And Be a Villain

And Be a Villain

infobox Book |
name = And Be a Villain
title_orig =
translator =

image_caption =
author = Rex Stout
cover_artist = Bill English
country = United States
language = English
series = Nero Wolfe
genre = Detective fiction
publisher = Viking Press
release_date = September 27, 1948
media_type = Print (Hardcover)
pages = 216 pp. (first edition)
isbn = NA
preceded_by = Too Many Women
followed_by = Trouble in Triplicate

"And Be a Villain" (British title "More Deaths Than One") is a Nero Wolfe detective novel by Rex Stout, first published by the Viking Press in 1948. The story was collected in the omnibus volumes "Full House" (Viking 1961) and "Triple Zeck" (Viking 1974).

Plot introduction

A radio show guest is poisoned on the air during a plug for the show's sponsor, a soft-drink manufacturer. The negative publicity, and the low bank balance at tax time, brings Nero Wolfe into the case — and into his first recorded encounter with a shadowy master criminal.

"And Be a Villain" is the first of three Nero Wolfe books that involve crime syndicate leader Arnold Zeck and his widespread operations. The others in the Zeck Trilogy are "The Second Confession" and "In the Best Families". In each book, Zeck — Wolfe's Moriarty — telephones Wolfe to warn him off an investigation that Zeck believes will interfere with his crime syndicate. Each time, Wolfe refuses to cooperate, and anticipates that there will be consequences.

The title is from "Hamlet", Act I, Scene V, line 109.

Plot summary

Madeline Fraser is a radio talk show host in the style of 1940s talk show hosts: not a buffoon who rants and blusters, but a sophisticated, trained broadcaster who knows how to connect with an audience of eight million listeners. Her show gets unexpected and unwanted publicity when one of her guests is poisoned in the middle of a broadcast. But what the press finds really juicy is that the poison was administered in her principal sponsor's soft drink.

That particular show featured two guests: Cyril Orchard, who published a weekly horse race tip sheet called "Track Almanac", and F. O. Savarese, an assistant professor of mathematics at Columbia. Orchard was there to talk with Miss Fraser and her sidekick, Bill Meadows, about betting on horse races. Savarese was invited to talk about the probabilities of winning those bets.

One of the regular commercial features on the show is the ritual of drinking Hi-Spot, a soft drink. It's an event, starting with the sound of Meadows pushing back his chair and walking to the refrigerator to get the bottles, and continuing with opening the bottles and pouring Hi-Spot into glasses. Everyone at the broadcast table – Fraser, Meadows, Orchard and Savarese – gets a glass and marvels for the microphone at the taste of Hi-Spot, The Drink You Dream Of.

But Mr. Orchard has no sooner taken a swallow from his glass than, in Archie's words, he "makes terrible noises right into the microphone, and keels over, and pretty soon he's dead, and he got the poison right there on the broadcast, in the product of one of your sponsors."

Faced with being cleaned out financially by the necessity of paying his income taxes, Wolfe sends Archie on a sales call. Archie meets with some of the program's principals: Miss Fraser, Mr. Meadows, Deborah Koppel (Fraser's business manager), and Tully Strong (secretary of the show's Sponsors' Council). Archie points out that the best way to turn the negative publicity positive is to hire Nero Wolfe to investigate. Because he needs the money, Wolfe offers to take the case on a contingent basis: expenses only, with a fee payable if Wolfe gets both the murderer and credible evidence. Fraser and the several sponsors like the idea, and they hire Wolfe on that basis. [As occasionally happens in the series, Wolfe now has as his client not an individual but a group. See, for example, "Plot It Yourself" and "The Silent Speaker".]

The police have focused their investigation on eight people who had the best opportunity during the broadcast to get the poison into Orchard: Fraser, Meadows, Koppel, Strong, Savarese, Nathan Straub (a member of an advertising agency that represents three of the Fraser sponsors), Elinor Vance (a script writer for the show) and Nancylee Shepherd. Miss Shepherd is a teenager who idolizes Miss Fraser and has organized a successful Fraser fan club – she is allowed to take part in the show by taking care of minor tasks such as carrying glasses to the table.

Wolfe concentrates on those eight, and calls a meeting at his office, attended by all but Savarese and Miss Shepherd. Wolfe learns that the idea of doing a show on horse race betting had been under consideration for some time, that the question had finally been put to the audience as a survey, and the response had been enthusiastic and positive. One of the listeners who responded was Savarese, who asked for an invitation to participate as a second guest and to act as an expert on what Tully Strong calls the law of averages.

Subsequently, Savarese shows up for an interview with Wolfe, but Wolfe does not yet have anything specific to pursue: he is, as he puts it, "… wandering around, poking at things." [Chapter 8.] One of the things that Wolfe is poking at is Michigan. The poison in Orchard's glass was cyanide, and Miss Fraser's husband (who was Deborah Koppel's brother; Fraser and Koppel are sisters-in-law) committed suicide in Michigan some years before by taking cyanide.

