When a renowned theater director senses something amiss during his latest production, he calls in Nero Wolfe. Though the corpulent genius wouldn’t normally accept a job this vague, a mutual friend dangles the prospect of a very rare orchid in exchange for his services, and Wolfe can’t resist.
With a mind to suss out useful backstage gossip, Wolfe turns to his faithful assistant, Archie Goodwin, to impersonate a journalist in order to speak to the cast. Though Goodwin’s conversations prove unfruitful, on his last day at the theater, the director is murdered in his soundproof booth, poisoned by an unseen culprit during an evening performance. In short order, an actor whose health is failing attempts suicide with the same poison.
Now Goodwin is a prime suspect in the director’s demise, effectively sidelining him for the rest of the case, and freelance gumshoe Saul Panzer must step in to help wrangle the various members of the play—from the ingénue and the diva to the handsome movie star and the surly stage manager—so New York’s smartest, and most reclusive, private detective can determine who is responsible for these dramatic deaths and clear Goodwin’s name once and for all.
Continuing his beloved series—which also includes Archie Meets Nero Wolfe, Murder in the Ball Park, and Archie in the Crosshairs—Nero Award–winning author Robert Goldsborough “brings Nero Wolfe, late of Rex Stout, gloriously back to life” (Chicago).
Murder, Stage Left is the 59th book in the Nero Wolfe Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
About the Author
While at the Tribune, Goldsborough began writing mysteries in the voice of Rex Stout, the creator of iconic sleuths Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Goldsborough’s first novel starring Wolfe, Murder in E Minor (1986), was met with acclaim from both critics and devoted fans, winning a Nero Award from the Wolfe Pack. Six more novels followed, including Death on Deadline (1987) and Fade to Black (1990). In 2005, Goldsborough published Three Strikes You’re Dead, the first in an original series starring Chicago Tribune reporter Snap Malek. Murder, Stage Left (2017) is his most recent novel.
Robert Goldsborough is an American author best known for continuing Rex Stout’s famous Nero Wolfe series. Born in Chicago, he attended Northwestern University and upon graduation went to work for the Associated Press, beginning a lifelong career in journalism that would include long periods at the Chicago Tribune and Advertising Age. While at the Tribune, Goldsborough began writing mysteries in the voice of Rex Stout, the creator of iconic sleuths Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Goldsborough’s first novel starring Wolfe, Murder in E Minor (1986), was met with acclaim from both critics and devoted fans, winning a Nero Award from the Wolfe Pack. Archie Goes Home is the fifteenth book in the series.
Read an Excerpt
Murder, Stage Left
A Nero Wolfe Mystery
By Robert Goldsborough
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 2017 Robert Goldsborough
All rights reserved.
The reviewers at the Times, News, Post, and Gazette all had called it the "non-musical hit of the season," or words to that effect, and as I sat that August night in the sold-out Belgrave Theater on West Forty-Fourth Street during the first act of Death at Cresthaven, I wondered what I was missing that those esteemed scribes from the daily papers had seen.
The drama, set sometime before World War II in the faded parlor of a Connecticut mansion whose best days were behind it, chronicled a family in decline, both financially and psychologically. At the center of the performance was Marjorie Mills, the tall and elegant grande dame of the household, portrayed as a woman in denial by longtime Broadway fixture Ashley Williston.
Lily Rowan, seated on my left, seemed more involved in the action on the stage than I, and at an intermission in the lobby, I asked her why.
"I thought that you, of all people, would enjoy a good mystery, Escamillo," she said, using the nickname she had tagged me with years ago after I had a run-in with an angry bull in an Upstate pasture. "The acting is really quite good — even Ashley Williston, who I know casually and who I've always thought tended to ham it up both onstage and off."
"Well, I will withhold judgment until the final curtain falls, but for the moment, mark me down as underwhelmed. By the way, how is it that you happen to know the famous Miss Williston?"
"'Know' may be overstating the relationship, but I have met Ashley on more than one occasion," Lily said as we shared a candy bar. "She entertained us with some monologues from her performances at a benefit banquet for an orphanage where I serve on the board, which was very generous of her. And we were seated side by side at a luncheon at the Plaza a year or so ago for a 'send a city kid to summer camp' program. But I have to say that a little bit of Ashley goes a long way."
