Murder by the Book

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For the 1950 film sometimes known by this title, see No Trace.
For the 1971 Columbo episode directed by Steven Spielberg, see Columbo (season 1).
Murder by the Book
First edition
Author Rex Stout
Cover artist Bill English
Country United States
Language English
Series Nero Wolfe
Genre Detective fiction
Publisher Viking Press
Publication date
October 12, 1951
Media type Print (Hardcover)
Pages 248 pp. (first edition)
OCLC 1468922
Preceded by Curtains for Three
Followed by Triple Jeopardy

Murder by the Book is a Nero Wolfe detective novel by Rex Stout published in 1951 by the Viking Press, and collected in the omnibus volume Royal Flush (1965).

Plot summary[edit]

On a cold January night, Inspector Cramer takes the unprecedented step of approaching Nero Wolfe for his help on a stalled murder investigation. Leonard Dykes, a clerk for a small law partnership, has been bludgeoned and drowned in the East River, with no leads other than a list of names in his pocket. Wolfe is unable to help, but by chance a month later Wolfe is approached by John Wellman, a Peoria businessman, to investigate the death of his daughter Joan. Joan, a reader for a small fiction publisher, was killed in a hit-and-run incident in Van Cortlandt Park, and Wellman, convinced his daughter was murdered, is dissatisfied with the investigation. After reading a recent letter that Joan had written to her parents, Wolfe is struck by the appearance of the name ‘Baird Archer’, an author whose novel Joan was reading for her employer; the same name had appeared on the list found in Leonard Dykes’ pocket. This convinces Wolfe that Joan Wellman was also murdered, and he agrees to take the case.

Wolfe orders Archie Goodwin to explore the link between Archer’s novel and the two murder victims. While investigating potential typing agencies that Archer may have used to transcribe his novel, Archie arrives at the office of Rachel Abrams, a stenographer, mere minutes after she has been thrown out of a window to her death. Confirming a hunch, in the moments before the police arrive Archie confirms that Baird Archer was one of her clients. With little else to go on, Wolfe begins to focus on Leonard Dykes, the first victim, and in order to find out more about him Archie arranges a gathering at Wolfe’s office with the female employees of Corrigan, Phelps, Kustin and Briggs, the law partnership Dykes worked for.

After Archie produces John Wellman and Rachel Abrams's mother, who plead with the women to help identify the murderer, pent-up tensions between the women boil over, and during the resulting argument the name of Conroy O’Malley comes up. O’Malley, the former senior partner of the firm, was disbarred after bribing a jury foreman to fix a case. While Dykes was blamed for exposing him to the Bar Association, it quickly becomes apparent that all four of the firm’s partners—James Corrigan, Emmet Phelps, Louis Kustin and Frederick Briggs—have motive to have betrayed O’Malley. Soon after, the five lawyers—whose reputations have been damaged by recent events—approach Wolfe, keen to avoid further scandal. The men agree to send Wolfe all correspondence relating to Dykes, including a resignation letter he submitted.

When Wolfe and Archie receive the letter, they are intrigued by an odd notation -- ‘Ps146-3’—that has been scribbled on it in pencil. They discover that the notation corresponds to the third verse of Psalm 146 of the Book of Psalms -- “Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help”. As Baird Archer’s novel was titled Put Not Your Trust, this confirms Wolfe’s theory that ‘Baird Archer’ was a nom de plume used by Leonard Dykes. Archie learns from Blanche Duke, one of the female employees, that the handwriting of the notation matches that of James Corrigan.

When Wolfe learns that Dykes had a sister, Peggy Potter, who lives in California, Archie is dispatched to Los Angeles to persuade Peggy to help them trap her brother’s murderer. Archie writes a letter to the law firm of Corrigan, Phelps, Kustin and Briggs purportedly from Peggy asking for advice over the legal rights of her brother’s novel, and hires a local private detective to pose as ‘Walter Finch’, a literary agent interested in acquiring her brother’s novel and selling it to a movie studio. Soon after, James Corrigan contacts Peggy, announcing that he is flying out to Los Angeles. Corrigan meets 'Finch' in a hotel room, unaware that Archie is present, and desperately insists on seeing Dykes’ manuscript, unsuccessfully resorting to violence when ‘Finch’ refuses. Archie remains in the hotel room while Corrigan and ‘Finch’ return to Peggy’s home for Corrigan to continue his negotiations—and so is present in the room when Corrigan later breaks in, trying to find the manuscript. Corrigan flees back to New York, closely tailed by Archie.

The night after their return, Wolfe receives a rambling phone call apparently from James Corrigan, which is abruptly ended with the sound of a gunshot. After calling the police, Archie is dispatched to Corrigan’s apartment where Corrigan has apparently committed suicide. The next day, Wolfe receives an unsigned letter purporting to be written by Corrigan in which he confesses to the murders. The letter claims that Corrigan was the one who exposed O'Malley and murdered Dykes after discovering Dykes’s manuscript, which exposed the truth of the affair as a Roman a clef. The letter also confesses to the murders of Joan Wellman and Rachel Abrams, claiming that Corrigan murdered them to conceal his secret.

