The Second Confession
|Cover artist||Bill English|
|September 6, 1949|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover)|
|Pages||245 pp. (first edition)|
|Preceded by||Trouble in Triplicate|
|Followed by||Three Doors to Death|
It is the second of three Nero Wolfe novels that involve crime boss Arnold Zeck and his widespread operations. (The others are And Be a Villain and In the Best Families.) In each story, Zeck – Wolfe's Moriarty – telephones Wolfe to warn him off an investigation that Zeck believes will interfere with his crime syndicate. Each time, Wolfe refuses to cooperate – and there are consequences.
Then I saw that I wasn't standing on the stone of the stoop but on a piece of glass, and if I didn't like that piece there were plenty of others. They were all over the stoop, the steps, the areaway, and the sidewalk. I looked straight up, and another piece came flying down, missed me by a good inch, and crashed and tinkled at my feet. I backed across the sill, shut the door, and turned to face Wolfe, who was standing in the hall looking bewildered.
"He took it out on the orchids," I stated.— Archie, viewing Zeck's handiwork, in The Second Confession, chapter 5
Hired to find evidence that Louis Rony is a Communist, Nero Wolfe finds himself under attack from Arnold Zeck and stymied by his own client. Wolfe solves Rony's murder by coercing the assistance of the American Communist Party.
James U. Sperling, a prominent industrialist, approaches Nero Wolfe to investigate Louis Rony, a criminal attorney and admirer of Sperling’s youngest daughter Gwenn. Sperling distrusts Rony and wants Wolfe to find evidence that Rony is a member of the American Communist Party. Wolfe is reluctant to accept the job, as he knows of Rony’s reputation and believes that he has connections to Arnold Zeck, a shadowy criminal mastermind who has crossed paths with Wolfe before and whom Wolfe is hesitant to tangle with again. Nevertheless, Archie Goodwin is dispatched undercover to Sperling’s Westchester estate to learn what he can about Rony and see if he can discover any reasonable grounds for Sperling to convince his daughter to break off their relationship.
Present at Sperling’s estate are his family, including his wife, his son Jimmy, and his daughters Gwenn and Madeline; Rony himself; Paul Emerson, a controversial conservative radio commentator who is sponsored by Sperling’s business; Emerson’s flirtatious wife Connie; and Webster Kane, an economist and friend of the family. Madeline reveals that she is aware of Archie’s true identity, having read about his exploits with Wolfe in the newspapers and nursing something of a crush on him. That night, after dinner Archie plans to surreptitiously drug Rony’s drink in order to ensure he is unconscious while Archie searches his room for evidence; much to Archie’s surprise, however, when he switches drinks with Rony he discovers that Rony’s drink was already spiked and that Rony had already discarded his drink, apparently anticipating being drugged by someone else.
The next night, Archie launches a back-up plan; offering to drive Rony to the nearby railway station, he instead arranges for operatives of Wolfe, Saul Panzer and Ruth Brady, to pose as robbers and waylay them. Once Rony is rendered unconscious, Archie searches him and discovers a membership card for the Communist Party under the name of William Reynolds. Returning to New York, Archie learns from Wolfe that Arnold Zeck has been in contact, confirming that Rony is one of his operatives; Zeck has warned Wolfe to withdraw from the case. As a threat, while Wolfe and Archie are in his office the greenhouse on the roof of Wolfe’s brownstone is attacked with machine-gun fire, destroying many of the orchids within.
Wolfe meets with Sperling and his family and explains the situation; without naming Zeck, he informs them that while he cannot necessarily prove that Rony is a Communist, he can prove that Rony is a member of Zeck’s organisation, but to do so would potentially be incredibly dangerous for him and them, and it is Gwenn’s decision whether he is to proceed. That night, while everyone is awaiting for her decision, Gwenn goes missing, prompting Archie and Madeline to search the grounds for her. Gwenn is found on the grounds, and reveals that she has contacted Rony and asked him to meet with her so that she can break off their relationship. Following this, Archie discovers Rony’s body; he has been hit by a car and moved into the bushes a few feet from the estate’s driveway.
