Cover of the 1972 edition of Over My Dead Body

Over My Dead Body
Rex Stout
191 pages
published in 1939

I first discovered Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe books some five years ago or so, when a friend wanted to get rid of some of his copies. At the time I had just started reading mysteries again and was still feeling my way around the genre. I discovered that I quite liked Nero Wolfe and devoured most of the books I bought pretty quickly.

The reasons I like the Nero Wolfe mysteries are simple: they're well written mysteries with a flair of erudition to them and a joy to read. They're also interesting in that you could see them as a cross between the (American) hardboiled detective tradition and the (English) cozy mysteries.

Nero Wolfe himself fits right in with Hercule Poirot, Lord Peters, Miss Marple or any of the other great eccentric detectives in the cozies, while his sidekick Archie Goodwin could've been written by Dashiel Hammett or Raymond Chandler. The average plot of a Nero wolfe mystery might be just as convoluted and absurd as in any cozy, but much more grounded in reality than any of them.

Over My Dead Body is a case in point. The story revolves around a immigrant girl from Nero Wolfe's native Montenegro, who makes a living by teaching Americans how to dance and fence and who is accused of stealing diamonds. Wolfe is far from enthusiastic to help her, until her friend reveals she is actually Nero Wolfe's long lost daughter...

Which is exactly the sort of entanglement you'd expect in a cozy mystery --Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot were forever entangled with exotic Balkan princesses and such. However, in Nero Wolfe's case, the background reality is far less cozy. After all, this was written and published in 1939 and it would not be long before the Balkans were plunged into war. Great power interest was rife inthe Balkan at that point, with both Italy and Germany attempting to gain influence in Yugoslavia and France and the UK keeping a wary eye on the proceedings. It is this background which transforms a simple case of alleged jewel theft into international espionage, complete with murder...

Of course, in the end, any Nero Wolfe mystery stays light entertainment, no matter how serious the context in which it takes place. Certainly this was entertaining enough, with a nicely convoluted but never absurd plot, good writing and a satisfying resolution. Don't hesitate to buy this if you can find it.

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Webpage created 23-06-2004, last updated 30-08-2004
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