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Literature / Where There's A Will

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A Nero Wolfe mystery novel by Rex Stout, published in 1940.

A distressingly low amount in his bank account has forced Nero Wolfe to not only accept more work, but to break one of his usual rules in doing so — he is lowered to involving himself in an inheritance dispute. The Hawthorne sisters, a trio of exceptionally accomplished siblings, have apparently been disinherited by their recently deceased brother Noel in favour of his mistress Naomi Karn. While the sisters themselves claim to have no interest in the inheritance itself, they are concerned that Noel's disfigured widow Daisy intends to launch a public challenge to the will that will bring disrepute to the family, and want Wolfe to convince Naomi to willingly surrender at least half of the inheritance to prevent this. Reluctantly, Wolfe agrees to the job — but when evidence is uncovered that Noel Hawthorne was actually murdered, it quickly begins to seem like the Hawthorne affair will be more like his usual work after all...


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.)

  • Amoral Attorney: Wolfe's investigation eventually causes him to suspect that Glenn Prescott, who made the will, is hiding something from him. This belief is correct. Prescott both forged the will and is the murderer.
  • The Baby of the Bunch: April Hawthorne is this to her generation of the family being thirteen years younger than her brother, ten years younger than June and five years younger than May.
  • Blackmail: Not a part of the villain's scheme for once, but discussed. At one point Inspector Cramer and the authorities — who suspect Naomi Karn of the murder — get it into their heads that Wolfe was blackmailing her on behalf of the Hawthornes to secure their rightful share of Noel Hawthorne's inheritance in exchange for not revealing the evidence they have against her, and so Cramer 'generously' offers to overlook Wolfe's involvement in that crime if he'll just cough up the evidence against Karn. Unfortunately for Cramer, he's completely mistaken what the meeting was about, Wolfe has no evidence against Karn (or even suspicions against her at that stage), and Wolfe is so offended by Cramer's assumption that he's a corrupt imbecile that by that point he wouldn't turn it over even if it did exist.
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  • Bluffing the Murderer: Wolfe tricks the killer into making an incriminating mistake by pretending to suspect someone else of the murder so that Prescott will try to help his case in order to save his own skin.
  • Brainy Brunette: May Hawthorne, who Archie quips has been investigated for trust violations due to having a monopoly on brain cells.
  • Broken Ace: Eugene Davis, apparently one of the best lawyers in both his law firm and the city overall, has been reduced to alcoholic misery after being dumped by Naomi Karn.
  • Chekhov's Skill: April Hawthorne is a famous actress and in one scene, impersonates her sister in-law Daisy.
  • Crying Wolf: Not for the first or last time in the series, Inspector Cramer decides that Wolfe both has more information that he actually has about what's going on and has been taking a rather unethical approach to dealing with his clients, and demands that Wolfe reveal "everything". Wolfe actually doesn't have the information and, being rather offended by Cramer's high-handed assumption that he is both "a nincompoop and a knave", at that point wouldn't reveal anything even if he did. This, of course, leads to Cramer refusing to believe that Wolfe actually doesn't know more than he's letting on and storming out vowing to get a warrant to compel Wolfe to talk. This is all lampshaded by Archie, who dryly notes that "the purer our motives are, the worse the insults we get".
  • Eat the Evidence: The murderer tries to do this in a moment of panic, with the evidence in question being one of Sara's photographs. Wolfe calmly states that this won't make a difference, as he has the original film of the photograph, from which multiple copies of the photo can be made.
  • Even Evil Has Standards: Naomi Karn is manipulative, ruthless and greedy, and will do whatever it takes to secure a fortune, but draws the line at murder or supporting it. Though it is suggested that this is less out of morality and more out of a pragmatic and slightly cowardly desire to avoid real legal trouble.
  • Fair-Play Whodunnit: The original publication of the novel came with reproductions of the photographs that Sara Dunn took which prove vital to solving the mystery, allowing the reader at home to have a stab at seeing if they can work it out based on them. Unfortunately, apparently these reproductions were not of very high quality and so were left out of future editions; while they are still described in the text, certain essential details in particular, the exact flower that Glenn Prescott is wearing in his buttonhole are left out, meaning the reader can no longer work it out just from the text alone.
