During his trial for obscenity, Paul Chapin announces that his book had to have that much violence in it as he had killed a man that way and felt the need to confess in a manner that wouldn’t incriminate him. The judge fines him $50 for contempt of court, but Nero Wolfe makes the connection between Chapin and a recent prospective client, and takes a more serious view.
Twenty-five years before, Chapin was crippled in a hazing accident at Harvard. Some thirty men were involved; and those who are still breathing are scared for their lives. Two are dead, one is missing, and three menacing poems have been distributed to the survivors. They agree to let Wolfe take the case as the police have gotten precisely nowhere - the first two deaths were ruled as accident and suicide, the supposed murder of Andrew Hibbard can’t be investigated without a body, and to outside eyes the poems contain nothing that could be construed as a threat. Furthermore there isn’t a shred of evidence, or any likelihood of there being any, for Paul Chapin is a twisted genius who’s determined not to get caught.
By a quirk of coincidence, the very night I finished this, I read the Guardian’s Top 1000 Novels list and spotted it in the Crime category - and deservedly so. This isn’t your average cozy mystery. The bad guy seems obvious from the start. There’s no question of solving a crime - if indeed any crime has taken place - and the only hope of arriving at the truth is to obtain a confession from a brilliant man who has no intention of giving anything away. But then, Nero Wolfe isn’t your average detective - he puts his bottom line above all other considerations, rarely leaves the house, and won’t let anything keep him from his scheduled time with his orchids. His mind, however, is far from indolent and is a match for that of his adversary.
Paul Chapin’s first appearance is chilling and he doesn’t much improve upon acquaintance. His smile never reaches his eyes and most of the League are terrified of him, yet he is never less than charming to his “dear friends”. He has mastered the art of the veiled threat and uses it to wonderful effect. Until the final pages there is constant doubt as to whether he’s guilty, and if so whether Wolfe will get him to confess to his crimes - or indeed to anything at all. Here the technique of handing the narration to Wolfe’s secretary/assistant Archie Goodwin works particularly well - since he has no idea what his employer is cooking up, the reader is perforce kept in the dark as well.
It’s not particularly fast-paced, but I enjoy a battle of wits and this is a good one.