And Be A Villain
Rex Stout
Read by
Michael Prichard

(Audio Editions)
Madeline Fraser runs a daytime interview program on radio. Cyril Orchard --- he puts out a horse-race tip sheet --- appears, talks some, and then topples over dead. Someone has switched the Hi-Spot bottles (they sponsor the show) and a live program gets even more lively as the coroner is called in.

The police can't figure out who did it so they make contact with Nero Wolfe. He's an eccentric New York detective who raises eccentric flowers on the top floor of his apartment, eats eccentric foods, and prefers never to go out, especially when he is working on a crime.

This is the first Nero Wolfe mystery I've come across and I certainly intend it to be my last. It's a stinker and I'm guessing that anything else that Stout did will be equally louche ... as is his detective. When Wolfe is questioning the seven suspects in And To Be a Villain, it is just bad dialogue, no different, as far as I can figure, than sitting in on a legal discovery, the lawyers in no hurry, not a whit of diversion, no spark, billing time.

All is seen through the beady eyes of Wolfe's associate, Archie Goodwin. He might muster a few weak smiles when he tells Wolfe that not only is he fat, but he is conceited. Fat insults are a regular --- it was au courant in the 1940s and 1950s --- and, in response, Wolfe grunts which we are also guessing was au courant in the 1940s and 1950s.

Wolfe does a lot of grunting here. He is also stuffed with high-falutin' language: "What you did may have been distasteful, but you did it impeccably," he tells one of the suspects, after a soulful confession. Someone wants him to hide their secret from the police. Instead of giving a simple yes or no, Wolfe grunts, "Manifestly impossible." He also spends a considerable amount of the readers' time staring at the ceiling, reading newspapers, and drinking beer.

Maybe Stout was such a subtle writer that he got a good laugh by creating big bore detective stories for the lumpen and, in the process, making millions. Or maybe he was a big piggy himself.

Speaking of eponymous names, the people who are not to like in Stout's book are Wolfe himself --- obese and arrogant --- and a suspect, an Upper East Side lady by the name of Mrs. Hilda Michaels: "There was too much of her, and the distribution was all wrong," says the ever-cynical Archie.

    Her face was so well-padded that there was no telling if there were any bones buried underneath.

Let us not fault Michael Prichard nor Audio Editions. The reading is appropriately dry and American. The pain lies but with the original, because it is the work of a genuine fathead.

--- Lolita Lark

Ferris Wheels
An Illustrated History
Norman Anderson

(Popular Press)
The Ferris Wheel was invented by Fredrick J. Wheel of Wheeling, West Virginia. No: stop. The Ferris Wheel came into being long before Mr. Wheel did, early ones being seen in drawings in a book published in the late seventeenth century by a Peter Mundy. One of Mundy's wheels was called the "Gallowes," which "was framed on a triangular board which hangeth about three foote from the ground, on which the partie sitts that is to bee wunge,"

    if a little boy hee comonly is made fast, although others more hardy hold fast themselves.

There were also Native American fish wheels, built to entertain salmon before eating by getting them high enough to see the river in which they slept and drank. There were pleasure wheels, noria, up-and-downs (or ups-and-downs), roundabouts, whirligigs, perpendicular roundabouts, overboats, amusement wheels and karcheli.

Pleasure wheels appeared in fairs in 19th century America, and there was even something called the "Epicycloidal Diversion" in Atlantic City in the 1870s. But the big daddy of them all showed up at the Chicago "World's Columbian Exposition" and it was designed, financed, and built by George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. so he could have just as easily called it the George Wheel, the Washington Wheel, the Gale Wheel, or the Junior Wheel, or a combination of all four.

Ferris must have had a silver tongue in addition to an agile engineering mind: one H. W. Fowler proposed a "Dutch Windmill" and W. H. Wachter asked to build an "observation wheel" for the same Exposition, but both were voted down in favor of Ferris. The final product was designed by a man named Gronau who complained later that Ferris stole his thunder but would you and I have liked all these years to be riding on a Gronau wheel, much less a noria?

