Before Midnight (novel)
|Cover artist||Bill English|
|October 27, 1955|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover)|
|Pages||184 (first edition)|
|Preceded by||The Black Mountain|
|Followed by||Three Witnesses|
A national literary contest to promote a new brand of perfume leads to murder and more.
Numerous major works of literature are mentioned as part of the contest. Four poetic riddles to real and fictional women are given, and three of them are solved, two by Archie, and one by Wolfe. The fourth is never solved within the text.
Although Nero Wolfe is, by his own immodest measure, a great detective, and in particular the greatest murder specialist in Manhattan, this allows him to charge outrageous fees, working only when he is short of money or Archie Goodwin, his live-in right-hand man, manages to goad him into it, preferring instead to read books, tend a magnificent orchid conservatory on the roof of his brownstone, or consult (annoy) his live-in world-class chef Fritz Brenner.
Archie therefore considers pestering Wolfe about his literary knowledge to be fitting repartée. He also wants to go to the Flamingo nightclub with his girlfriend Lily Rowan, but cannot get away on a Tuesday night unless he irritates Wolfe enough to boot him out. So he starts quoting Wolfe poetic riddles from a national contest promoting Pour Amour, a new brand of perfume. At first Wolfe tolerates it, and even humors Archie by telling him about Nell Gwyn and Charles II of England, but a fourth riddle exhausts Wolfe's patience and Archie gets his wish and goes out.
The very next morning, as Archie is eating a wonderful breakfast prepared by Fritz, he gets a call from attorney Rudolph Hansen, representing the advertising firm LBA, which is conducting the perfume contest. Louis Dahlmann, the executive in charge of that account, has been murdered the night before, but Hansen is calling about something more urgent! The concept of something more urgent than murder gets Archie's attention and he makes an appointment for Hansen and the three partners of LBA to meet Wolfe at 11 am that morning.
At the meeting, it is revealed that two million people submitted entries to identify twenty famous women – real and fictional – identified by cryptic little poems, and the winners would split $1 million in prizes. Of the two million entries, 72 had all 20 answers right. Dahlmann was ready for that: a further set of 5 poetic riddles was sent out to each of the 72 with a tight deadline, and the result had been a quintuple tie. So it came down to a final run-off of five contestants, flown from all over the country to New York, to identify the women behind a new very much harder set of poems created by young Dahlmann, who is also the only person on earth who knows the correct answers to the questions. The questions had been handed out to the contestants the night before at a restaurant dinner, and Dahlmann had shown (at a distance) a small sheet of paper which (he said) contained the answers. He stuffed the paper in his wallet and the contestants departed. Since the contestants (see below) were expecting to return home to various parts of the country, they were given staggered deadlines before which to return their answers, all approximately a week in the future and requiring a postmark of midnight.
However, the next morning, Dahlmann was found dead in his apartment by a servant, and his wallet was missing. The contestants have about a week to submit their answers by mail, but from the narrow perspective of the agency, Dahlmann's death is not the most problem — his wallet is also missing, thereby compromising the contest's integrity.
Since a lot of prize money is at stake, the working assumption is that one of the contestants stole Dahlmann's wallet and killed him in the process, and so the events are likely but not certainly connected. In any event, the theft of Dahlmann's wallet is the problem LBA wants Wolfe to solve Before Midnight a week hence.
This somewhat perverse set of priorities allows Wolfe and Inspector Cramer, of the Manhattan Homicide Squad, to put aside the usual complaint from Cramer that private detectives should leave the investigation of murder to the police, since Wolfe is, in fact, merely trying to resolve the theft of a wallet, and the amicable resolution of a popular advertising stunt is surely not meddling in police business. As Cramer says, "I have never yet bumped into you in the course of my duties without conflict ... but I don't say it couldn't possibly happen."
First, Wolfe has Archie get the copy of the answers to the contest which has been sealed in a vault, since he argues that the contest can never really be decided by those riddles under the circumstances, despite the desire of everyone concerned to get to the bottom of it. Archie is allowed to see, but not take, the information on the critical sheet of paper guarded like a state secret. He copies the information into his notebook, and gives it to Wolfe, who merely puts it in the office safe.
Under pretense of simply being part of the contest team, Wolfe then meets most of the contest finalists, except for Rollins, who is sick in bed at his hotel, and whom Goodwin visits.
The contestants and their reasons and sacrifices for being in the contest are the heart of the book.
In particular, Ms Frazee (see below), who is against cosmetics and devotes her life to promoting that view, has entered such a contest. But her Women's Nature League is also a secret weapon: a hidden army of people to help her, even though she is trapped in New York.
Talbott Heery, owner of Heery Products, also calls upon Wolfe, and offers to supersede LBA as client since his own interests are paramount, but Wolfe counters that it would be unethical and in any event unnecessary.
Soon, the contestants all receive mysterious anonymous letters solving the riddles, and Archie thinks that that was the mysterious errand of Saul Panzer, but when LBA partners attempt to congratulate Wolfe for his coup, he denies it.
Meanwhile, the détente between Wolfe and Cramer dissolves when Vernon Assa, one of the LBA partners, dies during a conference at Wolfe's office.
This causes Wolfe to erase the artificial distinction between solving the murders and finding the thief.
However, after the culprit is identified, LBA is reluctant to pay Wolfe his full fee, since, as noted above he denied sending the answers. Wolfe responds that among the expenses on his final bill will be $40 for a used typewriter, now at the bottom of the Hudson!
