Before Midnight

Before Midnight

Infobox Book |
name = Before Midnight

author = Rex Stout
cover_artist = Bill English
country = United States
language = English
series = Nero Wolfe
genre = Detective fiction
publisher = Viking Press
release_date = October 27, 1955
media_type = Print (Hardcover)
pages = 184 pp. (first edition)
isbn = NA
preceded_by = The Black Mountain
followed_by = Three Witnesses

"Before Midnight" is a Nero Wolfe detective novel by Rex Stout published in 1955 by the Viking Press. The story was also collected in the omnibus volume "Three Trumps" (Viking 1973).

Plot introduction

A national literary contest to promote a new brand of perfume leads to murder and more.

Numerous major works of literature are mentioned as part of the contest. Four poetic riddles to real and fictional women are given, and three of them are solved, two by Archie, and one by Wolfe. The fourth is never solved within the text.

Plot summary

Although Nero Wolfe is, by his own immodest measure, a great detective, and in particular the greatest murder specialist in Manhattan, this allows him to charge outrageous fees, and only work when he is short of money or Archie Goodwin, his live-in right hand man manages to goad him into it, preferring instead of read books, attend a magnificent orchid conservatory on the roof of his brownstone, or consult (annoy) his live-in world-class chef Fritz Brenner.

As such, Archie regards pestering Wolfe about his literary knowledge fitting repartée. He also wants to go to the Flamingo nightclub with his girlfriend Lily Rowan, but it was a Tuesday night, and so wanted to pester Wolfe into booting him out. So he starts quoting Wolfe poetic riddles from a national contest promoting "Pour Amour", a new brand of perfume. At first Wolfe tolerates it, and even humors Archie by telling him about Nell Gwyn's connection to Charles II of England, but a fourth riddle exhausts Wolfe's patience and Archie gets his wish and goes out.

The very next morning, as Archie is eating a wonderful breakfast prepared by Fritz, he gets a call from attorney Rudolph Hansen, representing the advertising firm LBA, which is conducting the perfume contest. The executive, in charge of that account, Louis Dahlmann has been murdered the night before, but Hansen is calling about something more urgent! The concept of something more urgent than murder gets Archie's attention and he makes an appointment for Hansen and the three partners of LBA to meet Wolfe at 11 am that morning.

At the meeting, it is revealed that two million people submitted entries to identify twenty famous women - real and fictional-identified by cryptic little poems, and the winners would split $1,000,000 in prizes. Of the 2 million entries, only 72 had all 20 answers right. Dahlmann was ready for that: a further set of 5 poetic riddles was sent out to each of the 72 with a tight deadline, and the result had been a quintuple tie. So it came down to a final run-off of five contestants, flown from all over the country to New York, to identify the women behind a new very much harder set of poems created by young Dahlmann, who is also the only person on earth who knows the correct answers to the questions. The questions had been handed out to the contestants the night before at a restaurant dinner, and Dahlmann had shown (at a distance) a small sheet of paper which (he said) contained the answers. He stuffed the paper in his wallet and the contestants departed. Since the contestants (see below) were expecting to return home to various parts of the country, they were given staggered deadlines before which to return their answers, all approximately a week in the future and requiring a postmark of midnight.

However, the next morning, Dahlmann was found dead in his apartment by a servant, and his wallet was missing. The contestants have about a week to submit their answers by mail, but from the narrow perspective of the agency, Dahlmann's death is not the most problem — his wallet is also missing, thereby compromising the contest's integrity.

Since a lot of prize money is at stake, the working assumption is that one of the contestants stole Dahlmann's wallet and killed him in the process, and so the events are likely but not certainly connected. In any event, the theft of Dahlmann's wallet is the problem LBA wants Wolfe to solve "Before Midnight" a week hence.

This somewhat perverse set of priorities allows Wolfe and Inspector Cramer, of the Manhattan Homicide Squad, to put aside the usual complaint from Cramer that private detectives should leave the investigation of murder to the police, since Wolfe is, in fact, merely trying to resolve the theft of a wallet, and the amicable resolution of a popular advertising stunt, is surely not meddling in police business. As Cramer says, "I have never yet bumped into you in the course of my duties without conflict ... but I don't say it couldn't possibly happen".

First, Wolfe has Archie get the copy of the answers to the contest which has been sealed in a vault, since he argues that the contest can never really be decided those riddles under the circumstances, despite the desire of everyone concerned to get to the bottom of it. Archie is allowed to see, but not take, the information on the critical sheet of paper guarded like a state secret. He copies the information into his notebook, and gives it to Wolfe, who merely puts it in the office safe.

