In this two-story Nero Wolfe adventure, we first find his man about town assistant Archie Goodwin doing some serious legwork visiting the Flower Show at Grand Central Palace day in and day out. The reason: a unique set of hybrid black orchids grown by Wolfe’s orchid-loving friend Lewis Hewitt on display on the fourth floor. They are not out and out black in color, Archie reports, more like the color of coal, and no, he can detect no sign of withering on any of them.
Wolfe is both nettled by envy and full of curiosity over Hewitt’s “freaks” as he calls them. So much so he does the unthinkable: actually leave his brownstone and brave being driven by Archie to the show to see for himself.
Archie meanwhile is more intrigued by the display for Rucker & Dill Nurseries, or rather, the main attraction of their mock woodland glade complete with a brook and pond: a woman named Anne Tracy who, along with fellow Rucker & Dill employee Harry Gould, are playing a couple out having a picnic. The highlight of the act is at 4 p.m. each day when Harry puts a newspaper over his face and pretends to nap while Anne removes her shoes and stockings, hikes up her skirt, and washes her feet in the pond. As Archie points out to Wolfe, this is when they “crowd the ropes.”
Archie is so smitten with Anne he even claims to Wolfe he is going to marry her. Little does he know his first meeting with her will take place inside the Rucker & Dill exhibit when he notices Gould’s legs are in an odd position nor is he responsive to the playful splash of water Anne always throws on him to complete her feet washing act. Turns out he is dead, shot in the back of the head by a small caliber pistol hidden in a rock pile his head was resting on.
Turns out someone had made off with Lewis Hewitt’s walking stick while he and Wolfe were haggling over his black orchids (which Wolfe wants very badly), set it up against the back door leading into the Rucker & Dill exhibit, and attached a green string connected to the hidden pistol. It also turns out that as Wolfe, Goodwin, and Hewitt were passing by in the corridor while taking a short cut to the third floor. Goodwin saw the stick, picked it up … and inadvertently shot Gould. Who put it there and why is something only Nero Wolfe can unravel, but it is going to cost Hewitt his black orchids.
In the second adventure, Wolfe is approached by socialite Bess Huddleston who is receiving anonymous letters and hires him to find out who is sending them. But before Wolfe can collect his fee on the matter, she is poisoned by a bottle of mock iodine which actually is chock full of tetanus that gets into her bloodstream via an tiny cut in her toe.
Which member of her inner circle did it is a good question, especially since they are a kooky bunch who could have been the cousins of many of the characters from The Thin Man. Wolfe claims he is not interested in finding out whodunit, but Archie isn’t so easily convinced, especially when Wolfe sends some black orchids to Bess’ funeral.
If you are looking for a couple murder mysteries narrated in a lively first-person style, you can’t go wrong with this Nero Wolfe twosome.