Over My Dead Body (novel)
|Cover artist||Robert Graves|
|Publisher||Farrar & Rinehart|
|January 3, 1940|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover)|
|Pages||293 pp. (first edition)|
|Preceded by||Some Buried Caesar|
|Followed by||Where There's a Will|
Over My Dead Body is the seventh Nero Wolfe detective novel by Rex Stout. The story first appeared in abridged form in The American Magazine (September 1939). The novel was published in 1940 by Farrar & Rinehart, Inc.
"I'm resigning as of this moment."
"Resigning from what?"
"You. My job."
"No, boss, really. You told the G-man you have never married. Yet you have a daughter. Well — " I shrugged. "I'm not a prude, but there are limits —"— A scandalized Archie ragging Wolfe, in Over My Dead Body, chapter 2
In Over My Dead Body Rex Stout begins to explore Wolfe's Montenegrin background. By 1939, of course, the Wolfe/Goodwin books had become an established series but Wolfe's youth had yet to be clarified. Stout starts to do so in this book by ringing in a number of European visitors, including some from Montenegro; the backdrop is the maneuvers of the Axis and Allied powers to dominate Yugoslavia. In the first chapter Wolfe tells FBI Agent Stahl that he was born in the United States—a declaration at odds with all other references in the corpus. Stout's authorized biographer John McAleer explained the reason for the anomaly:
Rex told me that even in 1939 Wolfe was irked by the FBI's consuming curiosity about the private business of law-abiding citizens. In consequence, Wolfe felt under no constraint to tell the truth about himself when interrogated by Stahl. There was, however, another reason for Wolfe's contradictory statements about his place of origin. Rex explained: "Editors and publishers are responsible for the discrepancy. … In the original draft of Over My Dead Body Nero was a Montenegrin by birth, and it all fitted previous hints as to his background; but violent protests from The American Magazine, supported by Farrar & Rinehart, caused his cradle to be transported five thousand miles. … I got tired of all the yapping, and besides it seemed highly improbable that anyone would give a damn, or even, for that matter, ever notice it."
Carla Lovchen and Neya Tormic, two young women from Montenegro, come to Wolfe's office asking his assistance. Miss Tormic has been accused, falsely she says, of the theft of diamonds from the locker room of a fencing studio where she works. She cannot afford Wolfe's large fees, but Miss Tormic has a document showing that Wolfe adopted her when she was an infant, at the time of World War I. Wolfe has not seen her since.
Wolfe undertakes to investigate Miss Tormic's predicament, and sends Archie to the fencing studio. At the studio, Archie is gathering information when a body is discovered: that of a British citizen who has just provided Miss Tormic with an alibi for the diamond theft. The body has been pierced by an épée – but because of the rapier's blunt point, this is thought at first to be an impossibility.
After the police arrive, Archie notices that an object has been stashed in the pocket of his topcoat. Concerned that he's being set up, Archie escapes the premises without examining the object. Back at Wolfe's house, the object is found to be a bloodstained fencing glove, in which a col de mort has been wrapped. A col de mort, it turns out, is a sharp metal fitting that can be attached to the end of an épée, so as to turn a relatively safe weapon into a deadly one.
Wolfe and Archie conceal the glove and the fitting in a loaf of Italian round, which Fritz covers with chocolate icing and keeps in the refrigerator. Subsequently, the evidence is turned over to Inspector Cramer, who decides that his best chance to solve the murder is to camp out with Wolfe and keep an eye on him. Uncharacteristically, Wolfe makes no objection.
A patron of the studio, Madame Zorka, phones Wolfe to tell him that she saw someone conceal the glove in Archie's coat and threatens to inform the police. Archie arranges to pick her up for a conversation with Wolfe, but Zorka's gone missing.
Yet another murder ensues, this time of a thinly-disguised Nazi who contributes to Miss Tormic's alibi. After a considerable amount of flailing about, Wolfe manages to get the dramatis personae together in his office where, in the manner that became standard in the series, he exposes the murderer and motive.
The unfamiliar word
In most Nero Wolfe novels and novellas there is an unfamiliar word, usually spoken by Wolfe. Over My Dead Body contains at least four examples, including the following:
- Obloquy. Chapter 2.
- Pipe. Chapter 3. "Baby doll with a new silk dress and pipe the earrings." Shorter OED provides as the 12th definition for v.t. and v.i.: Watch, notice, look (at), slang and dialect first appearing middle 19th century.
- Consilience. Chapter 5.
- Supposititious. Chapter 7.
