978-1-60283-426-2 August 12, 2008 , CD (unabridged, read by Michael Prichard)
- 2010, New York: Bantam Crimeline ISBN 978-0-307-75611-4 June 9, 2010, e-book
- McAleer, John, Royal Decree. Ashton, Maryland: Pontes Press, 1983, p. 67.
- 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
- Ib Glindemann, "Cabaret Act"; Carlin Production Music CAR 202, Big Band / Jazz / Swing (track 41). Johannes Brahms, Waltz in A flat Major, Op. 39, No. 15; KPM Music Ltd. KPM CS 7, Light Classics Volume One (track 12). Additional soundtrack details at the Internet Movie Database and The Wolfe Pack, official site of the Nero Wolfe Society
- "Champagne for One" (disc 1), "Prisoner's Base" (disc 2) and "Over My Dead Body" (disc 3) are split into two parts as they originally aired on A&E. Three other telefilms originally shown as two-parters — "Motherhunt" (disc 5), "Too Many Clients" (disc 6) and "The Silent Speaker" (disc 7) — are issued by A&E Home Video as continuous films with a single set of titles and credits.
- Nero Wolfe — Collection Two December 5, 2008; UPC 9315842036140. Two-disc set features include "Prisoner's Base" (presented as a 90-minute film with a single set of titles and credits), "Eeny Meeny Murder Moe" and "Disguise for Murder." Screen format is 4:3 full frame. Rated PG (mild violence) by the Commonwealth of Australia. (Retrieved April 7, 2012)
- The "Prisoner's Base" script is available for PDF download on Lee Goldberg's Web site. The three longer scenes are transcribed in an FAQ at the Internet Movie Database, and available in a PDF document on the Wolfe Pack web site.
- Townsend, Guy M., Rex Stout: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography (1980, New York: Garland Publishing; ISBN 0-8240-9479-4), pp. 29–30. 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), p. 29
- Smiley, Robin H., "Rex Stout: A Checklist of Primary First Editions." Firsts: The Book Collector's Magazine (Volume 16, Number 4), April 2006, p. 34
- Penzler, Otto, Collecting Mystery Fiction #9, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe Part I, pp. 19–20
|Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to: Prisoner's Base|
- A Nero Wolfe Mystery — "Prisoner's Base" at the Internet Movie Database
- A Nero Wolfe Mystery — "Prisoner's Base" at The Wolfe Pack, official site of the Nero Wolfe Society
- Script (PDF) for "Prisoner's Base" at the official site of Lee Goldberg