Wolfe hasn't yet spoken with Miss Shepherd, and Lon Cohen helps out by informing Archie that she is in hiding with her mother in Atlantic City. Wolfe sends Saul to get them, but for once Saul is flummoxed: he takes a good approach, but Mrs. Shepherd is too wary for him. Wolfe then sends Archie to bring the Shepherds.

Mindful that even Saul stubbed his toe on this errand, Archie makes elaborate preparations. He composes a telegram, purporting to be from Mr. Shepherd, to tell Mrs. Shepherd and Nancylee to come immediately to Nero Wolfe's house. Then Archie takes a train to Atlantic City, arriving the next morning, at about the time that Saul is sending them the telegram.

The trick works: Archie follows Mrs. Shepherd and Nancylee to the brownstone, where they choose to submit to Wolfe's questioning. At first Wolfe lulls Nancylee with innocuous questions, but then he slowly approaches the topic of how the broadcasts are managed, particularly the Hi-Spot bottles and glasses. He finally catches the girl in a discrepancy: Elinor Vance has said that she puts eight bottles of Hi-Spot in the studio refrigerator to cool off for the broadcast, but Nancylee says it's seven.

Wolfe pounces on the discrepancy. Nancylee resists, but Wolfe forces her hand by threatening to convince the police to arrest Miss Fraser. Nancylee gives Wolfe what he's after: Elinor Vance has lied about how the Hi-Spot bottles are managed. Miss Vance always brings an extra bottle to the studio, and it always has a length of transparent tape encircling its neck.

Sending Nancylee and her mother back to Atlantic City, Wolfe gathers the main suspects and confronts them with the information he wrung from Nancylee. At first they try to humbug him, claiming that Miss Fraser prefers her Hi-Spot much colder than most people, and the tape is on the bottle to show which one goes to Miss Fraser. After Wolfe shows them the holes in that story, he gets the confession: the awful truth is that despite all the Hi-Spot hoopla on every show, the soft drink gives Miss Fraser indigestion. The tape is on the bottle to identify it as containing iced coffee, not Hi-Spot, so that Miss Fraser is able to pretend to drink the beverage in view of the studio audience. It complicates matters that the poison was in the bottle with the tape – so the intended victim wasn't Mr. Orchard at all, but Miss Fraser.

Now Wolfe sees a way to earn his fee without doing any further work. He tells Inspector Cramer that he has a fact, unknown to the police, without which they will be unable to solve the murder. Wolfe's proposal to Cramer: Cramer can have the fact if, when he subsequently exposes the murderer, he will also tell Wolfe's client that the case would not have been solved without the information that Wolfe provided. That, Wolfe concludes, will satisfy his client that Wolfe has earned his fee. Cramer agrees, Wolfe tells him why the tape was on the bottle – because of Miss Fraser's indigestion – and Cramer immediately phones Lieutenant Rowcliff to have Homicide shift gears: "We've got to start all over. It's one of those goddam babies where the wrong person got killed."

But it's not just the police that Wolfe has stirred up. For it to be generally known that Hi-Spot gives its main pitchman indigestion would dwarf the bad press from the murder itself. Tully Strong is furious that Wolfe disclosed the secret to the police. Traub, from the advertising agency, is upset because Bill Meadows says that Traub served Orchard the poisoned bottle. Savarese, who is trying to use mathematics to solve the murder, is annoyed because the police have set their questions on a new tack, and that's a variable that he can't account for.

Archie cools his heels for a week while Wolfe waits in vain for the police to identify the murderer with the clue he's given them. At last Archie gets so impatient that he enlists Lon Cohen's help in getting the "Gazette" to run a stinging editorial that criticizes Wolfe's lack of progress after the fanfare that followed his hiring. The editorial moves Wolfe to ask Cramer about another recent murder: that of Beula Poole, the publisher of "What to Expect", a weekly forecast of political and economic affairs. Both Wolfe and Cramer think it no coincidence that two publishers of overpriced newsletters are murdered within a couple of weeks of one another. Cramer has looked into the Poole murder as well as Orchard's, and was unable to find a subscriber list in either victim's office.

Wolfe advertises for information about subscribers to either publication, and gets two nibbles. One leads him to a successful Park Avenue doctor, W. T. Michaels. Wolfe learns from Michaels that some of his patients received poison pen letters, implying unethical behavior by Michaels. Shortly after hearing of the letters, Michaels got a phone call telling him that the letters would stop if he subscribed to "What to Expect" for one year, at $10 per week. The caller stressed that the letters would then stop, and that there would be no requests for subscription renewals.

The second nibble is from Arnold Zeck, the shadowy head of a crime syndicate. In the past, Wolfe has made inquiries about Zeck and learned that he is resourceful and dangerous. Now Zeck has seen Wolfe's advertisement concerning "Track Almanac" and "What to Expect", and warns him that he should drop the matter. Wolfe lets Zeck know that he will pursue the matter as far as necessary to complete the job he was hired for. The phone conversation ends, abruptly.

