A popular radio program hosted by charismatic interviewer Madeline Fraser is facing a public relations crisis. During a live commercial tasting for a popular brand of soft drink, one of the guests — Cyril Orchard, publisher of a weekly horse racing magazine — has been murdered with poison in his glass. As this happens to coincide with Nero Wolfe's hefty tax bill, he reluctantly spies the opportunity to earn some money, and persuades the show's producers and sponsors to hire his services to catch the culprit and end their difficulties for a generous fee. But the matter is more complicated than Wolfe and Archie Goodwin anticipate, because behind the show's cheerful exterior there are many secrets that the show's cast and crew are determined to keep, even more so when it looks like Fraser may have been the murderer's real target. And then another murder reveals another possible motive, and another possible actor at play — a shadowy, ruthless mastermind of the New York criminal underworld, who has no intention of allowing Nero Wolfe to unravel his devious schemes and will do whatever it takes to prevent it...
The novel is the first in the "Zeck" trilogy, in which Nero Wolfe matches wits with the mysterious criminal mastermind Arnold Zeck.
Tropes in this work: (Tropes relating to the series as a whole, or to the characters in general can be found on Nero Wolfe and its subpages.)
- Accidental Truth: Zeck's syndicate intentionally uses fraudulent secrets to blackmail their victims, reasoning that most people will simply pay up rather than take more drastic measures. But when they blackmailed Madeline Fraser, their lie of choice was actually the truth, and she murdered three people to cover it up.
- Asshole Victim: Cyril Orchard and Beula Poole, both of whom turn out to be part of a blackmail syndicate. Downplayed, as exactly how deeply involved and how much they really knew is left open to question, but even so it's made clear that they would have had some inkling of what was really going on, so they still belong here.
- Bavarian Fire Drill: Wolfe acts as if he's already been hired to investigate the case so that he and Archie can question all of the suspects and get them stirred up enough to hire Wolfe.
- Best Friends-in-Law: Fraser's best friend and manager Deborah Koppel, is the sister of her later husband. Ultimately this friendship fails to survive Deborah's suspicions that Madeline killed her brother, and Madeline's murder of her.
- Bland-Name Product: Several of the products sponsoring or trying to sponsor Fraser's show fall here, but most prominently is Hi-Spot, which — being a dark-coloured, heavily marketed popular soft-drink with a unique and secret taste that is not to everyone's fancy, which a gourmet like Wolfe would distinctly turn his nose up at and which can be visually substituted with coffee is pretty clearly supposed to be Coca-Cola.
- Cut Lex Luthor a Check: Based on Professor Savareses description of Orchards magazine its implied to be a well-written operation which could have maintained a respectable subscription even without the blackmail racket.
- Fangirl: Nancylee Shepherd, one witness to the murder, is the president of a Madeline Fraser fan club.
- Foreshadowing: Pay attention when Wolfe describes the lengths he'll have to go if he ever finds himself on the run from Arnold Zeck.
- Implausible Deniability: When Wolfe discovers that the president of Hi-Spot is keeping a secret from him as a result of an obligation to one of the suspects, he gathers the suspects and asks each of them one by one to hypothetically release him from any such promise. After two people do this hypothetically, when the third (the actual person that promise had been made to) refuses, his weak, nervous claim that it is merely a matter of principle which doesn't actually reflect on whether or not he was the one that promise was made to falls pretty flat.
- Insufferable Genius: Professor F. O. Savarese, a statistician and another guest on the show, is an overly talkative man who, despite his earnest nature, is constantly rattling on about the laws of probability and how he could apply them to things (like Wolfe's detective work and horse racing) to the point where it's 20-30 minutes after he arrives at the office before Wolfe can get a word in.
- Noodle Incident: Archie mentions that he and Wolfe have briefly crossed paths with Arnold Zeck on a previous occasion. The reader is never made privy to what transpired on that occasion, although more hints appear in The Second Confession.
- Opportunistic Bastard: When Tully Strong realizes Madeline is the murderer, which will ensure the show's end and the loss of his job, he tips off the Hi-Spot president to withdraw his sponsorship and avoid the damage. Since he only warned that man and none of the other sponsors, Wolfe speculates he did so in exchange for the promise of a cushy job as soon as he lost his current one.
- Pragmatic Villainy: The blackmail syndicate is specifically designed to avoid most of the pitfalls of blackmail schemes in general. They target their marks with slanderous (but false) accusations that are possible-but-time-consuming to disprove while also meaning that the mark will not have an emotional investment in keeping it secret, meaning they're like to pay up rather than go through the effort and inconvenience of challenging it. Furthermore, the blackmail only lasts for a single year and the blackmailers are scrupulous about honoring the arrangement; this means that the mark will be more willing (if grudgingly) to put up with a temporary inconvenience than if they were indefinitely on the hook.
- Stepford Smiler: Fraser's co-host Bill Meadows is cleary barraged when Archie first meets him but trying to put on a dazzling smile.
- Stout Strength: Deborah Koppel is described as short and plump but with a very strong handshake.
- Unwitting Instigator of Doom: Whoever it was that decided the contents of the blackmail letter to Madeline Fraser got three people killed by hitting an Accidental Truth driving said blackmail victim to do anything to cover it up.
- Wham Episode: The novel initially seems like a standard Wolfe mystery, but about two-thirds through Wolfe receives a phone call marking the first appearance of shadowy crime lord Arnold Zeck, who will be a central figure in the next two Wolfe novels.
- Worthy Opponent: Wolfe expresses admiration for the cleverness of the blackmail scheme and, by extension, the individual behind it. Said individual, Arnold Zeck, is quite happy to repay the compliment to Wolfe.