- Black Orchids
infobox Book |
name = Black Orchids
language = English
Farrar & Rinehart
release_date = May 21, 1942
media_type = Print (
pages = 272 pp. (first edition)
isbn = NA
Where There's a Will
Not Quite Dead Enough
"Black Orchids" is a
Nero Wolfedouble mystery by Rex Stoutpublished in 1942 by Farrar & Rinehart, Inc. Stout's first short story collection, the volume is composed of two novellas that had appeared in abridged form in "The American Magazine":
* "Black Orchids" (August 1941, abridged as "Death Wears an Orchid")
* "Cordially Invited to Meet Death" (April 1942, abridged as "Invitation to Murder")
quotation|The dick got out his memo book and wrote it down. "I don't think it was deliberate," he said. "I think she just changed her mind. I think she just – "
"You think? You say you think?"
"Yes, Inspector, I – "
"Get out. Take another man, take Dorsey, and go to that address and look into her. Don't pick her up. Keep on her. And for God's sake don't think. It's repulsive, the idea of you thinking."
Inspector Cramer, in "Black Orchids", reacting to a subordinate's cognitive processes.
Millionaire orchid fancier Lewis Hewitt has hybridized three black orchid plants in his Long Island greenhouse. Wolfe is wild to have one, so he and Archie visit New York's annual flower show, where Hewitt's orchids are on exhibit. One of the other exhibits features a daily performance by a young couple miming a summer picnic. The woman, Anne Tracy, attracts the attentions of Archie, Lewis Hewitt,
Billy Roseand a young exhibitor named Fred Updegraff.
During Wolfe's visit to the show, Anne's picnic partner Harry Gould is killed, shot in the head by a gun concealed in the foliage. The gun's trigger is attached to a long string that reaches to a hallway well behind the exhibit.
After a little inquiry, Wolfe shows Hewitt how his expensive Malacca cane was used to pull the string, thus the gun's trigger, and thus to kill Gould. Hewitt is horrified by the prospect of the publicity that would ensue should his part in the shooting, however indirect and unwitting, become known. Wolfe offers Hewitt this arrangement: in exchange for all three black orchid plants, the only ones in existence, Wolfe will solve the murder and deliver the criminal to the police, without publicly disclosing Hewitt's connection to the crime. Hewitt terms it blackmail, but submits.
Earlier, Archie had noticed a woman waiting in the hallway behind the exhibit, at around the time that the murderer would have been deploying the string. He now finds her in the crowd that's gawking at the murder scene. In an act of detection that would strain the credulity of someone who was striving to maintain a neutral point of view, Archie steals her handbag, removes it to the men's room, searches it for identification, and learns her name (Rose Lasher) and address. He returns the handbag to her – all without Miss Lasher or anyone else noticing.
The police want to know more about her and, finishing their questions, they let her go — but surreptitiously follow her. The police lose her trail but Archie knows her home address, where she has been living with Harry Gould. He arrives at Miss Lasher's apartment just as she is about to flee the city, and takes her to Wolfe's house. There Archie searches her suitcase and finds some printed matter that Rose cannot or will not explain: a clipping of an article by Lewis Hewitt on Kurume yellows [The Kurume yellows is apparently a fictional disease. Its name is not located by various Internet search engines in other than discussions of this novella.] , a plant disease that is fatal to broadleaf evergreens; a postcard to Rose from Harry, postmarked Salamanca, NY (in the western part of the state); and a work order from a garage, also in Salamanca.
Wolfe gets Miss Lasher to discuss some of Gould's unsavory qualities. Wolfe learns that although Gould was employed as a gardener, he suddenly acquired a bank account containing several thousand dollars [Bear in mind the publication date, 1942.] , and what Miss Lasher terms "a big roll of bills."
From his general awareness of horticultural events, Wolfe knows that an attack of Kurume yellows devastated a plantation of a new hybrid of broadleaf evergreens, about eighty miles west of Salamanca and owned by Updegraff Nurseries.
Weighing all this information, Wolfe concludes that Gould had known the Updegraff plantation had been deliberately infected, and was blackmailing the miscreant – who then killed Gould. Wolfe gathers the main players in an appropriate location – his plant rooms, specifically the fumigating room – and exposes the murderer's identity. Wolfe therefore keeps the black orchids, which subsequently have a cameo role in the second novella in this collection, "Cordially Invited to Meet Death."
