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Literature / Prisoner's Base

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The fifteenth Nero Wolfe novel by Rex Stout, published in 1952.

During a period of tension between Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin over a destroyed paycheck, a young woman arrives at the brownstone with an unusual request; she simply wants to stay in the house as a guest for a single week, without her identity being revealed or her presence exposed to anyone. Inclined to troll Wolfe, Archie allows her to enter, but before Wolfe can have her removed an attorney named Perry Helmar also arrives to consult Wolfe on a potential case. Helmar wants Wolfe to find his ward, a young heiress named Priscilla Eads, who has gone missing the week before her twenty-fifth birthday — and who bears an uncanny resemblance to the woman Archie has allowed into Wolfe's south bedroom. Seeing an opportunity to earn some easy money, Wolfe fobs off Helmar and confronts Priscilla with a choice: either she can pay him the thousands that Helmar would pay him to find her to stay in his house, or she can leave the house and Wolfe give her twenty-four hours to disappear before hunting her on Helmar's behalf.


Unimpressed, Priscilla chooses to leave, but mere hours after Archie puts her into a taxicab, she is found dead in her apartment, strangled, soon after her personal maid has also been brutally murdered. Riddled with guilt over sending a woman to her death and outraged by Wolfe's lack of interest in getting involved, Archie decides to hunt down the murderer even if he has to do it himself. But when his investigation uncovers seething tensions among the board of the company Priscilla was to inherit, a grieving war widow, and a mysterious individual in South America identifying himself as Priscilla's ex-husband and claiming half of her fortune, it increasingly begins to look like Wolfe won't be as uninterested in the matter as he would like to be.

The novel was adapted as part of the television series A Nero Wolfe Mystery, starring Maury Chaykin as Wolfe and Timothy Hutton as Archie.


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.)