"The woman is always performing. Even in casual one-on-one conversations, she sounds like she is directing her pear-shaped tones to a theatergoer in the back row of the balcony. I almost felt like I should applaud after one of her pronouncements. And of course everyone around us at the luncheon was constantly turning our way when she spoke. Not because the woman had something interesting to say — she didn't — but because you could hear her throughout the room. And it was a large room."
"Not how I would choose to spend a meal," I said.
"Nor I. But in a way, I do feel a certain sympathy for the woman. It is an open secret in the theater community that it galls her she has never won a Tony Award over her long career."
"Based on what you have said about her work, it seems like there is a reason for that."
Lily nodded. "Ashley has been one of the featured players in God knows how many Broadway dramatic productions, about four or five of which I've seen, and her notices have been lukewarm at best. The best way to summarize the reviewers' rap against her is that 'she tries too hard.'"
"How have the critics treated her in this play?"
"Kindly, overall. If I were to predict, I would say she really feels she's finally got a fair chance at that elusive Tony."
My opinion of the play, and of Ashley Williston, improved somewhat during the second and third acts, although — as the drama of a fractured and down-at-the-heels family, set in a timeworn Connecticut country estate — the production was only fair. But the audience seemed to eat it up, particularly the surprise ending, and the cast got a long and largely standing ovation.
"Well, Archie, what is your verdict now?" Lily asked as we devoured a late supper at Rusterman's Restaurant — for my money, the best eatery in Manhattan outside of the brownstone where I live.
"It was not the best night I've ever spent in a Broadway theater, but it was far from the worst, and Miss Williston did seem to hold up her end of the proceedings relatively well after all," I said. "Besides, no one has ever asked me to be a theater critic, so I am hardly qualified to judge the production." I figured those were to be my last words and last thoughts concerning Death at Cresthaven and Ashley Williston. Just goes to show how wrong one can be.CHAPTER 2
The next four days are not worth wasting many words on in these pages, except to report that Nero Wolfe — with some help from me — wrapped up a forgery case for a Madison Avenue fine-art dealer that involved a phony Rembrandt portrait — a very good phony, at that. The result was the forger's arrest and a fine payday for us, pushing our bank balance to a level where Wolfe could, for months, concentrate totally on the things he enjoys most: his ten thousand orchids; gourmet meals prepared by live-in Swiss chef Fritz Brenner; the reading of up to three books simultaneously; the London Times and New York Times crossword puzzles; and, of course, the consumption of Remmers beer, which Fritz orders by the case.
That Thursday morning at nine thirty, I was at my desk typing up correspondence dictated by my boss to an orchid fancier in Florida when the phone rang. "Nero Wolfe's office, Archie Goodwin speaking," I answered, as I always do during working hours.
"Ah, yes, Mr. Goodwin, I was confident I would find you on the job. Of course I know where Mr. Wolfe is at this moment," the caller said, chuckling. I recognized the voice of Lewis Hewitt, a longtime acquaintance and occasional dinner guest at Wolfe's table, as well as a world-class orchid grower and a multimillionaire who owns a sprawling estate on Long Island.
"Yes, Mr. Hewitt, you do, of course, know his schedule as well as I do: four hours a day, nine to eleven in the morning and four to six before dinner, nursing those orchids up in the plant rooms on the fourth floor, plant rooms you have visited many times. Can I give him a message?"
"You certainly can, sir. I have a friend, a very good friend, named Roy Breckenridge. You may have heard of him."
I had heard of him, but I was not about to interrupt Hewitt, whom I knew liked the sound of his own resonant voice. "Go on," I said.
"You may be aware that Mr. Breckenridge currently is producing a hit drama on Broadway, Death at Cresthaven."
"I believe I've heard something about it."
"I'm sure you have, and this is the reason for my call. Mr. Breckenridge is terribly concerned about his play."
"Bad reviews, eh?" I posed, knowing that was not the case.
"Far from it. In fact, the reviews have been close to stellar. One of the local critics even called it 'the best drama about a decadent and dysfunctional family since Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes."
"Then what's the problem?" I asked, trying to keep the irritation out of my voice.
"Roy Breckenridge is an extremely perceptive man. He tells me he senses trouble ahead, big trouble, and he wants to discuss it with Nero Wolfe."
