Supersleuth Nero Wolfe and his assistant Archie Goodwin are called into action by one of their own when their associate Orrie Cather is accused of murdering his ex-girlfriend, a dancer with a mysterious Sugar Daddy. Private investigator Archie Goodwin, assistant to the legendary (and corpulent) Nero Wolfe, is asked a peculiar favor by his associate Orrie Cather. Orrie has been seeing an dancer named Isabel Kerr, but now wishes to get married to an arline stewardess, Jill Hardy. Isabel has reacted badly when Orrie attempted to break off the affair, and has stolen several of his belongings, including his detective's license, and is blackmailing him with their return. Orrie gives Archie his key to Isabel's apartment, and asks him to retrieve his license. When Archie sneaks into the apartment, he discovers Isabel's dead body.
Archie confronts Orrie, and after being satisfied that Orrie did not attempt to frame him for the murder, lets the matter rest. Shortly thereafter, Isabel's body is discovered by her sister and Orrie is arrested for her murder. Wolfe, reluctant as always to get involved, is forced to investigate to prevent his own name from being associated with a murderer. Archie and Wolfe enlist the aid of their usual operatives Saul Panzer and Fred Durkin. Although all of them have doubts about Orrie's innocent, Saul argues convincingly that the sequence of events indicate that he did not kill Isabel. Their investigation begins, and Wolfe focuses on the wealthy "protector" who paid for Isabel's apartment. Inspector Cramer of Homicide warns Wolfe and Archie off the case, claiming Isabel's diary provides clear evidence of Orrie's guilt.
Archie begins by talking to Isabel's sister Stella Fleming and her husband Barry, but Stella is mostly concerned that any scandal be kept out of the paper. Orrie is more forthcoming, especially after learning Archie has placated his jealous fiancée, and Archie is able to identify Isabel's benefactor, who she referred to as "The Lobster", as wealthy magnate Avery Ballou. He is able to get Ballou to visit Wolfe by inferring blackmail, which is an effective tactic since Ballou is already being blackmailed with the knowledge of his affair by a man identified only as "Milton Thales". Ballou, who assumes Orrie Cather is the blackmailer, offers to pay Wolfe to hush up the affair. Wolfe, however, recognizes "Milton Thales" as the names of two mathematicians, and concludes that Barry Fleming, a math teacher, is the blackmailer and probably the murderer.
After ruling out Ballou's dog-loving wife as a suspect, Wolfe and Archie contact Isabel's closest friend, the cabaret singer Julie Jacquette. Jacquette horrifies Wolfe by interrupting his dinner-time with a rock-and-roll song, and by demanding to see his famous orchids, but he recognizes the underlying intelligence to her kittenish act and treats her with respect. He requests her help with smoking out Isabel's killer, and she agrees after being offered a large reward (to be paid by Ballou)
Julie and Archie set a meeting with Fleming at a hotel, and when he arrives, threaten him with the knowledge that he is blackmailing Ballou. Fleming denies any wrongdoing, but later that night an attempt is made on Julie's life which puts Fred Durkin in the hospital with a wounded leg. Julie is moved into Wolfe's brownstone for protection.
The next day, Inspector Cramer arrives, furious at Wolfe for fouling up his case. He has a frustrating interview with Julie, who refuses to tell him anything, but concedes that he now must release Orrie. Stella Fleming is called to the brownstone, and Wolfe, Archie and Julie inform her of her husband's misdeeds, and pressure her to get him to confess to Isabel's murder. Several hours later, Cramer arrives with news that Barry Fleming has shot himself and left a confession in his suicide note, but Archie wryly observes that it is more likely that Stella, obsessed with keeping her sister's reputation under wraps, shot him herself.
Several weeks later, Orrie has married Jill, and Archie receives a letter from Julie, who has used her reward money to leave her singing career behind her and enroll in a university, describing how she has used some of the quotations she has discussed with Wolfe to impress her professors.
Best part of story, including ending:
Rex Stout's NERO WOLFE series is always an entertaining read, but in this particular installment the Humor is mixed with a case that has unusually high stakes. Orrie Cather has been a member of Wolfe's team through almost the entire series of novels, and he has mainly been in the background up until now. The examination of a little-known character and how much our heroes really know about him provides a weight to the story much of Stout's work lacks.
Best scene in story:
The entrance of Julie Jacquette into Wolfe's carefully-controlled world comes as a shock: she enters singing a banal rock song and intrudes on Wolfe's precious time at the table. But she is far more than she appears, and it doesn't take Wolfe, of all people, long to figure that out.
Opinion about the main character:
Nero Wolfe is a wonderfully three-dimensional creation who could have been very one-dimensional. His sloth, gluttony and arrogance do not make him any less likable; in a way they make him more admirable, and his ability to master any intellectual situation can only be admired. And any man who is as devoted to the growing of orchids as he is to the love of books (the preparation of fine food is a close third and the solving of crimes is a distant fourth) is a man I wish to admire.