  • Femme Fatale: Naomi Karn is the scheming, manipulative Gold Digger version of this trope, whereas Daisy Hawthorne seems to be more of a embittered, disfigured and borderline crazed version. Neither is the murderer, and Naomi ends up being one of the victims.
  • Flower Motif: In keeping with the overall "gothic mystery" vibe going on, flowers tend be used in a way which symbolise death, danger and malevolence. Noel Hawthorne's body is found in a clearing amongst a wide variety of flowers, and much is made of a faded cornflower that is found by his body. His sister April briefly comes under suspicion because she was picking cornflowers at the time of his murder. Sara Dunn, who possesses vital information that could solve the murder, works at a florist, and we learn this when we also learn that her life is in danger thanks to the killer suspecting that She Knows Too Much. The most hostile and malevolent member of the Hawthorne family is also the one named after a flower. And flowers prove to be crucial to solving the mystery: It's also frequently noted throughout the story that Glenn Prescott tends to wear flowers on his lapel, and he is pegged as the killer because a photo shows him wearing a wild rose in his lapel that he could only have acquired at the murder scene; the cornflower found at the scene was initially in his lapel.
  • The Ghost: Deputy Chambers, who first realizes that there was a murder in the first place (due to some highly impressive examination of the evidence) never appears in person, with his efforts merely being described by Cramer. Prescott and Davis's law partner Mr. Dunwoodie and Titus Ames (the caretaker who found Noel's body and helped the police establish where everyone was that day) is also referred to in passing a few times but never shown.
  • Gold Digger: Quite a few:
    • It is clearly established that Naomi Karn is greedy and out for what she can get from her lovers. She draws the line at murder, though, which leads to her death when the killer fears that she'll turn on him to save her own skin.
    • Mrs. Hawthorne also claims that this is April's motive for her budding romance with executive Osric Stauffer, stating that April needs a provider due to being in debt and getting too old for the stage (whether or not this is true is unclear).
    • May Hawthorne is also the Hawthorne sister who keeps banging on about the real terms of the will, as her brother promised her a million dollars for her scientific research foundation. This gets to the point where the last paragraphs of the novel revolve around May haranguing Wolfe about the will, much to his frustration. In contrast, the other Hawthorne sisters, while a bit put out at being snubbed, claim to be disinterested in their brother's fortune and more concerned with avoiding scandal.
  • Good Scars, Evil Scars: Played with; Daisy Hawthorne is rather bitter and malevolent in nature, and her facial scars are described as hugely disfiguring and diagonal across her face. The reader never actually sees them, however, so we never get to determine what the reality is (although she presumably wears that veil for a reason).
  • Gothic Horror: Well, not exactly horror, but this novel does seem to be a rare example of Rex Stout trying his hand at incorporating elements of a Gothic Mystery into a Nero Wolfe story. Much of the events take place in a mansion which, for New York City at least, is the equivalent of an Old, Dark House with various secret doors and passageways perfect for lurking around in, there's a big and rather insular family with secrets aplenty and a tendency to close ranks around themselves, lots of intrigue surrounding a will, a disfigured formerly beautiful wife with an ever-present Mysterious Veil creeping around the place, people impersonating other people, and so on.
  • Hero of Another Story: Based on the descriptions of his intense efforts to investigate the crime before anyone else even assumed a crime had been committed, Deputy Chambers probably qualifies.
  • Heroic BSoD: Poor Secretary of State Dunn has rather a lot to cope with in this story, being under congressional investigation for insider trading thanks to his brother-in-law even before becoming a prime suspect in said brother-in-law's murder. By the end of the novel, he's described in terms that suggest he's just mentally shutting down. While the outcome for him isn't expanded upon, as Wolfe's investigation goes a long way towards clearing him of both murder and corruption it can be presumed that his good name and reputation are restored and that he eventually gets better.
