Death on Deadline


Death on Deadline

Death on Deadline is a Nero Wolfe mystery novel by Robert Goldsborough, first published by Bantam in 1987, the second of Goldsborough's seven novels featuring Rex Stout's famous sedentary detective.

Contents

Introduction

The book opens with an unsigned introductory essay comparing Rex Stout's style to Robert Goldsborough's, and also explains that Goldsborough was the winner of a pack of would-be continuators, and compares Goldsborough's effort to that of Adrian Conan Doyle to continue Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. Although unsigned, the place of writing given (Mount Independence) makes it likely that the author of the introduction is John McAleer, Rex Stout's official biographer. Bantam, Goldsborough's publisher, later inserted a note in books explaining that McAleer was indeed the author, and that it was never Bantam's intention to make a mystery out of the identity of the author of the introductory essay.

Background

In the Rex Stout corpus of Nero Wolfe stories, heavy use is made at times of a symbiotic relationship between Nero Wolfe and the fictional New York Gazette newspaper. Archie Goodwin, Wolfe's right-hand man, and a senior editor at the paper, Lon Cohen, are long-time poker buddies, stretching back to the earliest Wolfe stories. However, none of the Rex Stout stories involve the inner structure of the Gazette.

Catalyst to murder

In Death on Deadline, the current owners of the Gazette are getting old, and a Scottish press baron, Ian MacLaren, is expressing an interest in acquiring the Gazette as part of his quest to own a major paper in the largest city of every English-speaking country (he already has the others). Lon Cohen confides this to Archie at their weekly poker game, and Wolfe becomes concerned on a number of fronts: he likes the newspaper the way it is, he has heard bad things about MacLaren's other newspapers, and his preferred relationship with the press may be threatened (Cohen, in particular, would quit/retire if MacLaren took over).

After sending Archie on a mission to get samples of several of MacLaren's newspapers for more detailed examination, Wolfe becomes alarmed enough to place a full-page advertisement in The New York Times to publicly question whether MacLaren is a suitable owner of the newspaper and to offer assistance to any parties that agree with his point of view.

Characters, in order of appearance

  • Nero Wolfe -- semi-retired great sedentary legendary detective on the Lower West Side of Manhattan
  • Archie -- Right-hand man of Wolfe, and teller of the Wolfe stories in the first person
  • Saul Panzer -- Another regular in Wolfe, an (implicitly) Jewish operative, top quality, who lives alone in his own apartment and hosts weekly poker games to which Lon Cohen, Archie, and Fred Durkin (qqv below), among others, are invited
  • Fred Durkin -- Another independent detective Wolfe frequently uses. Not as sharp—or as expensive—as Panzer—but frequently easier to book on short notice.
  • Bill Gore—Yet another freelancer. Gore's character is not developed much in either the Rex Stout or Goldsborough stories, but is another name to insert when a face is needed.
  • Ian MacLaren—Scottish press baron, lately showing an interest in gaining control of the Gazette at which Lon is a senior editor (but not publisher). Ian's not at the poker game of course but his name comes up and spoils the evening for Lon.
  • Gershmann—another Wolfe client, case ongoing when the story opens. Closing that case immediately provides an infusion of cash to the Wolfe operation, which is expensive—see the main Nero Wolfe article for insight on that point. Otherwise Gershmann plays no part in the present case
  • Studs Terkel -- not a fictional person but a real author whom the fictional Wolfe likes, and by implication Goldsborough as well. In the present novel, Wolfe is reading Terkel's book The Good War. This book-within-a-book theme is found throughout many of the Wolfe stories, even the shorter ones. For a parallel case in which the book-within-a-book is much more famous than the Wolfe story itself, a good example is Lancelot Hogben's Mathematics For The Million, which provides a vital clue to the story "The Zero Clue". Finally, this apparently wide digression from the topic at hand is a central reason to appreciating Nero Wolfe books: long words, obscure grammatical constructions and the like are not mere intellectual snobbery, but signs of the attempts of Wolfe to fashion himself into a modern-day Renaissance Man, and that Wikipedia in particular allows the reader to follow Wolfe's mindset when he quotes Balzac, or explains why frozen langoustes are no substitute for live lobster at Rusterman's Restaurant.
  • Fritz Brenner -- Master chef and cook for the four men living in Wolfe's old brownstone. Functionally he also serves as a foil for Archie to explain his ideas without the high-minded slant favored by Wolfe.
  • Harriett Haverhill, previously second wife and now widow of Wilkins Haverhill who bought the paper back in the 1930s, largest single shareholder (about 35%) of the Gazette, related by marriage to her dead husband to the other major shareholders: David Haverhill (son, about 17%), Donna Palmer (divorced daughter now living in Boston, also 17%). Carolyn Haverhill, wife of David, although not a shareholder, is quickly apparent as the sharpest of the younger Haverhills. Finally there is Scott Haverhill, Harriett's step-nephew.
  • Elliot Dean—Harriett Haverhill's long-time lawyer, who accompanies Harriett on her visit to Wolfe's office following the Times advertisement, despite advising her against coming and also against her own wishes. Harriet and Elliot are the first pair of people to visit Wolfe's office following his Times advertisement. Dean and Carl Bishop (see below) are small stockholders. Dean holds between 2 and 3 percent of the stock (other parties own slightly more than 12%).
  • Gazette Shareholders—here's a summary what various parties own of the Gazette
    • Arlen Publishing and Demarest families (owners of the Gazette before Wilkins bought it), slightly more than 12%
    • Harriett Haverhill 35%
    • David Haverhill and Donna Palmer about 35%
    • Scott Haverhill 10% -- indecisive—see below
    • Carl Bishop 5%
    • Elliot Dean 2% to 3%
  • Ian MacLaren and a body guard visit the brownstone, but only MacLaren is allowed in, after a noticeable altercation on the porch.
  • Carl Bishop, publisher of the Gazette (5% of the Gazette stock)
  • Inspector Cramer -- Not long after these visits, Harriett Haverhill is found dead in her office, apparently dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, but Wolfe has already announced that he does not believe the suicide theory. This incenses NYPD Inspector Cramer, long time friend and nemesis of Wolfe. The two men are in institutional conflict, which is to say Cramer respects Wolfe's work, but thinks that private citizens should not investigate capital crimes in his jurisdiction (Manhattan), particularly when his actions irritate his superiors. Cramer confides the very confidential information (not known even to the other members of the Haverhill family) that Harriett was gravely ill and certainly didn't have long to live in any case, thus strengthening the case for suicide. Wolfe thanks Cramer for the information but cannot accept it. Cramer leaves in a huff, as usual.
  • Audrey MacLaren—ex-wife of Ian MacLaren, now living in Connecticut, engages Wolfe to investigates Ian's role in Harriett's death. Actually Audrey is certain Ian killed her, either directly, or more likely by instigating the actions of others.
  • Scott Haverhill—One of the two (relatively) young Haverhill cousins being considered to become publisher own Carl Bishop retires (which he already has expressed an interest to do. David Haverhill, his cousin, has coveted the job for a long time, but in the opinion of many is not suited for the job of a paper of that size, although he does a good job as President of the company. He drinks to excess. Carolyn, his wife might be a star choice for publisher, but David has decided to sell his shares to MacLaren's team. Harriett has a more positive opinion of the possibility of Scott being publisher, although quite immediately. In consultation with Wolfe, Scott admits that Harriett had offered him that job if he sold his shares to a trust she was creating. So far only Carl Bishop has accepted a similar offer. If accepted, Scott+Harriett+Bishop+Dean would create a 51% controlling interest in Harriett's favor and the MacLaren deal would be dead. However, no documents from Harriett's office turn up confirming this vital conversation.

