Vintage mysteries – A murder full of mothers

Review: Champagne for One by Rex Stout

A keeper? Definitely

Archie Goodwin knew it was going to be an awkward evening. But he let his acquaintance Dinky Byne talk him into going to Mrs. Robilotti’s famous yearly dinner party for a select group of “graduates” from her first husband’s home for unwed mothers.

(A little note on history: Back in the 1950s, a young woman who was pregnant with no husband needed to keep the baby a secret. The newborn was given up for adoption; but what about the couple of months before the baby arrived? Homes for unwed mothers were a solution – apparently a combination of hotel / boarding school / maternity hospital, where she could hide until she looked respectably unpregnant again.)

Anyway, there’s Archie, dining, drinking, and dancing with the four unwed mothers and Mrs. Robilotti’s daughter Celia, and coping pretty well until Rose, one of the mothers, tells him that another mother, Faith Usher, is carrying a bottle of poison. Rose is worried, but Archie assures her that he’ll make sure nothing goes wrong.

A few minutes later, Faith drinks a glass of champagne mixed with cyanide.

Archie insists she couldn’t have poisoned herself, because he was watching her. And however it happened, he’s embarrassed. Archie doesn’t like to be embarrassed. Meanwhile, the police insist it’s inappropriate to embarrass such a respected citizen (such a rich woman, that is) as Mrs. Robilotti by calling it murder. Everybody insists there was no way to predict who would end up with the poisoned glass.

So if it wasn’t suicide and can’t have been murder, why is she dead?

Archie’s boss Nero Wolfe is the obvious person to solve that puzzle. But Wolfe does nothing for free. Not a problem. Somebody saw to it that the father of Faith’s baby was one of the guests at the party, and before long Wolfe is hired to find out what happened and keep the babydaddy’s name out of it.

Wolfe gets off to a bad start, and has to have it pointed out by one of the mothers, who tells him that he’s asking her exactly the same questions the police did. So Wolfe takes one of his patented several-bushels-of-air deep breaths and starts over. Faith seems to have been totally alone in the world – no old friends, no relatives except a mother she hated. Where, he asks, is Faith’s mother?

Of course the crew of assistant detectives finds her. Better yet, the one and only Saul Panzer tails her to a restaurant, and decides to hide in the same alley that Archie – who’s tailing someone else entirely – is already hiding in. Once Wolfe learns that those two suspicious characters know each other, it takes him no time at all to unearth the motive and put on a minidrama to show Inspector Cramer exactly how the murderer finagled the poisoned glass of champagne into Faith’s hand.

Faith’s still dead, and the killer is in big trouble, but everybody else gets a happy ending. Including Wolfe: the client pays up without a struggle, so he can sit back and spend the next few months growing orchids, his second favorite thing in the world, and eating fine food, his very favorite thing.

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