Cast of characters
- Nero Wolfe—Sedentary Manhattan private detective, orchid fancier, gourmet/gourmand, and self-educated man, with an extensive personal library/office where he conducts nearly all business
- Archie Goodwin—Wolfe's live-in right-hand man (assistant), agent provocateur, man of action
- Fritz Brenner—The Wolfe household's live-in world-class Swiss French chef
- Rudolph Hansen—attorney at law, representing Lippert, Buff & Assa (LBA), a prominent Madison Avenue advertising agency
- Oliver Buff—a partner in LBA
- Patrick O'Garro—another partner in LBA
- Vernon Assa—Third and final partner of LBA (Mr Lippert has been dead for a while, and Mr. O'Garro has taken his place)
- Talbott Heery—Owner of Heery Products, a major cosmetics company, and in particular the Pour Amour brand of perfume being promoted by LBA in a major contest.
- Louis Dahlmann—employee of LBA, in charge of the Heery account, creator of the perfume contest, but now murdered and his wallet stolen, the latter detail being more urgent to LBA than the former.
- Finalists in the perfume contest, from all over the US, but brought to NYC by LBA/Heery for the final round of the perfume contest
- Susan Tescher, from NYC, and editor at Clock magazine besides contestant in the perfume contest
- Mr Hibbard, attorney,
- Mr Schulz, associate editor,
- Mr Knudsen, senior editor, all staff of Clock who accompany Ms. Tescher on a visit to Wolfe, not only about the contest but hoping to do an article on Wolfe himself.
- Carol Wheelock, from Richmond, Virginia
- Philip Younger, from Chicago, Illinois
- Harold Rollins, from Burlington, Iowa
- Gertrude Frazee, from Los Angeles, California, founder and president of the Woman's Nature League, a pressure group opposed to women using cosmetics. Ms Frazee's dialogue includes a graphic description of the source of musk
- Susan Tescher, from NYC, and editor at Clock magazine besides contestant in the perfume contest
- Doctor Vollmer—a neighbor and friend of Wolfe, called upon whenever a dead body is discovered in the Wolfe household, something that, based on past Wolfe novels,happens distressingly often.
- Theodore Horstmann—The Wolfe household's orchid nurse, rarely seen outside the plant rooms on the roof the brownstone.
- Saul Panzer—high-priced freelance detective whom Wolfe uses, not always with the foreknowledge of Goodwin, to perform difficult and sensitive tasks for which Archie cannot be spared, or which Wolfe wants to (temporarily) hide from Archie. In Nero Wolfe novels, such a maneuver is nearly always a place where the reader should pause, because Wolfe has made a deduction that he hasn't revealed to Archie.
- Fred Durkin, Orrie Cather, Bill Gore - Freelance operatives Wolfe uses to help find specific evidence near the novel's conclusion. Johnny Keems, another operative Wolfe sometimes uses, is mentioned but ultimately not hired. Gore's final appearance in a Stout volume.
Reviews and commentary
- Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor, A Catalogue of Crime — It is brisk and clever enough, but not one in which Archie shines with special luster."
- Terry Teachout, About Last Night, "Forty years with Nero Wolfe" (January 12, 2009) — Rex Stout's witty, fast-moving prose hasn't dated a day, while Wolfe himself is one of the enduringly great eccentrics of popular fiction. I've spent the past four decades reading and re-reading Stout's novels for pleasure, and they have yet to lose their savor ... It is to revel in such writing that I return time and again to Stout's books, and in particular to The League of Frightened Men, Some Buried Caesar, The Silent Speaker, Too Many Women, Murder by the Book, Before Midnight, Plot It Yourself, Too Many Clients, The Doorbell Rang, and Death of a Doxy, which are for me the best of all the full-length Wolfe novels.
- 1955, New York: Viking Press, October 27, 1955, hardcover
In his limited-edition pamphlet, Collecting Mystery Fiction #9, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe Part I, Otto Penzler describes the first edition of Before Midnight: "Pale blue cloth, front cover and spine printed with dark blue; rear cover blank. Issued in a mainly black dust wrapper."
In April 2006, Firsts: The Book Collector's Magazine estimated that the first edition of Before Midnight had a value of between $200 and $350. The estimate is for a copy in very good to fine condition in a like dustjacket.
The "concept-driven" dustjacket designed by Bill English was cited by graphic design scholar Steven Heller for its modernist techniques—photomontage, spare use of color, sans-serif typography and use of the entire front and back cover area.
- 1956, New York: Viking Press (Mystery Guild), January 1956, 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).
- 1956, London: Collins Crime Club, May 7, 1956, hardcover
- 1957, New York: Bantam #A1632, July 1957, paperback
- 1962, London: Fontana #725, 1962
- 1973, New York: Viking Press, Three Trumps: A Nero Wolfe Omnibus (with If Death Ever Slept and The Black Mountain), April 1973, hardcover
- Stout, Rex (1976). Before Midnight. Bantam. ISBN 0-553-02831-6.
- 1995, New York: Bantam Books ISBN 0-553-76304-0 November 1, 1995, paperback
- 2004, Auburn, California: The Audio Partners Publishing Corp., Mystery Masters ISBN 1-57270-412-8 September 2004, audio CD (unabridged, read by Michael Prichard)
- 2010, New York: Bantam ISBN 978-0-307-75571-1 May 19, 2010, e-book
- 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
- Townsend, Guy M., Rex Stout: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography (1980, New York: Garland Publishing; ISBN 0-8240-9479-4), p. 32. 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. 32
- 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
- Heller, Steven (July 9, 2015). "Bill English Covers Rex Stout". Print. Retrieved 2015-08-03.
- Penzler, Otto, Collecting Mystery Fiction #9, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe Part I, pp. 19–20
Quotations related to Before Midnight at Wikiquote