Although the authorities are willing to rule Corrigan the murderer and his death a suicide, Wolfe summons the major players to his office, where he reveals that Corrigan’s supposed suicide note was flawed in one crucial respect; it claimed that Corrigan was aware of the contents of Dykes’ novel, when in fact Corrigan’s actions in Los Angeles clearly demonstrated that he had never seen the manuscript before. In fact, the suicide was staged and the letter forged by Conroy O’Malley, who also intercepted Leonard Dykes’s resignation letter before it was sent to Wolfe and wrote the notation in Corrigan’s hand to implicate him. Wolfe reveals that although Corrigan actually was responsible for O’Malley’s disbarment, it was in fact O’Malley who discovered Dykes’ manuscript, through which he learnt of Corrigan’s betrayal. O’Malley preemptively murdered the other victims both to frame Corrigan and to prevent them from exposing his reasons for murder, and then murdered Corrigan and staged his death to look like suicide. After Saul Panzer exposes holes in O’Malley’s alibi, O’Malley is charged and convicted of murder.

Reviews and commentary[edit]

  • Anthony Boucher, The New York Times Book Review (October 28, 1951) — For some years now Nero Wolfe has flourished best in novelettes ... The shorter exploits, annually collected in volumes of three, have been models of the middle-length detective story; but some of us have still yearned nostalgically for the days of such Wolfe novels as Too Many Cooks and The League of Frightened Men. It's a pleasure at last to report that in Murder by the Book Rex Stout restores Nero Wolfe to his proper place in the long detective novel. A man has been murdered presumably because of a novel which he wrote and which has completely disappeared; there is apparently as total an absence of clues as ever confronted a fictional detective. And the story is not so much one of detection, as of the ingenious efforts of Wolfe and the incomparable Archie Goodwin to find some conceivable starting point from which detection can be carried on. It's an odd and interesting approach; the solution is at once plausible and surprising (if not quite deductively watertight). Wolfe and Archie are both in top form and Stout has rarely done a better novelistic job of putting flesh on assorted minor characters.
  • Stuart M. Kaminsky — I am a huge Stout fan. I've got a collection of the Wolfe novels and re-read them. I just finished reading Murder by the Book, definitely one of my favorites in the series. Check Stout's scenes of Archie in Los Angeles. They rank right up there with Chandler, and the characters — major and minor — are vivid and memorable, not to mention the great give-and-take between Wolfe and Archie.[1]
  • Nancy Pearl, Book Lust — When Stout is on top of his game, which is most of the time, his diabolically clever plotting and his storytelling ability exceed that of any other mystery writer you can name, including Agatha Christie, who invented her own eccentric genius detective Hercule Poirot. Although in the years since Stout's death I find myself going back and rereading his entire oeuvre every year or two, I return with particular pleasure to these five novels: The Doorbell Rang; Plot It Yourself; Murder by the Book; Champagne for One; and Gambit.[2]
  • Saturday Review of Literature (November 10, 1951) — Missing novel MS is lethal to NY quartet and disrupts high-toned law office, but orchidaphilic Nero Wolfe pins blue ribbon on felon. Usual scrupulous attention to, and skilled management of, detail; honest, lively, interest-holding performance.
  • 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.


Nero Wolfe (Paramount Television)[edit]

Murder by the Book was adapted as the eighth 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 Walter Brooke (George [Frederick] Briggs), Delta Burke (Jean Wellmann), Ed Gilbert (Robert [Emmett] Phelps), David Hedison (Phillip [James] Corrigan) and John Randolph (Ryan [Conroy] O'Malley). Directed by Bob Kelljan from a teleplay by Wallace Ware (David Karp), "Murder by the Book" aired March 13, 1981.

Andre Malraux reference[edit]

During his foray to California, Archie Goodwin contracts with a local detective agency for a detective able to impersonate a literary agent, and rejects several candidates who don't fit the role. The one who is finally chosen (and performs to great satisfaction) surprises Goodwin by reading in his spare time a serious philosophical book named Twilight of the Absolute. (Goodwin himself, when later left alone, glances at this book but does not care to read it, preferring to pass his time with newspapers and magazines.)

Stout does not specify the name of the writer of Twilight of the Absolute. In fact it is a book by Andre Malraux, translated from French and published in the US by Pantheon Books in 1950, one year before the present book [1].

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 Murder by the Book: "Yellow cloth, front cover and spine printed with red; rear cover blank. Issued in a yellow, red, black and white dust wrapper."[4]
In April 2006, Firsts: The Book Collector's Magazine estimated that the first edition of Murder by the Book (featured on the cover of the magazine) had a value of between $400 and $750. The estimate is for a copy in very good to fine condition in a like dustjacket.[5]
  • 1952, New York: Viking (Mystery Guild), January 1952, 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).[6]


  1. ^ Pierce, J. Kingston, "Murder Is His Business". Stuart M. Kaminsky interviewed in January Magazine, 2002
  2. ^ Pearl, Nancy, Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment, and Reason (Seattle, Washington: Sasquatch Books, 2003, ISBN 1-57061-381-8); p. 226
  3. ^ Townsend, Guy M., Rex Stout: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography (1980, New York: Garland Publishing; ISBN 0-8240-9479-4), p9. 28–29. John McAleer, Judson Sapp and Arriean Schemer are associate editors of this definitive publication history.
  4. ^ 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. 27
  5. ^ 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
  6. ^ Penzler, Otto, Collecting Mystery Fiction #9, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe Part I, pp. 19–20

External links[edit]

Quotations related to Murder by the Book at Wikiquote