The final design was 264 feet tall, weighed 4,300 tons, had thirty-six cars, each of which could hold forty people. The ride lasted twenty minutes, and over the course of the fair, took in 1,500,000 riders, and even more when it was reconstructed at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition. After the close of this last fair, there was the usual bickering between partners, bankruptcy, and the whole structure was dynamited in 1906 and the picture of the metal pile in Ferris Wheels can make one quite teary, especially those of us who wish we had been born in 1885 to have had a chance to live in the years when simple jingoisim ruled the country and was not called by some other silly name. Like "exporting democracy" or "protecting the world's resources."

The pictures in Ferris Wheels --- over a hundred of them --- seem to be a little cloudy, but that's all right. Mr. Anderson's passion for his subject shows through the text. The real treasure is to be found in the patent applications in Appendix B, of which there are another hundred, and which we have copied off the two beauties above and below.

--- Leslie Groves

Sacco & Vanzetti
John Davis, Editor
You and I have always heard that the 1927 execution of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti was a defining moment in America ... where the land of the free and the brave was no longer free and brave, but craven and unjust.

There is no doubt that this or any other society ends up being the fool when its citizens believe that state-sanctioned murder makes Right. And yet over the years there have come hints that perhaps one of the two might have been involved in the killing of the paymaster of the Slater & Morrill Shoe Company and the robbery of $16,000. Robert D'Attilo recently wrote that, "based on new ballistics tests and words by Carlo Tresca and Fred Moore, Sacco was guilty, Vanzetti innocent. [Still,] no single account nor any ballistics test has been able to put all doubts about innocence or guilt completely to rest."

Who is to know the truth after all these years of passion, denunciation, accusations, despite stacks of documentation? The facts have fallen victim to fame, and --- as with the murder of Christopher Marlowe, the jailing of Dreyfus on Devil's Island, the facts behind the beginning of World War I, the question of the innocence or guilt of the Rosenbergs --- there is just too much of a paroxysm of paperwork for anyone, ever, to know the truth.

In the case of Sacco & Vanzetti, no one was clean. Neither Judge Thayer who sentenced them nor Fred H. Moore who defended them (badly). The two of them were carrying guns at the time of their arrests, and, in 1916, had hidden out in Mexico to avoid the draft. Some of the literature they touted around was of the fire-breathing kill-the-capitalists variety.

§     §     §

In this small volume, we are given the bare facts, along with a sampling of letters the two wrote to friends, family, and supporters as their case was being appealed. There are statements and news stories by journalists who, for seven years, fought the sentencing of the two. finally, there is "The Legacy:" how the case affected those who were left behind and the system of justice in America.

The fame and the sheer number of those who rose to the defense of the two anarchists is considerable: Heywood Broun, Bertrand Russell, Ben Shahn, Anatole France, H. G. Wells, and even Edna St. Vincent Millay (who wrote an indefensibly bad poem arguing for the defense).

John Dos Passos reported meeting Sacco in jail, "when he laughs, his cheeks flush a little. At length we manage both of us to laugh. It's such a preposterous position for a man to be in, like a man who doesn't know the game trying to play chess blindfolded."

    The real world has gone. We have no more grasp of our world of rain and streets and trolley cars and cucumber vines and girls and garden plots. This is a world of phrases: prosecution, defense, evidence, motion, irrelevant, incompetent and immaterial.

"For six years this man has lived in the law, tied tighter and tighter in the sticky filaments of law-words like a fly in a spider web. And the wrong set of words means the Chair."

Vanzetti was bitter, older, ever the militant radical. In 1924, he wrote to a suffragette defending him, "Neither do I expect any good from that letter to the judge. I have never expected, not do I expect anything from him, other that some ten thousand volts divided in few times; some meters of cheap board and 4x7x8 feet hole in the ground."

Sacco was the younger, the charmer. The day before he was to die, he wrote his daughter,

    It was the greatest treasure and sweetness in my struggling life that I could have lived with you and your brother Dante and your mother in a neat little farm, and learn all you sincere words and tender affection. Then in the summer-time to be sitting with you in the home nest under the oak tree shade --- beginning to teach you of life and how to read and write, to see you running, laughing, crying and singing through the verdent [sic] fields picking the wild flowers here and there from one tree to another and from the clear, vivid stream to your mother's embrace.

--- Richard Saturday

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