Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin have a lot of boldfaced names on their suspect list when New York’s most hated gossip columnist is murdered. There are few people Nero Wolfe respects, and Lon Cohen of the New York Gazette is one of them. So when Cohen asks for a favor, the famously brilliant—and notoriously lazy—detective is inclined to listen. According to Cohen, someone wants to kill the Gazette ’s gossip columnist, Cameron Clay. Death threats are a regular hazard for Clay, who’s hurled insults and accusations at every bold-faced name in the five boroughs. But the latest threats have carried a more sinister tone. The columnist has narrowed his potential killers down to five people: an egomaniacal developer, a disgraced cop, a corrupt councilman, a sleazy lawyer, and his own ex-wife. But when Clay turns up dead, the cops deem it a suicide. The bigwigs at the Gazette don’t agree, so they retain Wolfe and his indefatigable assistant, Archie Goodwin, to figure out which of the suspects had the mettle to pull the trigger.In this “outstanding” mystery, Robert Goldsborough, author of Murder in E Minor, “once again demonstrates an impressive ability to emulate Rex Stout’s narrative voice” (Publi shers Weekly, starred review).
About the Author
Robert Goldsborough (b. 1937) is an American author best known for continuing Rex Stout’s famous Nero Wolfe series. Born in Chicago, he attended Northwestern University, and upon graduation went to work for the Associated Press, beginning a lifelong career in journalism that would include long periods at the Chicago Tribune and Advertising Age. While at the Tribune, Goldsborough began writing mysteries in the voice of Rex Stout, the creator of iconic sleuths Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Goldsborough’s first novel starring Wolfe, Murder in E Minor (1986), was met with acclaim from both critics and devoted fans, winning a Nero Award from the Wolfe Pack. Six more novels followed, including Death on Deadline (1987) and Fade to Black (1990). In 2005, Goldsborough published Three Strikes You’re Dead, the first in an original series starring Chicago Tribune reporter Snap Malek. His most recent novel is Stop the Presses! (2016).
Read an Excerpt
Stop the Presses!
A Nero Wolfe Mystery
By Robert Goldsborough
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 2016 Robert Goldsborough
All rights reserved.
I had just finished one of Fritz Brenner's hearty breakfasts — freshly squeezed orange juice, shirred eggs, Georgia ham, and hash brown potatoes — and gotten settled at my desk in the office when the phone squawked. "Nero Wolfe's office, Archie Goodwin speaking," I answered, as I always did.
"Nice to know you are on the job. It is a real comfort to me." The voice on the other end belonged to Lon Cohen of the New York Gazette, newspaperman par excellence and also poker player par excellence, as I have learned much to my chagrin over the years.
"To what do I owe the honor of this call, O Noble Chronicler of the Great City's Foibles, Farces, and Fancies?"
"Flattery will get you everywhere with me," Cohen said. "I have a matter I would like to talk over with your boss."
"Really? Care to tell me about it?"
"I would prefer to discuss it with both of you, and face-to-face. I can come over at Mr. Wolfe's convenience."
"What about at dinner? As you know, Nero Wolfe enjoys your company at the table, and I seem to recall that you enjoy not only Fritz's world-class meals, but also that cognac that he has been known to offer up to special guests, a title for which you qualify."
"I wasn't angling for a dinner, Archie. This could be a daytime visit."
"Understood. I will talk to Mr. Wolfe at eleven, when he descends from communing with his orchids up in the plant rooms, but as I am a betting man, I will lay odds — long odds — that he suggests that you come for dinner."
"Okay, but make sure he knows I am not, repeat not, asking for a meal."
I promised Lon I would relay his comment and then turned to finishing the correspondence Wolfe had dictated the day before, most of it letters to orchid growers. I had just typed the last of them when the whirring of the elevator announced that the morning séance in the greenhouse up on the roof was over.
"Good morning, Archie. Did you sleep well?" Wolfe said predictably as he strode into the office and placed a raceme of orange orchids in the vase on his desk.
"Yes, sir, like a baby. It must mean I don't have any guilty feelings lurking deep within my subconscious."
That drew a frown but no comment as he lowered himself into the reinforced desk chair, built to support his seventh of a ton, and rang for beer. I waited until he had signed all of the correspondence and swiveled to face him. "Lon Cohen has requested an audience," I said.