Among the investigators is Lieutenant Con Noonan of the New York State Police, who still holds a grudge over his interactions with Wolfe and Archie during a previous investigation. Evidence is found on Wolfe’s car indicating that it was the car that ran over Rony, prompting the investigators to suspect Archie of committing a hit and run. They attempt to force a confession out of him, but he refuses. Webster Kane steps forward, claiming to have borrowed Wolfe’s car the previous night to run an errand and to have accidentally run over Rony in the dark. Satisfied by Kane’s confession, the investigators prepare to rule Rony’s death an accident, but when Sperling attempts to pay Wolfe off Wolfe becomes convinced that Kane’s confession is false, and determines to discover what really happened.
Later that day, an anonymous package containing $50,000 cash arrives at the brownstone. Zeck calls Wolfe to explain that he sent the money as payment for the damage to the orchid rooms, and attempts to hire him to catch Rony's murderer. On his weekly radio broadcast, Emerson ridicules Wolfe and his investigation. Wolfe meets with Mr. Jones, a consultant whom Archie is forbidden to meet, and dispatches Archie to the estate to locate evidence that Rony was struck down before being run over. After discovering a stone that could possibly be the murder weapon, Archie is approached by Connie, who attempts to seduce him and then take the stone from him and dispose of it. Wolfe contacts Lon Cohen, the city editor of the Gazette, and puts his plan into action.
Over the next three days, with information provided by Jones, Archie drafts and submits a series of reports detailing confidential plans and meetings of the Communist Party, which are then published in the Gazette. Among other disclosures, they detail the efforts of the Communist Party to influence the presidential campaign of Henry A. Wallace in the 1948 elections. Wolfe subsequently meets Mr. Harvey and Mr. Stevens, senior officials of the American Communist Party, and convinces them to aid him by identifying the man they know as William Reynolds, against whom Wolfe has fabricated evidence to suggest that he is the leak. Wolfe has deduced that Reynolds is the murderer.
That night, in his office, Wolfe gathers the suspects and reveals what he has learned, pressuring Webster Kane to refute his previous confession. Once Kane has done so, Stevens and Harvey enter the room, where they expose him as William Reynolds; Kane murdered Rony after Rony discovered he was secretly a Communist and fabricated the earlier confession of accidental manslaughter in order to avoid being suspected of murder. As his payment, Wolfe demands that Sperling end his contract with Paul Emerson’s radio show, thus forcing Emerson off the air. Zeck calls Wolfe to congratulate him on solving Rony's murder, and Wolfe and Archie receive another anonymous package, this one containing the exact amount that Wolfe paid to Jones for his services. Wolfe and Archie set aside this money, as well as the remainder of the first $50,000, as an emergency fund to be used in case they ever have to face Zeck head-on and must leave the brownstone.
Cast of characters
- Nero Wolfe – The private investigator
- Archie Goodwin – Wolfe's assistant (and the narrator of all Wolfe stories)
- Mr. and Mrs. James U. Sperling – Wolfe's client, the head of a large mining corporation, and his wife
- Gwenn Sperling – The younger of the Sperlings' two daughters
- Louis Rony – Attorney with some shady connections, and Gwenn's suitor
- Madeline Sperling – The Sperlings' older daughter, and Archie's love interest in this book
- James U. "Jimmy" Sperling, Jr. – The Sperlings' son
- Webster Kane – Economist, and consultant to Sperling's corporation
- Paul and Connie Emerson – Radio commentator in the Paul Harvey mold, and his wife
- Lon Cohen – Of the Gazette
- Messrs. Harvey and Stevens – Top ranking members of the American Communist party
- Cleveland Archer – District Attorney of Westchester County
- Ben Dykes – Head of the county detectives
- Lt. Con Noonan – Of the State Police
The unfamiliar word
In most Nero Wolfe novels and novellas, there is at least one unfamiliar word, usually but not always spoken by Wolfe. The Second Confession contains these two:
- Dubiety (chapter 5)
- Hellgrammites (chapter 17, spoken by Connie Emerson)
Reviews and commentary
- Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor, A Catalogue of Crime — This, which is vintage Stout, has the memorable scenes of Archie's stay at a posh country house and putting all the owners and their in-laws at their ease. Absolutely topnotch, which means: in a class with And Be a Villain, Some Buried Caesar, and Too Many Cooks.