Cast of characters
- Nero Wolfe — Famous detective
- Archie Goodwin — Wolfe's young assistant, and the narrator of all Wolfe stories
- Carla Lovchen — Beautiful Montenegrin girl
- Neya Tormic — Carla's emotional friend and Wolfe's client
- Nikola Miltan — Macedonian épée champion, owner of a fencing and dancing studio in Manhattan where Tormic and Lovchen work
- Jeanne Miltan — His wife
- John P. Barrett — Wealthy international banker, involved with intrigues and secret transactions involving royal holdings in Bosnia
- Donald Barrett — His son
- Madame Zorka — Couturière, client of Miltan's studio, and business associate of Donald Barrett
- Inspector Cramer — Head of the New York Police Department's homicide squad
- Nat Driscoll, Rudolph Faber, Percy Ludlow — Fencing students at Miltan's studio
- Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin, Orrie Cather — Freelance detectives employed by Wolfe
Some material in Over My Dead Body would in later decades be thought inappropriate at the very least. There is a minor character who is described in a way that brings Steppin Fetchit to mind. And Stout puts seven consecutive ethnic epithets in Cramer's mouth, at least five of which would in later years be considered offensive.
The following excerpt from Over My Dead Body was used as the quotation in a New York Times Sunday acrostic: "When an international financier is confronted by a holdup man [with a gun], he automatically hands over not only his money and jewelry but also his shirt and pants, [because] it doesn't occur to him that a robber might draw the line somewhere." (The bracketed words did not appear in the acrostic.)
Reviews and commentary
- Isaac Anderson, The New York Times Book Review (January 7, 1940) — There is more of Archie Goodwin than of Nero Wolfe in this book, and that is all to the good, for, although Wolfe is Archie's boss and the one who does the heavy thinking, Archie is, unless our guess is wide of the mark, the person whom readers of the Nero Wolfe stories take to their hearts. If Nero is the brains of the concern, Archie is its arms and hands and legs. When Nero wants something done, he does not need to tell Archie how to do it. Archie will figure that out for himself, and the thing is as good as done, however difficult the assignment may be. In the murder case with which this story deals there are international complications which make things unusually difficult. The police and the G-men are in it too, but the best that they can do is to watch Nero Wolfe and wait for him to come through with the solution. The book is full of surprises for everybody concerned, including not only the reader but also the police, Archie and even Nero Wolfe himself. Read one chapter of this book and you will need no urging to go on with it.
- Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor, A Catalogue of Crime — This is the tale in which we learn that Nero has been married, has adopted a daughter in his native Montenegro, and has become a U.S. citizen in order to enjoy peace and democracy. The plot hinges on international and domestic secrets but it is sober and sound. Archie, Cramer, and the rest of the cast are in top form, and Nero is noticeably more outspoken and impulsive than he subsequently became.
- J. Kenneth Van Dover, At Wolfe's Door — The first half dozen Wolfe novels established the detective as an original creation. Over My Dead Body begins the long line of pleasant entertainments in which Wolfe and Archie exploit the familiar formulas.
A Nero Wolfe Mystery (A&E Network)
An adaptation of Over My Dead Body concluded the first season of the A&E TV series A Nero Wolfe Mystery (2001–2002). Sharon Elizabeth Doyle and Janet Roach wrote the teleplay for the episode, which was directed by Timothy Hutton. "Over My Dead Body" made its debut in two one-hour episodes airing July 8 and 15, 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), Ron Rifkin (Nikola Miltan), Colin Fox (Fritz Brenner), James Tolkan (Percy Ludlow), George Plimpton (John Barrett). Kari Matchett (Carla Lovchen), Debra Monk (Madame Zorka), Francie Swift (Neya Tormic), Trent McMullen (Orrie Cather), Conrad Dunn (Saul Panzer), Robert Bockstael (Agent Stahl), Nicky Guadagni (Jeanne Miltan), Hrant Alianak (Nat Driscoll), R.D. Reid (Sergeant Purley Stebbins), Richard Waugh (Rudolph Faber), Dina Barrington (Belinda Reade) and Boyd Banks (Duncan Barrett, the same character called "Donald Barrett" in the original novel, yet, oddly, still referred to as "Donny-Bonny" in the teleplay's dialog by Belinda Reade, Madame Zorka, and sarcastically by Archie, just as in the novel).
"Over My Dead Body" is one of the Nero Wolfe episodes released on Region 2 DVD in the Netherlands by Just Entertainment, under license from FremantleMedia Enterprises. A Nero Wolfe Mystery — Serie 2 (2010) was the first DVD release of the international version of the episode, which presents "Over My Dead Body" as a 90-minute film with a single set of titles and credits. Included is a brief scene in which Archie and Fritz put Madame Zorka to bed in the south room. "Fritz is a real gentleman," Archie says in voiceover. "She may not have arrived with a nightie or a toothbrush, but for the honor of the house, by golly, she got orchids." The Netherlands release has optional Dutch subtitles and, like the A&E DVD release, presents the episode in 4:3 pan and scan rather than its 16:9 aspect ratio for widescreen viewing.