  • Ironic Name:
    • Daisy Hawthorne, named after a flower known and loved for its simple beauty, is a bitter, vicious and malevolent woman distinguished by her apparently grotesque scarring, tangled up in a byzantine and complex series of plots around her husband's will. She apparently was a lot more beautiful before the accident that reduced her so, however.
    • Also played with by the Hawthorne sisters, who are named after successive months of the year; however, they are named in reverse order to how the months appear on the calendar (namely, June is the eldest daughter and April the youngest). Furthermore, while June apparently was named after the month she was born, the other two were apparently named so simply because their parents found it amusing.
  • Jerkass: Johnny Keems isn't at his best in this book, and needlessly insults the age of a woman who gave him some information during Wolfe's summation.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: By the standards of Nero Wolfe novels, at least, this story is packed to the gills with named characters in addition to the regular and recurring cast. The Hawthorne sisters in particular each seem to have their own extended entourage, all of whom seem to be involved in what's going on in some way, and as they are rarely seen apart in the story their entourages tag along to form a sort of combined entourage. It can gradually become hard to keep track of or remember some of them.
  • Living Legend: All three of Hawthorne's sisters are major celebrities (an author who married a politician, an actress and a college president) with entries in Who's Who, and are collectively are known as the Hawthorne gals, something Archie enjoys bringing up to Troll Wolfe.
  • Madwoman in the Attic: Downplayed, as Daisy Hawthorne is not really insane, nor is she locked up. However, in keeping with the novel's embracing of Gothic Horror / Mystery tropes, she's clearly depicted in a way which calls to mind character archetypes of this trope like Bertha Rochester in Jane Eyre. She's disfigured, reclusive, never removes her veil, is rather malevolent (towards her family at least), if not insane then is at least mentally unstable, had a very bad relationship with her husband (who was also responsible for her injuries) and his family, generally creeps around the place unsettling everyone, and so forth.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: Noel's death was initially believed to be a hunting accident by everyone except the murderer and one local deputy.
  • Motive Decay: Glenn Prescott committed the murder and forged the will out of lust for Naomi Karn, in order to indebt her to him, but ends up murdering her to cover up his crime.
  • Mysterious Veil: Due to an injury sustained by an accident with an arrow, Daisy Hawthorne's former beauty has apparently been greatly disfigured and she has constantly taken to wearing a veil.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Prescott, the attorney is found brutally beaten by Archie in one scene, having been attacked by Davis, out of anger that he'd killed Naomi.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: The reader is never given a description of Daisy Hawthorne's facial injuries beyond rumours (she is supposed to have a diagonal scar across her face and has lost the sight in one eye, but whether this is true is never clearly established) and they are never seen by Archie, allowing for him and us to create a mental image of just how gruesome and disfiguring they are. Archie admits in his narration that his imagination has run rather wild on the subject, freaking him out a bit. (Though it should perhaps be noted that Archie throughout the series tends a bit towards the superficial with regards to female beauty, and it might not take much for a young woman to be rendered hideous in his eyes.)
  • Obnoxious In-Laws: A delayed example, but Noel and his brother in-law had recently been feuding over Noel's use of inside information (likely acquired by an eavesdropping Naomi) to profit off of a policy decision of Secretary of State Dunn, putting his career in jeopardy due to accusations of corruption. The two were also at odds about whether Dunn's son Andy should become a lawyer, or go work for his uncle's company (with April's urging the boy to become an actor also being thrown into the mix).
  • Oh, Crap!: Much as she tries to play the cool, unflappable Femme Fatale, both Wolfe and Archie pick up on Naomi Karn's barely-restrained panic when she learns with everyone else that the police are treating Noel Hawthorne's death as a murder, not an accident or suicide. It's not because she did it, it's because she knows who did.
  • Out-of-Genre Experience: As noted above, this novel reads a bit more like a Gothic Mystery than others in the series will do.
  • Outnumbered Sibling: Noel Hawthorne was the only boy out of four children.