Wolfe's eyebrows rose. "Has he? For what purpose?"
"He didn't say. Just that he had something he wanted to discuss with you, and for that matter, with me as well."
"Just so. Have him come to dinner."
"He said he did not want you to think he was angling to get a meal invitation."
"Nonsense! Mr. Cohen is always welcome at the table here. You know that. There are few individuals with whom I would rather dine. See if he can come tonight. Tell him we are having Capon Souvaroff. I recall that he had it here once previously and spoke highly of it."
"I will do my very best to talk him into joining us this evening."
"I have every confidence you will be successful," Wolfe said dryly as he popped the cap off the first of two bottles of beer Fritz had just brought in along with a pilsner glass.
I was successful. When I called Lon during Wolfe's afternoon visit to his orchids and told him he was invited to dinner, he groaned. "Dammit, Archie, that was not my intent and you know it."
"So I told Mr. Wolfe, but he insisted. In fact, he said some very nice things about you as a dinner guest, things I am not about to share. You've got a big enough head as it is."
"Thanks a heap for putting things in perspective."
"My pleasure. For the record, Fritz will be serving Capon Souvaroff, and the dessert is raspberries in sherry cream."
"Be still my heart," Lon cracked. "See you later."
I have never known Lon Cohen to be late for anything, especially one of Fritz Brenner's meals, and that evening was no exception. At ten minutes to seven, he stepped in out of the blustery February night and took off his overcoat, which I hung on the hall rack along with his homburg.
A few words here about Lon. He has been employed by the Gazette for as long as Wolfe and I have known him, which is a lot of years. Early on, he was a crime reporter, and by all accounts, a damned good one. Then he moved to the city desk, and for at least two decades now, he has occupied an office on the twentieth floor, two doors down from the publisher. He doesn't have a title I am aware of, but he wields a lot of clout on the fifth-largest newspaper in America. And he has an encyclopedic knowledge of our city's history and the characters who have shaped it.
Lon also dresses better than anyone I know, which is saying a lot, because both Wolfe and I take pride in our appearance. Our favorite newspaperman favors custom-tailored three-piece suits, white shirts with cufflinks, silk ties, and shoes that have a shine any marine would envy. He wears clothes well in part because he doesn't have an ounce of fat on his five-foot-nine frame, and his black hair sees a barber every other week. His brown eyes, set deep in a tan face, are always alert, always looking for the next big story to splash across the front page.
"Glad you could remember the way," I told him as we walked down the hall to the dining room, where Wolfe already was in the process of getting seated.
"Mr. Cohen," Wolfe said, nodding slightly by way of a greeting. "What do you know about the War of the Roses?"
So our dinner subject had been set. Wolfe never discusses cases during meals, which wasn't a problem tonight as we didn't have a case. But even without a case, he enjoys talking about anything from politics to polygamy. One of his current books was about the War of the Roses, which took place in England hundreds of years ago. I knew next to nothing about it, but Lon did, so the conversation was two-sided, with me listening, learning, and enjoying yet another of Fritz Brenner's three-star meals.
After dinner, we retired to the office, Wolfe and I behind our desks with beer and scotch, respectively, and Lon in the red leather chair at the end of Wolfe's desk sipping Remisier brandy from a snifter.
"As usual, the dinner was superb and the discussion stimulating," Lon said, savoring the Remisier. "I feel guilty taking your hospitality and then presenting you with a problem that doesn't figure to end up with you getting a case."
"Mr. Cohen, we have helped each other on numerous occasions over the years. You have supplied us with valuable information, and we have been able to help present you with newsworthy stories."
Lon laughed. "Help? You have singularly presented the Gazette with stories, invariably exclusives, and always wrapped up neatly, like a welcome gift."
The creases in Wolfe's cheeks deepened — his version of a smile. "Would you say that our accounts are more or less even?"
"More or less, with a tilt in your favor, I concede," Lon said, raising his brandy snifter in salute.
"Perhaps a slight tilt. You have the floor. As you know, Archie and I are good listeners."
Lon cleared his throat. "I'm sure the name Cameron Clay is familiar to both of you."
Wolfe pursed his lips. "Your vituperative, confrontational, and sometimes libelous, columnist."