"Can you be more specific?"
For at least a half minute, I got no reply. Finally, Hewitt spoke. "I have known Roy for more than twenty years, and I have never seen him more agitated. He has this ... feeling, sensation, call it what you will ... that something dire is going to happen involving his play or possibly himself. I did press him for specifics, but he chose not to discuss it with me.
"He knows Nero Wolfe and I are friends, and he asked — pleaded, really — for me to set up an appointment for him to see your boss. You have got a lot of influence with Wolfe. I am sure you can persuade him to see Roy."
"You overstate my influence, I assure you," I told Hewitt. "The man I work for does exactly what he wants to do and nothing more. I've run up against a stone wall with him more times than I can begin to count."
"Perhaps I can help you persuade him to see Roy. Speak these words to him: Grammangis spectabilis."
"Can you spell that?" He did, and I dutifully entered the words in my notebook.
Some background on Lewis Hewitt: I have mentioned that he, like Wolfe, is an orchid fancier of the first order; that he is rich, very rich; and that he has often dined with us, one of the few people to get periodic invitations. Hewitt is as outgoing as Wolfe is reclusive. Where my boss's idea of a daring venture is his twice-monthly ten-block trip from the old brownstone on West Thirty-Fifth Street in Manhattan to his barber, with me playing chauffeur, Lewis Hewitt travels the world at least twice a year in search of exotic orchids, of which he has a collection that equals Wolfe's.
He also makes frequent visits to the opera, the symphony, museum openings, and benefit dinners. In the society pages of the New York papers, he has been described as a bon vivant, a boulevardier, and in plainer terms, "a man about town." Hewitt's wealth is inherited, as is his sprawling estate on Long Island, but to his credit, he has spread much of his dough around to numerous charitable institutions and causes, so his generosity is not in question.
To say that he and Wolfe are competitive when it comes to their quest for exotic orchids would be a gross understatement. Each has, on occasion, possessed a rare species that the other has coveted, and over the years, a good deal of horse trading has taken place between them, along with some tension. Overall, however, their relations have been cordial. Each dines at the other's home at least once a year, so Wolfe's forays out to Long Island, with me again as chauffeur, are among his other rare ventures from the brownstone.
Despite the fact that I have been entering pollination records onto cards for the files for years, I by no means qualify as an expert on orchids, but I do know enough to realize that the two words I got from Hewitt had to do with an orchid, and in all likelihood, a rare one. It would be interesting to see Wolfe's reaction both to Hewitt's request and to those words.
I heard the whir of the elevator, and at one minute after eleven, Wolfe strode into the office, placed a raceme of purple orchids in the vase on his desk, and settled into the reinforced chair built to accommodate his seventh of a ton.
"Good morning, Archie, did you sleep well?" he asked, as he always does, then rang for beer as he always does.
"I did sleep well, after I got over losing the biggest pot of the game at Saul Panzer's poker table last night. But after all, it's only money. Easy come, easy go, or so they say."
Wolfe shrugged, indicating his lack of concern at my plight, and opened the first of two chilled bottles of beer Fritz Brenner had brought in on a tray with a glass, then turned to the letters I had stacked on his desk blotter.
"Before you start signing those, I should tell you about a call that came while you were up on the roof playing with your posies."
He looked up, irritated. "Yes?"
"Lewis Hewitt sends his regards. He also has an acquaintance who wants very much to meet with you."
"No sir, not flummery. The individual in question is Roy Breckenridge, a well-known and successful Broadway producer. Mr. Breckenridge seems to have a sense of foreboding about something to do with his current play, Death at Cresthaven."
"You saw the play with Miss Rowan, and it did not impress you."
"Correct, although, as I told her, I hardly qualify as a theater critic. And the production did seem to improve in the later acts."
"No matter. Tell Mr. Hewitt I am presently immersed in other projects and will be unable to see Mr. Breckenridge."
"I said to him that you probably would not be interested in seeing the producer, and he told me to say these words to you: Grammangis spectabilis."
Wolfe set his beer glass down hard and came forward in his chair, scowling. "What else did he say?"
"That is all. Am I to assume he is referring to some sort of orchid?"
"Some sort of orchid indeed," Wolfe snapped. "Confound it, he got them."