  • Adapted Out: Andy Fomos was omitted from the television adaptation.
  • Amoral Attorney:
    • Downplayed in Perry Helmar's case. Viola Duday makes some rather snide insinuations that Helmar grossly overcharges Softdown Towels for doing very little, which he reacts stiffly to, and that his main motivation for finding Priscilla was to emotionally manipulate her into maintaining favourable terms for him upon achieving her inheritance. Nathaniel Parker, Wolfe's competent attorney, also notes that for a professional lawyer he's rather quick to throw around accusations that are clearly baseless and potential grounds for slander/libel charges. However, we never really learn of him doing anything actually illegal or immoral.
    • Albert "Dewdrop" Irby, a rather oily bottom-feeder who shows up representing Priscilla's ex-husband Eric Hagh, and who uses a lot of long-winded legalese to basically offers Wolfe a bribe to, if necessary, offer false testimony that Priscilla told him about the document she signed promising Hagh half her inheritance. Wolfe's response is to basically give Irby enough rope to hang himself before pointing out what a jaw-droppingly stupid and unethical thing to do this was, before using it as a cudgel to get Irby to do whatever he wants.
  • Bavarian Fire Drill: Archie basically walks into the Softdown corporate offices and manages to snag an interview with the board simply by acting like a police detective (although as noted below, he's careful enough to do so in a way that means he can't technically be charged with Impersonating an Officer).
  • Because You Were Nice to Me: Sarah Jaffee is quite a timid person and reluctant to involve herself in Wolfe's plan to force the Softdown board to submit to his questions by basically putting an injunction on them inheriting their share of the business following Priscilla Eads' death. However, she eventually agrees to do so after Archie takes pity on her and takes some clothes belonging to her dead husband, which she's been tormented by but unable to remove, to a charity store.
  • Benevolent Boss: Priscilla was apparently on decent terms with and fairly generous to her long-term maid Margaret Fomos, buying her plane tickets and accompanying her to New Orleans to visit Margaret's sick mother (although Lon suggests that may have also been an excuse to get away from her guardian) and offering her a position as a board member of the company.
  • Bookends: The novel begins and ends with a check being destroyed. In the beginning, Archie destroys his paycheck during an argument with Wolfe about how much work he does, leading to a period of bitter tension between the two over who is going to offer the first olive branch. At the end, Wolfe destroys the check that Archie tries to give him as payment for his work, thus signalling the end of the tension.
  • Chronic Hero Syndrome: Archie's first impulse on learning of the murder of Priscilla Eads is to chew Wolfe out for not getting involve, declare he's taking a leave of absence, and bound out of the house determined to hunt the killer down. His behavior escalates after Sarah Jaffee is also murdered. Wolfe lampshades this while dressing down the authorities.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Helmar trying to hire Wolfe to find Priscilla right after she's shown up at the Brownstone to hire Wolfe to keep Helmar from finding her.
  • Crusading Widower: Downplayed, but Andy Fomos attempts to physically assault the murderer at the end of The Summation.
  • Dead All Along: The real Eric Hagh, with the man posing as him doing a Dead Person Impersonation.
  • Desperately Seeking A Purpose In Life: Heavily suggested of Priscilla Eads. It's noted that she seems to have radically reshaped her life every two years or so trying to find something meaningful to fill it, from dedicated straight-A student to wild party girl to devoted housewife to religious spinster and charity worker. Her most recent reinvention appears to have been proto-feminist businesswoman.
  • Dirty Old Man: Both Perry Helmar and Jay Brucker, the chairman of the Softdown board, clearly have lecherous intentions towards Ditzy Secretary Daphne O'Neil. Archie, having met the woman, instantly loses even more respect for Helmar when, after Wolfe raises a question concerning O'Neil's possible motives, launches into a deluded rant about O'Neil's intelligent, virtuous loveliness and how Wolfe is not fit to even speak her name, implying a heavy and rather blinding crush. While we never learn exactly how successful Helmar's pursuit of O'Neil was, when questioned by the police at one point Brucker is forced to admit that he spent the night at her apartment, implying a sexual affair.
  • Ditzy Secretary: Daphne O'Neil, the chairman's secretary, appears to be a rather air-headed bimbo type who is mainly kept around by the male members of the board for her looks. Archie admires her beauty but limits his appreciation the second he realises that there's clearly no brains to go along with it, and it's telling that in Priscilla Eads' vision of an all-female board of executives, O'Neil would be shown the door. She does hint at some Hidden Depths when she gives Viola Duday a hard slap after Duday makes one too many snide comments to her face; Duday is visibly shocked and unsettled when it happens.
  • Divorce Assets Conflict: Priscilla's ex-husband Eric Hagh shows up wanting half of the stock in the company (whether she's alive or dead) as a belated divorce settlement. Ultimately subverted though, as Hagh is dead and being impersonated by a sinister opportunist who is implied to have murdered him. The real Hagh supposedly took pride in not taking anything from Priscilla after their divorce.
  • Impersonating an Officer: Archie uses an Exact Words Insistent Terminology version of this to infiltrate the board of Softdown Towels and interview them about Priscilla's murder. He carefully only ever identifies himself as a "detective," which is true, and displays his private detective's license for anyone who wants to inspect it, but in practice is clearly banking on no one examining or questioning him too closely and just assuming he's a police detective. This gets him arrested by Lt. Rowcliff, but as mentioned he does it carefully enough to avoid any legal repercussions.
  • It's All My Fault: Archie is hit hard with this trope in the novel. He blames himself for Priscilla Eads' death as he was the one who put her in the taxi that took her away from Wolfe's house and eventually to her own, where she was eventually murdered. And he also blames himself for Sarah Jaffee's death by giving her the advice to flee the apartment when she called him, which inadvertently put her into the killer's path. In both cases, Wolfe takes a rather more pragmatic view of the situation and counsels Archie not to take it so personally, pointing out that he's neither omnipotent nor omnipresent.
  • Jerkass:
