The Sad Silly Death of a Chessmaster

I love reading Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books, and I read them again and again, because I love visiting the old brownstone on 35th Street. My dear departed grandmother had a brownstone on 37th Street or somewhere thereabouts.

The plots can be thin, and somewhat contrived, but the overall experience is always so delightful. The food is great, of course; it’s always fun reading about that, and then there’s the ego-superego dialectic between Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe.

I just rereread Gambit, and I have to say, the plot is really brilliant. It’s a variation of the old closed-room mystery. It opens with Wolfe, in the front room of the brownstone, at the ony working fireplace, burning a dictionary because it suggests that ‘infer’ and ‘imply’ could be used interchangeably. I agree 100 percent.

Fumes from the burning dictionary stultify Wolfe’s mental processes, and he agrees to accept a fee from the daughter of Matthew Blount, a prestigious businessman in jail accused of murder.

Turns out Paul Jerin, a young chess master, was invited by Blount to play six blindfold matches against the members of a prestigious New York chess club.

Jerin drinks only hot chocolate while he’s there, and he’s taken to the hospital where he dies of arsenic poisoning, and only certain people at the club have had access to the hot chocolate, and naturally they’re the suspects, especially Matthew Blount, who brought him the chocolate and then later took the pot and the cup and rinsed them carefully.

This naturally looks very suspicious to the cops and they arrest Blount for murder. Turns out also the chessmaster has been “seen” with Blount’s daughter, and there’s your motive there.

The billiant twist is, Blount did poison the chocolate, with a comparatively harmless drug that would impair the chessmaster’s abilities but not kill him. And of course Blount would rather be convicted of murder than admit this.

This is a good chance for Nero Wolfe to earn a hefty fee by exposing the murderer without giving away this secret that would embarass the rich client.

Come to find out, Blount’s buddy, Dr. Avery, knows Blount is going to poison Jerin, because Blount had asked him what drug to use, so when he (Avery) comes to treat the ailing chessmaster, he poisons him with arsenic. The doctor is not suspected because the victim was feeling sick before he (the doctor) even came on the scene.

Dr. Avery knows nothing of Paul Jerin, but murders him to get Blount convicted of murder. The chessmaster is sacrificed like a pawn in a chess gambit, hence the title.

Why? Dr. Avery wants to marry Blount’s wife. That’s a little thin, but we hear she’s pretty captivating (and doesn’t even know it!). Now there’s a motive for murder.

Thin motives aside, this book really is brilliant and eminently enjoyable. Another great Rex Stout book is The League of Frightened Men.