Under pretense of simply being part of the contest team, Wolfe then meets mosts of the contest finalists, except for Rollins, who is sick in bed at his hotel, and whom Goodwin visits.

The contestants and their reasons and sacrifices for being in the contest are the heart of the book.

In particular, Ms Frazee (see below), who is against cosmetics and devotes her life to promoting that view, has entered such a contest. But her Women's Nature League is also a secret weapon: a hidden army of people to help her, even though she is trapped in New York.

Talbott Heery, owner of Heery Products, also calls upon Wolfe, and offers to supersede LBA as client since his own interests are paramount, but Wolfe counters that it would be unethical and in any event unnecessary.

Soon, the contestants all receive mysterious anonymous letters solving the riddles, and Archie thinks that that was the mysterious errand of Saul Panzer, but when LBA partners attempt to congratulate Wolfe for his coup, he denies it.

Meanwhile, the détente between Wolfe and Cramer dissolves when Vernon Assa, one of the LBA partners, dies during a conference at Wolfe's office.

This causes Wolfe to erase the artificial distinction between solving the murders and finding the thief.

However, after the culprit is identified, LBA is reluctant to pay Wolfe his full fee, since, as noted above he denied sending the answers. Wolfe responds that among the expenses on his final bill will be $40 for a used typewriter, now at the bottom of the Hudson!

Cast of characters

* Nero Wolfe—Sedentary Manhattan private detective, orchid fancier, gourmet/gourmand, and self-educated man, with an extensive personal library/office where he conducts nearly all business
* Archie Goodwin—Wolfe's live-in right-hand man (assistant), "agent provocateur", man of action
* Fritz Brenner—The Wolfe household's live-in world-class Swiss French chef
* Rudolph Hansen—attorney at law, representing Lippert, Buff & Assa (LBA), a prominent Madison Avenue advertising agency
* Oliver Buff—a partner in LBA
* Patrick O'Garro—another partner in LBA
* Vernon Assa—Third and final partner of LBA (Mr Lippert has been dead for a while, and Mr. O'Garro has taken his place)
* Talbott Heery—Owner of Heery Products, a major cosmetics company, and in particular the "Pour Amour" brand of perfume being promoted by LBA in a major contest.
* Louis Dahlmann—employee of LBA, in charge of the Heery account, creator of the perfume contest, but now murdered and his wallet stolen, the latter detail being more urgent to LBA than the former.
* Finalists in the perfume contest, from all over the USA, but brought to NYC by LBA/Heery for the final round of the perfume contest
** Susan Tescher, from NYC, and editor at "Clock" magazine besides contestant in the perfume contest
*** Mr Hibbard, attorney,
*** Mr Schulz, associate editor,
*** Mr Knudsen, senior editor, all staff of "Clock" who accompany Ms. Tescher on a visit to Wolfe, not only about the contest but hoping to do an article on Wolfe himself.
** Carol Wheelock, from Richmond, Virginia
** Philip Younger, from Chicago, Illinois
** Harold Rollins, from Burlington, Iowa
** Gertrude Frazee, fropm Los Angeles, California, founder and president of the Woman's Nature League, a pressure group opposed to women using cosmetics. Ms Frazee's dialogue includes a graphic description of the (disgusting) source of musk
* Doctor Vollmer—a neighbor and friend of Wolfe, called upon whenever a dead body is discovered in the Wolfe household, something that, based on past Wolfe novels,happens distressingly often.
* Theodore Horstmann—The Wolfe household's orchid nurse, rarely seen outside the plant rooms on the roof the brownstone.
* Saul Panzer—high-priced freelance detective whom Wolfe uses, not always with the foreknowledge of Goodwin, to perform difficult and sensitive tasks for which Archie cannot be spared, or which Wolfe wants to (temporarily) hide from Archie. In Nero Wolfe novels, such a maneuver is nearly always a place where the reader should pause, because Wolfe has made a deduction that he hasn't revealed to Archie.

Literary significance and criticism

A major theme of the book is rivalries between various generations of businessmen in a firm, from the youngest (Dahlmann) to the oldest (Buff). Also, the implicit absolute trust between Wolfe and Goodwin, upon which their entire relationship is built, is tested, and until the final resolution, seems broken beyond repair.

"It is brisk and clever enough, but not one in which Archie shines with special luster."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]

Release details

*2004, USA, The Audio Partners Publishing Corp., Mystery Masters ISBN 1572704128 September 2004, audio CD (unabridged, read by Michael Prichard)
*1995, USA, Bantam Books ISBN 0553763040 November 1, 1995, paperback
*cite book | last = Stout | first = Rex | authorlink = Rex Stout | title = Before Midnight
publisher = Bantam | date = 1976 | id = ISBN 0-553-02831-6


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