- Anthony Boucher, The New York Times Book Review (September 11, 1949) — Apart from the detective puzzle, much of the book is devoted to the offstage buildup of a modern Moriarty, who turns out to have almost nothing to do with the plot. The rest concerns the Communist party. Mr. Stout's anti-communism might be more novelistically effective if he gave an explanation of why his finally unmasked murderer belonged to the party, and if he showed his "Commies" engaged in any pursuit more sinister than the support of Henry Wallace. Nero Wolfe appears as a bulwark of democracy, but in this role he might be more convincing if he did not cause the suppression of a radio commentator with whom he disagrees.
- Saturday Review of Literature (October 15, 1949) — Father of girl enamored of possible Communist hires Nero Wolfe to make sure. Suburban slayings follow blitz of Nero Wolfe's orchids. Stylish, timely, and brilliantly plotted, with Archie and his boss functioning at full speed — Nero even leaves home to snare killer. Very good.
- J. Kenneth Van Dover, At Wolfe's Door — Zeck remains disembodied, but his character is further defined. Wolfe: "He has varied and extensive sources of income. All of them are illegal and some of them are morally repulsive. ..." Wolfe accepts Zeck's $50,000 with the expectation of eventually using it in a campaign to destroy Zeck. Wolfe apparently maintains an informer inside the American Communist Party. He uses his source to publish an account of the Communist conspiracy to assist the Presidential candidacy of Henry Wallace (1948), and he extorts the cooperation of two prominent members of the party. They identify and shun the homicidal party member. Wolfe and Archie both despise the Communists; Wolfe actively supports the World Federalists (Stout himself was a founding member of the United World Federalists). As part of his compensation from Sperling, Wolfe demands that he cease to sponsor the anti-World Federalist (and anti-Wolfe) commentator, Emerson.
- In his limited-edition pamphlet, Collecting Mystery Fiction #9, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe Part I, Otto Penzler describes the first edition of The Second Confession: "Blue-green cloth, front cover and spine printed with green-yellow; rear cover blank. Issued in a mainly blue-green dust wrapper with black and white."
- In April 2006, Firsts: The Book Collector's Magazine estimated that the first edition of The Second Confession had a value of between $300 and $500. The estimate is for a copy in very good to fine condition in a like dustjacket.
- 1949, New York: Viking (Mystery Guild), December 1949, 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).
- 1950, London: Collins Crime Club, April 3, 1950, hardcover
- 1950, abridged in The Montreal Standard, The Newark Evening News and The Chicago Sun-Times, 1950
- 1952, New York: Bantam #1032, September 1952, paperback
- 1964, London: Panther #1701, July 1964, paperback
- 1973, London: Tom Stacey, 1973, hardcover
- 1974, New York: The Viking Press, Triple Zeck: A Nero Wolfe Omnibus (with And Be a Villain and In the Best Families), April 5, 1974, hardcover
- 1976, London: Penguin, The First Rex Stout Omnibus ISBN 0-14-004032-3 (with The Doorbell Rang and More Deaths Than One) 1976, paperback
- 1992, London: Little, Brown and Company (UK) Ltd., ISBN 0-316-90315-9, 1992, hardcover
- 1995, New York: Bantam Crime Line ISBN 0-553-24594-5 May 1995, paperback, Rex Stout Library edition with introduction by William G. Tapply
- 2006, Auburn, California: The Audio Partners Publishing Corp., Mystery Masters ISBN 1-57270-501-9 February 9, 2006 , CD (unabridged, read by Michael Prichard)
- 2010, New York: Bantam ISBN 978-0-307-75616-9 May 26, 2010, e-book
- Barzun and Taylor are in error here: no in-laws appear in The Second Confession.
- 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
- 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. 23
- Townsend, Guy M., Rex Stout: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography (1980, New York: Garland Publishing; ISBN 0-8240-9479-4), pp. 26–27. 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. 24
- 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
Quotations related to The Second Confession at Wikiquote