Cast of characters
*Nero Wolfe — The private investigator
*Archie Goodwin — Wolfe's assistant (and the narrator of all Wolfe stories)
*Anne Tracy — Secretary at the Rucker and Dill nursery company, and the star of the company's Flower Show exhibit
*Harry Gould — Greenhouse man at Rucker and Dill, the exhibit's co-star, and murder victim
*W. G. Dill — Their employer
*Fred Updegraff — Nursery owner, exhibitor, and Miss Tracy's would-be beau
*Rose Lasher — Harry Gould's live-in girlfriend
*Lewis Hewitt — Wealthy owner and exhibitor of the only three black orchid plants in existence [Also, occasional participant in subsequent Wolfe stories, twice in his capacity as a member of the Ten for Aristology, once as the guardian of Wolfe's orchids ("
In the Best Families"), once to provide help when Wolfe's plant rooms are shot up (" The Second Confession"), and once to recommend Andy Krasicki as a stand-in for Theodore ("Door to Death").]
*Inspector Cramer and Sergeant Purley Stebbins — Representing Manhattan Homicide
Cordially Invited to Meet Death
Bess Huddleston arranges parties for New York society. She has been in contact with Wolfe once before, when she wanted him to play the detective at a party that would feature a mock murder; Wolfe declined to participate. Now, she comes with one anonymous letter in hand and a report of another. They were not sent to her, nor do they threaten her directly: rather, one was sent to a client and the other to a member of the circle in which her clients move. The letters imply strongly that Miss Huddleston has been gossiping about her clients' private lives.
She wants Wolfe to put an end to the smear campaign – if it continues, her monied clients will no longer trust her and won't hire her to arrange their parties. Miss Huddleston has two employees, an assistant party arranger named Janet Nichols and a secretary named Maryella Timms. Both have access to a box of stationery of the same kind used for the letters. The letters are typewritten, and appear to Miss Huddleston's eye to have been typed on one of her typewriters. Wolfe tells Miss Huddleston to have Miss Nichols and Miss Timms come to his office.
They do so, and arrive at a moment when Wolfe and Fritz are discussing another attempt at cooking corned beef. This has long been a problem in the brownstone's kitchen, one never satisfactorily resolved. Miss Timms hears about the dilemma and barges into the kitchen to help. ["Ah heah yawl makin' cawned beef ha-a-sh … one of my specialties." Miss Timms gives the secret as fresh pig chitlins, fried in olive oil with onion juice. (Chapter 2.) "The Nero Wolfe Cookbook" elaborates on the chitlin additive: "2 pounds pig chitlins; 2 cloves; 1 bay leaf; 1 hot red pepper, chopped; 1 onion, sliced; 1 stalk celery, sliced; ¼ cup red wine vinegar; ½ cup olive oil; ½ teaspoon onion juice." Chapter 12, "Dishes Cooked by Others."] Wolfe is so impressed by Miss Timms' expertise that he later allows her to link arms with him, and writes to a professor at Harvard concerning chitlins and corned beef.
Apart from the culinary, though, Wolfe obtains no useful information from Nichols and Timms, and sends Archie to Miss Huddleston's house and place of business to investigate further. There, Archie is bedeviled by a playful chimpanzee, two pet bears and an alligator. He also meets Miss Huddleston's brother Daniel, her nephew Larry, and Alan Brady, an MD who has been spending time with Janet Nichols. Archie doesn't get much further at the house than Wolfe did in his office, but he has cocktails on the terrace with the various players. As the butler is bringing more drinks, the chimpanzee startles him and a tray of glasses crashes to the ground. Most of the broken glass is cleaned up, but Miss Huddleston's foot is cut by a shard and, because of the presence of the animals, Dr. Brady treats the cut with iodine.
Less than one week later, Miss Huddleston is dead, having undergone an excruciatingly painful and drawn out death from tetanus. That, as far as Wolfe is concerned, ends his involvement, but Daniel Huddleston makes a nuisance of himself with the police: he believes his sister was murdered. Daniel is insistent enough that Inspector Cramer comes to Wolfe looking for information. Wolfe has none for him, but after Cramer leaves he drops Archie an exiguous hint: he thinks there's one thing that Cramer should have done during his investigation, and wonders if it has rained during the past week.