That got a tight smile from Lon. "All of the above and more, although he has rarely been sued."
"He still comes across like a twenty-four karat jerk," I put in. "He throws insults around as casually as a hash-house cook flips burgers. I'm surprised your editors see fit to put him on page three every day."
"You wouldn't be surprised if you saw our readership figures," Lon said. "Clay's Stop the Presses! column is far and away the most popular element in the Gazette, year after year."
"I find that hard to believe," I said.
"I don't," Wolfe demurred. "I agree, at least this once, with H. L. Mencken, who said years ago that 'No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.' That is not to say, Mr. Cohen, that many among your readers are lackwits, but they, like so many of their fellow citizens, relish nothing more than hearing half-truths, rumors, salacious gossip, and outright insulting descriptions of those in possession of fame and power. I confess to having read Mr. Clay's column on occasion, but each time I do, I curse myself for having wasted the time."
"We are in basic agreement," Lon said, holding up a palm. "I am no fan of Stop the Presses! myself. To me, the shame is that, although Clay can be a bulldog at ferreting out interesting and sometimes significant information, in recent years he has become ever more intent upon slurring the reputations of civic and government figures and celebrities, whether or not there is any substance behind his accusations and innuendos."
"Your newspaper has a legal department," Wolfe said. "Do not Mr. Clay's printed shenanigans raise red flags with them?"
"Only to a degree. First off, most of those Clay attacks are public figures who, because of their high visibility, have essentially forfeited any claim to an invasion of privacy. And as to libel, the other possible transgression, most of these individuals prefer to avoid the spectacle of a trial. Second, you will, of course, remember the Haverhill family, which has owned the newspaper for decades."
Wolfe nodded. He — and I — had cause to remember that family from a previous case in which the Haverhills, with Wolfe's help, had to fight to keep the Gazette out of the hands of a Scottish press baron whose papers appeal to the lowest common denominator.
"The Haverhills are very protective of Clay," Lon continued. "Part of the reason, so our publisher tells me, is that Felicia, wife of the clan's current paterfamilias, Eric Haverhill, is an avid reader of the column. So avid that in two libel cases brought against Clay over the years, she has put up her own money to settle both out of court, probably in the neighborhood of a hundred grand."
"A truly loyal reader," I said. "Mark me down as impressed."
"Don't be, Archie. For Felicia, the dough she put up in these cases amounted to no more than petty cash for her. And Eric Haverhill didn't seem to mind. He is in the habit of indulging his wife."
Wolfe took a sip of his beer and dabbed his lips with a handkerchief. "Mr. Cohen, as you stated a few moments ago, we are in basic agreement in our assessment of your well-read columnist's character and behavior in print. I sense you have more to say on the subject."
Lon nodded grimly. "I do. Someone seems bent upon killing Cameron Clay."CHAPTER 2
A pause of several seconds followed, not because either of us was surprised at Lon's statement, but because we were not surprised. Wolfe broke the silence.
"I would have thought a death threat against Mr. Clay was hardly an unusual occurrence."
"You are right, of course. He has gotten lots of them over the years," Lon said, waving a hand dismissively. "But most are obviously crank calls or scrawled notes, the latter from what we refer to as our 'crayon-wielding readers.'"
"What makes these threats different?" I asked.
"Clay told me it is because of their increasing frequency and similarity, suggesting — at least to him — that they all are coming from the same individual."
"He came to you with this information?"
"Yes. For some reason, he seems to feel that I'm a supporter of his, even though I've never gone out of my way to be complimentary about his work."
"What form have these threats taken?" Wolfe asked.
"They have all been phone calls, most to the office, but some to his home," Lon said. "The voice has always been the same, muffled and probably male, Clay told me. The calls started three or four weeks ago. They are always short, because the caller does not want to be traced, obviously. They usually begin with something theatrical like 'Your days are numbered' or 'Enjoy your time in the limelight while you can, because it is soon to end.'"
"How concerned is Mr. Clay about these calls?"
"I believe they have really gotten to him," Lon said. "In the past, he has always shrugged off attacks, whether by phone or in print. But now he seems damned concerned, although he doesn't want to show it, lest it damage the swaggering 'tough guy' image he likes to project."