  • Plucky Girl: Sara Dunn, June's daughter, proves a likeable and enthusiastic presence who ends up contributing to solving the mystery.
  • Rage Breaking Point: As discussed under Screw This, I'm Outta Here!, Archie is left in the lurch when Wolfe uses him as a distraction to slip away from the Hawthorne residence after the murder of Naomi Karn, purely so that Wolfe can avoid all the hassle. Then, on top of this, Wolfe pulls his usual supercilious "let's keep Archie in the dark about what I'm doing" move when assigning the other detectives various tasks. Archie is in no mood to put up with this shit by this point, and spends a substantial amount of the last quarter of the book seething and telling anyone who'll listen how his job really isn't worth it.
  • Romanticism vs. Enlightenment: May Hawthorne, a brilliant scientist who lives a spinster life and freely admits that she doesn't understand romance or sex, makes some rather snide and patronising comments about Wolfe and his methods throughout the story. Wolfe eventually diagnoses this as her scientific contempt for his more "romantic" approach to life coming through.
  • Sad Clown: April Hawthorne is implied to have shades of this, with her sister June noting that "she pretends she has to laugh at everything."
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: After Naomi Karn is found murdered in the Hawthorne residence, Wolfe gets Archie to distract everyone for a couple of minutes under the pretence that he needs some time to study the body himself, but instead takes the opportunity to slip out and get a ride home with Orrie Cather so that he can seal himself off at home and won't have to deal with any of the ensuing fuss. Archie, who is left hanging out to dry by this little ploy, is less than impressed with him as a result.
  • Self-Made Man: The Hawthorne siblings were born in modest circumstances, and Noel, the eldest, is mentioned as having gone to work at the age of twelve, and risen from the company's office boy to the boss of it.
  • Series Continuity Error: Inspector Cramer's first name is revealed to be Fergus in this story. The Silent Speaker will instead suggest he has the initials "L.T."
  • Sexy Secretary: April Hawthorne's secretary Celia Fleet, who is romantically involved with her nephew Andrew, is described by Archie as "a blonde in the bud who would have convinced any impartial jury that all of this great country's anatomical scenery had not been monopolized by Hollywood."
  • Silly Will: Noel Hawthorne's will leaves each of his sisters a piece of fruit; April a peach, May a pear, and June an apple. The exact reasons behind this are never determined especially as it's not actually Noel's will.
  • Simple Country Lawyer: Mr. Regan, the District attorney from the county where Noel was murdered in comes across as a competent, intelligent man, but arrives at the Brownstone wearing an old straw hat and has the manner down pat.
  • Spot the Imposter: At one point, Archie discovers that there appear to be two Daisy Hawthornes in the house at the same time that one is being interviewed by Wolfe. They determine that the only way to tell if they're dealing with the real one is to try and sneak a peek under her veil. They determine that they're dealing with the real Daisy... not because they manage to see under the veil, but because when it appears that Archie is going to "accidentally" remove it, the sheer intense violence of the woman's response leaves both under no illusions that she's the real one, as no actress would be good enough to respond so. The imposter is actually April Hawthorne, trying to determine what Naomi Karn is up to and whether she's willing to settle the matter of the will.
  • Suit with Vested Interests: While there has been a murder committed, Secretary of State Dunn accuses DA Skinner (a member of the opposing political party) of not conducting an impartial investigation. There is some ambiguity as to whether this is true, although it wouldn't be too out of character for Skinner, given some of his other appearances.
  • Taking the Heat: Sara Dunn briefly discusses the possibility of doing this to take the pressure off her family. Wolfe tells her it's a very bad idea.
  • The Un-Reveal: Noel's will left each of his sisters nothing but a piece of fruit. Wolfe's investigation never reveals the story behind this, even after it turns out the will is a forgery, as at that point there are more pressing concerns than why Prescott wrote that.
  • Villainous Breakdown: The killer spends most of The Summation staring blankly into space before, in a fit of crazed desperation, trying to Eat the Evidence.

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