"Care to tell me what this is about?"
"Grammangis spectabilis is one of the rarest orchids in the world, and it is found only in Madagascar, where it recently was discovered. In the last few months, Mr. Hewitt traveled to Madagascar, which I see is not a coincidence."
"I admit I am sometimes slow, but I get the drift. Hewitt now has one or more of these orchids, and you don't."
Wolfe made a sound that roughly translated as "Grrr."
"But," I continued, "Mr. Hewitt proposes a quid pro quo. You meet with Breckenridge and hear him out, and you get one of the Madagascar beauties — at least I assume they are beautiful."
"Blatant bribery!" Wolfe glared at his beer as if blaming it for the pickle he felt he was in. "To think he would stoop to this."
"I really do not see the problem," I said. "I realize our bank balance is healthy, but we both know how fast it can be depleted, given the cost of running this operation. Why not see Breckenridge? Surely, he can afford your rates."
Wolfe hates to work and always has. One of the reasons he hired me all those years ago was because he needed someone to goad him into action. It is not the part of the job that I relish most, but it may be the most important. I sat at my desk watching Wolfe stew. Finally, when he was halfway through his second beer, he drew in a bushel of air, exhaled, and said, "Call Mr. Hewitt and tell him I will see his friend tomorrow morning at eleven."
"Would you like to talk to Hewitt yourself?"
"I would not."
Lewis Hewitt's telephone number happens to be among several I know by heart. As I dialed it, Wolfe rose and marched off to the kitchen, undoubtedly to monitor Fritz's progress on the broiled shad aux fines herbes we would be having for lunch.
The phone rang once. "Hewitt speaking."
"Archie Goodwin here. Mr. Wolfe will see Mr. Breckenridge tomorrow morning at eleven."
"I knew you would be able to prevail upon him," he said with a chuckle. "I will call Roy and see if that time is convenient for him. He is a busy man."
"If he wants to see Nero Wolfe badly enough, he had better clear the time — period. Mr. Wolfe also happens to be busy. We are, at present, working on two cases simultaneously," I improvised.
"Very well. I will telephone you to confirm Mr. Breckenridge's appearance." Fifteen minutes later, Hewitt called to say the producer would come to the brownstone at the appointed time.
I went to the kitchen to inform Wolfe, and he nodded. "Archie, would you say our account with Mr. Cohen is in balance?" He was asking about Lon Cohen of the New York Gazette, a longtime friend who has supplied us with valuable information about a variety of people and events over the years. We, in turn, have delivered numerous scoops to him concerning cases we have worked on and that Wolfe has solved.
"I would say that, if anything, Lon owes us."
"That also is my impression. Telephone Mr. Cohen and find out what he knows about Mr. Breckenridge," Wolfe said, turning back to offer advice and counsel to Fritz, who was preparing the broiled shad.
Lon Cohen does not have a title I am aware of at the Gazette, the fifth-largest newspaper in America, but he has an office on the building's twentieth floor, three doors down from the publisher and with a dandy view of the Chrysler Building. I went back to my desk and dialed his number. He answered on the second ring.
"Hello, oh chronicler of the news in our fair land's largest metropolis. Can you spare a moment for an old friend?"
"The words 'old friend' always make me nervous when they come from you," Lon shot back. "Why do I get the feeling that I am about to have the touch put on me?"
"I will answer that by asking you a question Mr. Wolfe posed to me just moments ago: On balance, how is our account?"
A pause at the other end, which is rare for the voluble newsman. "As much as it pains me to say it, I am in your debt."
"Being in our debt should hardly pain you, especially given a couple of dandy scoops we've thrown to your rag in the last few months."
"Rag, indeed! You have cut me to the quick."
"No doubt, but I suspect that cut will heal quickly. Mr. Wolfe needs some information."
"I thought as much. Who or what does he want to know about?"
"It happens to be who — Roy Breckenridge."
"Ah, the noted impresario, whom the Times has dubbed the 'Baron of Broadway.' Is he a client of yours, and if so, why?"
"Not so fast, typewriter jockey; as usual, you are getting ahead of yourself. It is much too early to answer questions."
Excerpted from Murder, Stage Left by Robert Goldsborough. Copyright © 2017 Robert Goldsborough. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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