Cast of characters
*Nero Wolfe — The private investigator
*Archie Goodwin — Wolfe's assistant (and the narrator of all Wolfe stories)
*Bess Huddleston — Party arranger for members of the Social Register
*Mister, Logo, Lulu and Moses — Miss Huddleston's pet chimp, bears and alligator
*Janet Nichols — Miss Huddleston's assistant
*Maryella Timms — Miss Huddleston's secretary
*Daniel Huddleston — A research chemist and Miss Huddleston's brother
*Larry Huddleston — Another assistant party arranger employed by Miss Huddleston, and her nephew
*Alan Brady — A local medical doctor who has become friendly with the Huddleston household
*Inspector Cramer — Representing Manhattan Homicide
The unfamiliar word
In most Nero Wolfe novels and novellas, there is at least one unfamiliar word, usually spoken by Wolfe. "Cordially Invited to Meet Death" contains just one, in this case first spoken by Daniel Huddleston:
* Catholicon. Page 180 of the Bantam 1992 edition, chapter 7.
Reviews and commentary
Jacques Barzunand Wendell Hertig Taylor, "A Catalogue of Crime" — In the first, Wolfe and Archie are in fine form, and murder at a flower show provides a suitable background for Wolfe's talents and predatory instincts. Archie himself innocently pulls the trigger. The second story is less satisfactory, involving as it does a highly debatable move by the murderer to disarm suspicion. Besides, too many animals.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]
* "Time", "Murder in May" (June 1, 1942) — Nero Wolfe and his ebullient amanuensis Archie Goodwin are here at top form in two "novellas" — "Black Orchids" and "Cordially Invited to Meet Death." The first concerns a cleverly contrived murder at New York's annual Flower Show. The second features an adroit bit of poisoning in the fantastic Riverdale ménage — and menagerie — of a successful party-arranger for Manhattan society. First-class entertainment. [ [http://www.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,790553,00.html "Murder in May"] , "Time", June 1, 1942]
"Nero Wolfe" (CBC Radio)
"Cordially Invited to Meet Death" was adapted as the sixth episode of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's 13-part radio series "Nero Wolfe" (1982), starring
Mavor Mooreas Nero Wolfe and Don Francksas Archie Goodwin. Written by Ron Hartmann, the hour-long adaptation aired on CBC Stereo February 20, 1982.
American Magazine", August 1941, abridged as "Death Wears an Orchid"
The Philadelphia Inquirer", a Gold Seal Novel, January 10, 1943
Lawrence E. Spivak, American Mercury #72, not dated, paperback
*1945, "Rex Stout Mystery Quarterly" #1, May 1945
*1950, New York: Avon #256 (as "The Case of the Black Orchids"), 1950, paperback
*1967, "The Saint Magazine", January 1967
*1996, Burlington, Ontario: Durkin Hayes Publishing, DH Audio ISBN 0886468892 December 1996, audio cassette (unabridged, read by
"Cordially Invited to Meet Death""
American Magazine", April 1942, as "Invitation to Murder"
The Philadelphia Inquirer", a Gold Seal Novel, May 16, 1943, as "Cordially Invited"
Lawrence E. Spivak, Jonathan Press #15, not dated, paperback
*1956, New York: Avon #738 (with
Edgar Allan Poe's "Some Words with a Mummy"), 1956, paperback
Hillman Periodicals, not dated
*1998, Burlington, Ontario: Durkin Hayes Publishing, DH Audio ISBN 0886464722 August 1998, audio cassette (abridged; CBC Radio drama, "Cordially Invited to Meet Death")
*1942, New York:
Farrar & Rinehart, May 21, 1942, hardcover:In his limited-edition pamphlet, "Collecting Mystery Fiction #9, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe Part I", Otto Penzlerdescribes the first edition of "Black Orchids": "Brick brown cloth, front cover and spine printed with black; rear cover blank. Issued in a brick brown and green pictorial dust wrapper … The first edition has the publisher's monogram logo on the copyright page." [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. 17–18] :In April 2006, "Firsts: The Book Collector's Magazine" estimated that the first edition of "Black Orchids" had a value of between $3,000 and $5,000. [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]
*1942, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1942, hardcover
*1942, New York: Detective Book Club #5, August 1942, hardcover
Collins Crime Club, July 5, 1943, hardcover
*1943, New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1943, hardcover
*1945, Cleveland, Ohio: World Publishing Company, a Tower Book, March 1945, hardcover
*1946, New York: Avon #95, 1946, paperback
*1963, New York: Pyramid (Green Door) #R-917, September 1963, paperback
*1992, New York: Bantam Crimeline ISBN 0553257196 May 1992, trade paperback
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