    • Lt. Rowcliff is as charming as ever. He arrests Archie on understandable but slightly sketchy grounds for impersonating a police officer (Archie in fact clearly identified himself as a "detective," which is true, and made a point of offering his private investigator's license for examination; it's just that no one bothered to check it which, while technically not impersonation, was clearly what Archie was counting on). However, he then gets a bit overeager, decides that Archie is lying about Wolfe not being involved, and enthusiastically drags Wolfe in as a material witness. Wolfe devotes a special section of his general "The Reason You Suck" Speech (as discussed below) to pointing out Rowcliff's primary failings, namely that he is a spiteful, petty bully and coward who would never have dared throw his weight around with Wolfe had Archie, "whom he fears and petulantly envies," been present.
    • Perry Helmar, while he may have a point, gets a bit too keen on the subject of Wolfe being responsible for Priscilla's death. It's also suggested that he's a bit of an Amoral Attorney who overcharges Softdown for very little work, and that for all his protestations of being a caring and heartbroken father figure for both Priscilla and Sarah, he was actually rather cold and neglectful and mainly interested in them for their money.
    • Softdwon Towels board member Oliver Pitkin is a hot-tempered, unintelligent misogynist who doesn't hesitate to insult the late Priscilla or mock Sarah to her face.
  • Jerkass Has a Point:
    • Played with to the point of subversion. Perry Helmar is not exactly wrong to consider Wolfe's failure to mention that the person who Helmar had intended to hire him to find was at that very moment in a bedroom in Wolfe's house somewhat unethical. However, he frequently strays into histrionics on the subject, blaming Wolfe for the circumstances that led to Priscilla's murder and at times bordering on accusing him of direct responsibility for it. While Wolfe brushes this off as Helmar being emotional under trying circumstances, it is made clear that Helmar is being unreasonable, and he is warned at least twice that he's bordering on actionable slander/libel.
    • Priscilla Eads is also unimpressed when Wolfe essentially demands a bribe from her to remain in his house, demanding the amount that Helmar would have paid him to find her — however, as Wolfe points out, this is his home, not a hotel, and it's equally unreasonable of her to swan into the place assuming she could basically stay in a stranger's home for a week with no intention of revealing any information about herself.
  • Mood Whiplash: This monologue from Archie, which starts of fairly cute and light before introducing the main murder of the novel.
    As far as I know, no electrons had darted in either direction when I first laid eyes on Priscilla Eads, nor had I felt faint or dizzy at any point during my association with her, but the fact remains that I have never had swifter or stronger hunches than the two that were connected with her. Monday evening, before Helmar had said much more than twenty words about his missing ward, I had said to myself, "She's upstairs," and knew it. Tuesday morning, when I saw Inspector Cramer of Manhattan Homicide on the stoop, I said to myself, "She's dead," and knew it.
  • The Mourning After: Sarah Jaffee has been an emotional wreck since her husband died in World War II, at least half a decade earlier. She's tortured by reminders of him lying around their apartment, but can't bring herself to throw them out.
  • Old Retainer: An executive version. Bernard Quest has worked for Softdown for sixty-two years (something he never misses an opportunity to bring up) and is hostile towards the idea of being put out to pasture.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: At times to the point where the novel might almost be considered a series of characters putting down other characters with a murder investigation happening in the background:
    • When Wolfe basically reacts to the murder of Priscilla Eads with a shrug and decides not to involve himself, Archie chews him out, takes a leave of absence, and storms off to find the killer himself.
    • After getting dragged in as a material witness after Lt. Rowcliff refuses to believe that Archie isn't working for Wolfe, the central theme of Wolfe's furious denunciation of the higher-ranking police officials and district attorneys he meets with is how they're essentially a bunch of shrivelled, spiteful and petty mediocrities.
    • The five members of the board of Softdown Towels seem to greatly enjoy making snide comments about each other. Viola Duday in particular frequently seems to warm to the subject of how the male members of the board are a bunch of patronizing, entitled, and insecure halfwits terrified of a halfway competent woman stealing their thunder. They aren't exactly fond of her in return.
    • Perry Helmar's favourite subject throughout most of the book is Nero Wolfe being a treacherous lying snake who is morally responsible for Priscilla Eads' death and probably enjoyed it. It gets to the point that at several times Nathaniel Parker, Wolfe's lawyer, has to basically warn him to knock it off because he's straying dangerously close to getting his pants sued off for slander and libelnote .
  • She Knows Too Much: Specifically, all three "Shes" know, or would know, that the man posing as Eric Hagh was an imposter.
  • Shrinking Violet: Sarah Jaffee is a rather shy, timid person who tries to avoid making a fuss or getting involved in difficult situations. This, tragically, leads to her murder; had she been confident enough to expose the man posing as Eric Hagh as an imposter, he wouldn't have had the opportunity to silence her later that evening.
  • Straw Feminist: Played with. Various elements of 1950s pre-Second Wave stereotypes of this nature show up throughout the novel, from man-hating battleaxe (Viola Duday) to flighty immature girl playing at men's business (Priscilla Eads). However, the novel takes a rather more nuanced approach to the subject than might otherwise be expected from a male mystery writer in his mid-sixties writing early-second wave feminists in the early 1950s; in particular, Viola Duday is rather sharp-tongued and has a low opinion of men, but she's also competent, quick-witted and intelligent, and it's heavily implied that she's not wrong that the male members of the Softdown board are kind of dull and useless in comparison. In particular, the most openly misogynistic character in the book is depicted as a rather weird crank.
  • Widow Woman: Discussed; when introducing Sarah Jaffee, Archie briefly describes an elderly widow, apparently close to the typical stereotype of such a woman, who lived in his street when he was a child and who consequently made a lasting impression on him regarding his impression of what a widow looks like.