Wolfe paused to drink beer, then set the glass down and once again dabbed his lips with a handkerchief. "Is the man given to bouts of paranoia?"
"I wouldn't say so, although maybe that what-the-hell attitude of his is a cover-up for insecurities I'm not aware of. That sounds like cheap psychology, though, doesn't it?"
"Perhaps," Wolfe said. "Did Mr. Clay have any suggestions as to who might be making these calls?"
"I asked, of course, and he listed five individuals he feels bear him the most animosity."
"Only five?" I put in. "I would have thought he could compile a list that would compete with the Manhattan white pages."
Lon's response was a chuckle. "Good point. Lord knows Cameron's collected enemies over the years the way some people collect stamps or coins or Christmas plates. Having said that, I was able to pin him down to naming those who top his 'most hated' list."
Wolfe dipped his chin a quarter of an inch, the signal for Lon to start naming names.
"Several of these probably will be familiar to both of you," Lon said after refilling his snifter with Remisier. "Here they are, in no particular order. Cameron did not rank them with regards to their levels of hatred for him. I'll start with Kerwin Andrews, the well-known builder and developer."
"Some would add 'con artist without equal' to his adjectives," I said.
Lon nodded. "Cameron has called him far worse in his columns, referring to him, although not by name, as 'that too-well-known poseur who possesses the poorest taste since the Edsel.' He described Andrews City, that huge housing development in Long Island City, as 'a monument to the egomaniacal dreams of a charlatan.' He characterized Andrews Tower, the office skyscraper he built in Connecticut, as 'New England's ultimate phallic symbol.' He called the sprawling Andrews Plaza Shopping Center in New Jersey 'that sad, grotesque faux Disneyland on the banks of the Passaic.' He has also suggested that Andrews has 'greased the palms' — that's the term he used — of legislators in the tristate area to get his various projects built, and damn the zoning laws that got violated in the process."
"I seem to recall reading in the pages of the Gazette and the Times that Mr. Andrews sued your columnist," Wolfe said.
"He did — twice — and lost both times," Lon answered. "Truth is, one possible defense in a libel case, and the Gazette's lawyers were able to prove that Andrews did indeed lavish 'gifts' on state legislators and local officials. Two of these so-called public servants, one each in Jersey and Connecticut, resigned from office before they were thrown out."
"Andrews has plenty of reason to wish Cameron Clay ill," I observed.
Lon nodded. "That's putting it mildly. Andrews didn't take the attacks lying down. He has said on more than one occasion that 'Cameron Clay is the single worst thing wrong with American journalism today.'"
"Childish drivel on both sides," Wolfe snorted.
"I am not about to defend our star columnist," Lon said, "but he does relish getting under the skin of the people he attacks. He loves baiting them, daring them to sue him."
"And, of course, the Gazette just happens to relish all of that publicity," I commented.
"True. The editors do little, if anything, to discourage Cameron Clay from being an attack dog. They figure any suits that result are part of the cost of doing business, and I tend to agree."
"The capitalist system at work," Wolfe remarked. "Continue."
At this point, I interrupt the narrative to address a question that had occurred to me and perhaps to you as well: Why was Wolfe giving so much time to this Cameron Clay business? No crime had been committed, we had no prospect for a commission that I could see, and the man who signs my checks clearly has no use for the Gazette's "star" columnist. When I asked about it after Lon's departure, he said, "You will agree that Mr. Cohen is a good friend and a valued source. If he felt concerned enough to discuss this with me, then I owed it to him to hear him out and give such advice as I could. This I have done."
Back to the conversation. Lon then introduced the second among the five individuals Cameron Clay suspected as being behind the threatening calls — Captain "Iron Mike" Tobin.
"The disgraced former cop," I said.
"The selfsame," Lon said. "As you both will, of course, recall, Tobin went to prison for beating suspects to wring confessions out of them. Cameron was the first to write about him when word of his brutality began to leak out. At one time or another, he referred to Tobin as 'a disgrace to the force' and 'the biggest single reason why so many New Yorkers hate cops.' Eventually, the other papers started picking up the drumbeat, and the district attorney had no choice but to weigh in."
Excerpted from Stop the Presses! by Robert Goldsborough. Copyright © 2016 Robert Goldsborough. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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