Wolfe assembles the known facts: that Zeck is behind a wholesale blackmailing enterprise. People are threatened by anonymous letters making false claims about them. They are then told that the letters will stop if they subscribe to a publication at a relatively high, but bearable, cost. They are also promised that the extortion will end after one year. Wolfe's inference is that one of the subscribers decided to stop the extortion by killing Orchard and Poole.

Wolfe calls Inspector Cramer to his office to give him this new information, only to find that Cramer learned about the blackmail connection a couple of days earlier. Cramer has since then had his men trying to track down anonymous letters about the Orchard suspects, but they have found nothing.

Archie tosses Lon the information about the blackmail and the subscriptions. The "Gazette" prints it, and that brings Hi-Spot's president to the brownstone. He is appalled that the case is no longer about murder – something "sensational and exciting" – but about blackmail – something dirty and disgusting. He gives Wolfe a check for the full amount of his fee and fires him. He also states that he's canceled his sponsorship of the Fraser radio program.

Wolfe once again sends Archie to call on the Fraser coterie, and he finds them discussing which company will replace Hi-Spot – they've had sixteen offers, one from a company that makes a candy called Meltettes. While Archie is waiting to be heard, Deborah Koppel tries a sample bite of a Meltette. She spits it out, convulses, and dies of cyanide poisoning.

Suddenly the police are all over the Fraser apartment, and all those present are to be subjected to a strip-search. Archie declines – he has a bogus anonymous letter in his pocket – and is taken into custody. When he finds the letter on Archie, Sgt. Purley Stebbins gets so mad that he, not Lt. Rowcliff, starts stuttering.

It looks as though Archie is going to have a charge of obstruction of justice hung on him until the police get a call from a radio station. Nero Wolfe has phoned the station to announce that he has solved all three murder cases and is ready to furnish the murderer's identity to the District Attorney. The radio station wants to know if the police have any comment.

They don't. They release Archie from custody and appear at Wolfe's brownstone, along with the surviving staff and sponsors. In a wrapup that's extraordinary even by Wolfe's standards, Wolfe forces admission after admission from those present, and concludes by exposing the murderer. A coda describes a phone call of congratulations from Zeck, one that foreshadows his next two appearances in the series.

The unfamiliar word

In most Nero Wolfe novels and novellas, there is at least one unfamiliar word, usually spoken by Wolfe. "And Be A Villain" contains several examples, including the following:
*Temerarious. Chapter 15.
*Chambrer. Chapter 17. (This verb might well have been apt in the middle of the 20th century, but not toward the beginning of the 21st.)
*Fructify. Chapter 19.
*Dysgenic. Chapter 20.

Cast of characters

*Nero Wolfe — The private investigator
*Archie Goodwin — Wolfe's assistant, and the narrator of all Wolfe stories
*Cyril Orchard and Beula Poole — Publishers of high priced newsletters, both murder victims
*Madeline Fraser — The host of a radio talk show and one of Wolfe's clients
*Deborah Koppel — Miss Fraser's manager and sister-in-law
*Bill Meadows — Miss Fraser's "sidekick" on the radio
*Elinor Vance — Scriptwriter for the show
*Tully Strong — Secretary of the show's Sponsors' Council
*F. O. Savarese — Mathematics professor who appeared on the radio show during which the first murder occurred
*Nathan Straub — Member of an advertising agency that represents the show's sponsors
*Nancylee Shepherd — Teenage organizer of a very successful Madeline Fraser fan club
*Walter Anderson — President of the firm that makes Hi-Spot
*W. T. Michaels — A medical doctor and victim of extortion
*Lon Cohen — An editor at the "Gazette"
*Inspector Cramer, Lieutenant George Rowcliff, and Sergeant Purley Stebbins — Representing Manhattan Homicide

Problematic probability

In Chapter 8, Professor Savarese provides a formula for the normal curve, touting it as a tool that could be used in crime detection. Unfortunately, the typesetting process let the professor down. Over time, different editions of "And Be a Villain" represent the formula differently, changing (for example) exponents from 2 to 3. Furthermore, the equation contains a mysterious "V" which is in fact just the leftmost portion of a radical sign. A more accurate discussion of the probability density function can be found at Normal distribution.

Reviews and commentary

* Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor, "A Catalogue of Crime" — A first-rate sample of the author's art, this tale brings us face to face with the radio advertising of a beverage which the lady who promotes it cannot abide. Hence hanky-panky with the bottle of substitute liquid and resulting doubt as to whom the dose was intended for. Archie is spectacular in word and deed.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

*2005, USA, The Audio Partners Publishing Corp., Mystery Masters ISBN 1572704985 December 10, 2005, audio CD (unabridged, read by Michael Prichard)
*1994, USA, Bantam Crimeline ISBN 0553239317 February 1994, paperback
*1992, UK, Little, Brown and Company (UK) Limited ISBN 0316903140 1992, hardcover (as "More Deaths Than One")
* 1949, UK, Collins (Crime Club), ISBN B0011G6FE2 February 21, 1949, 192 pp., hardcover (as "More Deaths Than One")


External links

The unfamiliar word

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