The adaptation is faithful to the novel save for a few changes in detail, such as Donald Barrett being renamed Duncan Barrett and Archie conscripting a bellboy at the Maidstone Building to provide his uniform for Carla Lovchen instead of phoning a nearby hotel and asking the house detective he knows there to send a bellboy over to make the switch with Carla. The script also contains a factual error: when Zorka is unmasked, Wolfe says she was born in "Ottumwa, Minnesota", instead of Ottumwa, Iowa, as in the novel.
Nero Wolfe (Radiotelevisione italiana S.p.A.)
Over My Dead Body was adapted for the eighth episode of the RAI TV series Nero Wolfe (Italy 2012), starring Francesco Pannofino as Nero Wolfe and Pietro Sermonti as Archie Goodwin. Set in 1959 in Rome, where Wolfe and Archie reside after leaving the United States, the series was produced by Casanova Multimedia and Rai Fiction and directed by Riccardo Donna. "Coppia di spade" aired May 24, 2012.
- 1939, The American Magazine, September 1939, abridged
- 1940, New York: Farrar & Rinehart, January 3, 1940, hardcover
- In his limited-edition pamphlet, Collecting Mystery Fiction #9, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe Part I, Otto Penzler describes the first edition of Over My Dead Body: "Turquoise cloth, front cover and spine printed with dark blue; rear cover blank. Issued in a full-color pictorial dust wrapper … The first edition has the publisher's monogram logo on the copyright page."
- In April 2006, Firsts: The Book Collector's Magazine estimated that the first edition of Over My Dead Body had a value of between $4,000 and $7,500.
- 1940, New York: Omnibook Magazine, February 1940, abridged
- 1940, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1940, hardcover
- 1940, London: Collins Crime Club, October 7, 1940, hardcover
- 1943, New York: Lawrence E. Spivak, Jonathan Press Mystery #J6, 1943, abridged, paperback
- 1945, New York: Avon #62, 1945, first unabridged paperback
- 1955, Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books #1106, 1955, paperback
- 1965, London: Panther, February 1965, paperback
- 1979, New York: Jove #M4865, March 1979, paperback
- 1992, London: Scribners (Macdonald) "by arrangement with Bantam Books" ISBN 0-356-20110-4, hardcover
- 1994, New York: Bantam Crimeline ISBN 0-553-23116-2 January 1994, paperback, Rex Stout Library edition with introduction by John Jakes
- 2007, Auburn, California: The Audio Partners Publishing Corp., Mystery Masters ISBN 1-57270-730-5 March 28, 2007, audio CD (unabridged, read by Michael Prichard)
- 2010, New York: Bantam ISBN 978-0-307-75608-4 July 21, 2010, e-book
- McAleer, John, Rex Stout: A Biography (1977, Little, Brown and Company; ISBN 0-316-55340-9); p. 403
- Page 74, halfway through chapter 5.
- Page 83, near the beginning of Chapter 6.
- June 17, 2001 edition.
- Page 138, halfway through Chapter 10.
- Anderson, Isaac, The New York Times Book Review; January 7, 1940, p. 17
- 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. Barzun and Taylor may have learned that Wolfe has been married, but the novel does not so state. To the contrary: Archie pretends to be scandalized that the unmarried Wolfe has a daughter (chapter 2). Further, in this novel Wolfe states in chapter 1 that he was born in the United States, not Montenegro.
- 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. 13
- Johannes Brahms, Waltz in A flat Major, Op. 39, No. 15; KPM Music Ltd. KPM CS 7, Light Classics Volume One (track 12). Ib Glindemann, "Moonlight Promenade"; Carlin Music CAR 202, Big Band / Jazz / Swing (track 10). Jacques Offenbach, "The Doll's Song," from The Tales of Hoffmann. David Steinberg, "Tom Toms Jam"; 5 Alarm Music, Swing (iTunes Store). 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.
- A Nero Wolfe Mystery — Serie 2, February 11, 2010; EAN 8717344739801. Two-disc set features include "Over My Dead Body" (presented as a 90-minute film with a single set of titles and credits) and "Death of a Doxy." Screen format is 4:3 full frame. Licensed by FremantleMedia Enterprises to Just Entertainment. (Retrieved January 1, 2011)
- "Over My Dead Body," FremantleMedia Enterprises; retrieved September 11, 2012
- Nero Wolfe, Casanova Multimedia; retrieved May 27, 2012
- Episodes, Nero Wolfe (TV series 2012), Italian Wikipedia; retrieved May 27, 2012
- Townsend, Guy M., Rex Stout: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography (1980, New York: Garland Publishing; ISBN 0-8240-9479-4), pp. 18–19. 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. 15–16
- 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
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