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Literature / Before Midnight

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Rex Stout's eighteenth Nero Wolfe novel, published in 1955.

The chief executives of the advertising agency Lippert, Buff, & Assa (LBA) hire Wolfe in regards to the murder of rising executive Louis Dahlmann. But their request is not that the murderer be caught: Dahlmann had been running an advertising contest for Pour Amour perfume, and his wallet containing the answers to the final contest riddles was stolen from his body. As the deadline for the final five contestants to solve the riddles is before midnight one week hence, LBA wants Wolfe to figure out who stole the wallet. Despite contradicting dictums from the LBA executives, a contestant whom Archie remarks might have driven Wolfe from the case had he not accepted the job, and yet another errand given to Saul Panzer that is kept out of Archie's eyes, the residents of the brownstone on West 35th Street must uncover not only a thief, but a murderer - one who will drive Wolfe to fury by striking again.


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.)

  • Aborted Arc: After the second murder, the five finalists disappear from the narrative, and it's never revealed who wins the contest. Though this is partly because the contest is voided after the answers are anonymously exposed, and there's no time for a replacement to be held.
  • Almighty Mom: Carol Wheelock is just a Virginia housewife but is one of the five finalists in a major trivia competition despite having the least advantages and experience of the five.
  • Benevolent Boss: Susan's superiors at the Clock magazine are very supportive of her participation in the contest and accompany her to Wolfe's office. It's partly because they smell a good story while also wanting to avoid being tainted by any involvement in murder, however.
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  • Cool Old Guy: Phillip Younger is the oldest of the five finalists and also the most friendly and cooperative of them. He unsuccessfully tries to get the others to agree to poll their winnings no matter who wins so everyone can walk away with a handsome sum.
  • Crippling Overspecialization: Buff's only talent is presenting solid outlines for intuitional campaigns, O'Garro is a salesman, and Assa is a copywriter. None of them possesses the advertising genius that led to the contest in the first place, something which causes a lot of tension between them and the talented upstart Dahlman.
  • Exact Words: Archie suspects that Saul's errand was typing and sending copies of the riddles' answers to the five contestants, but when Wolfe claims surprise and disknowledge of this, he assumes he was wrong. When the end reveals that Archie's suspicion was correct, Wolfe reveals his use of a quibble:
    "You can always believe me, Archie. With your memory, which is matchless, you can recall my words.... I said, first, I hadn't hoped for anything as provocative as this. That was true; I hadn't hoped for it; I was sure of it, since I had arranged it. I said, second, I hadn't listed this among the possibilities. That was likewise true; it wasn't a possibility, it was a certainty. I have never told you a direct lie and never will."
  • Fictional Counterpart: Clock Magazine, of which Susan Tescher is the Assistant Director of Research, is a clear riff on Time Magazine.
  • The Great Depression: In the early twentieth century, Phillip Younger was a wealthy man before losing most of his money in the stock market crash.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: The motive for Dahlmann's murder: Oliver Buff was jealous of Dahlmann's rapid rise through the ranks of LBA and suspected he would soon be a threat to Buff's own position, so he killed him.
  • Hidden in Plain Sight: The cyanide used to dispatch Vernon Assa was taken from the display cases at the LBA offices, implicating one of the surviving executives as the murderer.
  • Insufferable Genius: Harold Rollins, a professor who entered the Pour Amour contest on a whim and frets that being associated with a perfume contest will degrade his reputation in education.
  • It's Personal: After Vernon Assa drops dead of cyanide poisoning in Wolfe's office, Wolfe is riled up to such an extent that not only does he leave his house to expose the culprit, but of the two taxis he and his operatives take to do so, he only charges the one he wasn't riding in to the client.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: In his first scene, Vernon Assa is the most abrasive of Wolfe's clients but he shows a fair amount of loyalty to his partners and respect for Wolfe later on. 
  • Loophole Abuse: Gertrude Frazee enlisted the hundreds of members of the Women's League to solve the contest riddles, claiming the rules never stated that help from others was forbidden. When Archie informs the other contestants about this, they... let's just say "object strenuously."
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Wolfe gives Hansen a short yet brutal speech, accusing him of betraying his legal duty to represent LBA as a whole and not just individual employees of the firm. 
  • Sacred Hospitality: Once again, we see how Wolfe places a premium on being a good host; after Vernon Assa is poisoned in his office, he reacts with vengeful fury and makes his quest to expose the murderer personal.
  • Shrouded in Myth: Dahlmann is the subject of many sensational rumors (e.g., he was a Russian spy, he reneged on a $90,000 poker debt, and he carried nude photos of society girls in his wallet).

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