Dénouement

  • Wolfe sends Saul Panzer to visit Harriett's former executive secretary
  • Wolfe calls the parties together in his brownstone
  • First he summarizes the narrowly divided stock situation described above, including Scott's presumed defection to Harriett's camp, removing her incentive for suicide, at least by appearances.
  • Next, Wolfe notes that MacLaren and Harriett met privately in the Gazette executive suite shortly before the fatal gunshot(s).
  • Based on how quickly MacLaren said knew Wolfe had accepted Audrey MacLaren as a client and, but rejecting MacLaren's explanation as mendacious, Wolfe immediately suspected MacLaren had a confederate within the Harriett Haverhill camp. By assuming that person was Elliott Dean as accounting for Ian's false explanation, it also meant that a defection of Dean to the MacLaren camp was a counter-coup for MacLaren giving him narrowly more than 50% share of the stock. Therefore, he speculated that the MacLaren/Haverhill confrontation had 3 phases
    1. MacLaren said he had enough commitments to gain a controlling interest
    2. Citing Scott's defection, Harriett claimed victory
    3. MacLaren cited Dean's counterdefection, giving him barely more than 50%, at which point the conservation degenerated into a shouting match and MacLaren left.
  • At this point, Wolfe conjectures that Harriett summoned Dean to her office, which had been her dead husband's office years before and still contained a long-forgotten pistol inside its desk. Since her own days are were numbered anyway, Wolfe speculates that she attempted to kill Elliott, but that he wrested the gun away from Harriett and later shot her.
  • Dean breaks down and says, among other things, "she was dying anyway'.

Conclusion

At this point, the reader certainly know who killed whom, but the degree of blame that is applicable to each of the protagonists is not clear. Based on the events as described, Elliot Dean could support a claim of self-defense, or be accused of second or even first-degree murder depending on subtle details. Goldsborough clearly departs here from the Stout tradition by creating an ending where the final moral judgement is in the hands of the reader. This is particularly true when it comes to considering the role of MacLaren, because although nobody accuses him of pulling the trigger, or of planning the crime, it seems clear that his "foul machinations" (to borrow one of Wolfe's phrases from the final pages) are at the root of the whole affair. A less powerful man might be vulnerable to a charge of accessory after-the-fact in such a situation.


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