A shake-up in the NYPD homicide squad following a high-profile murder is bad for business for private investigator Nero Wolfe. When wealthy and popular crusader and reformer Lester Pierce is gunned down in front of his Park Avenue residence, the public outcry forces the NYPD to restructure its homicide department. As the deceased was highly critical of Inspector Lionel Cramer, the longtime head of homicide is temporarily relieved of his badge. But it seems Cramer was not just a scapegoat: He was seen dining in Little Italy with mob kingpin Ralph Mars. All of which amounts to little more than conversational fodder for PI Nero Wolfe and his assistant Archie Goodwin. But if Cramer’s provisional replacement, Capt. George Rowcliff, becomes permanent, Wolfe’s future dealings with the force will be much compromised. Loath to depart from his routine, Wolfe makes the unusual decision to take on a case without an actual client. His investigation quickly points toward Pierce’s organization, Good Government Group, where high-minded idealism is often trampled under the competing ambitions of the staff—several of whom would clearly have benefited from Pierce’s demise. Despite the burgeoning list of suspects, Wolfe hasn’t ruled out the involvement of the underworld and its connection to Cramer. But in order to untangle an abundance of motives and end the inspector’s forced furlough, Wolfe may have to venture out of his comfort zone—and the premises of his brownstone. Continuing his beloved series—which also includes Archie Meets Nero Wolfe, Murder in the Ball Park, Archie in the Crosshairs, and Murder, Stage Left —Nero Award–winning author Robert Goldsborough “demonstrates an impressive ability to emulate Rex Stout’s narrative voice” (Publishers Weekly, starred review). The Battered Badge is the 60th book in the Nero Wolfe Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
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 Murder, Stage Left (2017).
Read an Excerpt
As is my custom each morning, I settle in at the small table in the kitchen reading the New York Times and devouring one of Fritz Brenner's superb breakfasts. On the menu this gray November day were fresh-squeezed orange juice, brioches, grilled ham, and grape-thyme jelly. Up in his bedroom, Nero Wolfe was feasting on the same items while also, presumably, reading his own copy of the Times.
Most mornings, I find little to interest me in the newspaper that claims, in a small box tucked into the upper left-hand corner of page one, that it delivers "All the News That's Fit to Print." Today, however, I did see a story that got my attention, in large part because it involved someone both Wolfe and I know, and know well.
The headline: "Local Reformer Pierce Gunned Down on Park Avenue." The story reported that Lester Pierce, fifty-six, the executive director of the Good Government Group, known popularly as either Three-G or GGG, had been killed by pistol shots from a passing car as he climbed out of a taxi and crossed the sidewalk toward the front entrance of the luxury co-op building where he and his wife lived in a duplex apartment.
It was the story's next few paragraphs that stopped me:
Mr. Pierce had built his reputation as a reformer primarily on his attacks upon the New York Police Department for what he claimed is its laxity involving the crime syndicate. His vitriol was particularly intense when directed at Inspector Lionel T. Cramer, longtime head of the department's Homicide Squad.
"Cramer must be removed from his post, sooner rather than later, and I will not rest until that blessed event occurs," Mr. Pierce had said at a press conference earlier this month. The police department did not react to Mr. Pierce's statement then, and at press time, the department has issued no comment about his death. The Times was unable to reach Mr. Cramer for a comment.
"We in the Good Government Group will not rest until the perpetrator of this brazen crime is brought to justice," said Roland Marchbank, the assistant executive director of the group. "We call upon the New York City Police Department to use every resource at its disposal to expose the murderer."
When Wolfe came down at eleven from his morning session with the orchids in the plant rooms, I held up my copy of the Times as he settled in at his desk and rang for beer.
"I saw it," he said.
"What do you think?"
"Mr. Cramer has been besieged in the past, and doubtless will be in the future as well. Such is the nature of his station."
"You don't feel this is a little more serious than some of the inspector's past scrapes?"
Wolfe raised his shoulders a quarter inch, then let them drop. For him, that constitutes a shrug.
"I don't know, but it seems to me that with the murder of this Pierce character, the heat will be unlike anything Cramer has ever been exposed to before," I persisted. Wolfe's response was to go through the morning mail I had opened and placed on his desk blotter. The discussion was closed.
Three days passed, and the Pierce murder stayed on the front page of all the papers, each of them trying — without success — to find new angles. The Daily News and the Post each ran editorials demanding that the police department give daily progress reports. The Post questioned whether Cramer had been in his job too long: "Perhaps it is time for a change at the top of the Homicide Squad."
I was in the office typing up correspondence that morning when Wolfe came down from the plant rooms. He had barely gotten himself settled at his desk when the telephone squawked. I answered, as I always do during business hours, "Nero Wolfe's office, Archie Goodwin speaking."
"It's me, Archie," the caller rasped. I was momentarily speechless, as that voice on the other end belonged to none other than Sergeant Purley Stebbins, Inspector Cramer's longtime right-hand man and one who almost never calls me "Archie." To him, I am "Goodwin" if he even bothers to utter my name at all.
Even rarer is Stebbins calling us at the brownstone. He has never much liked Wolfe or me, and the feeling is mutual. In the world as Purley sees it, there is no room whatever for private detectives, even though he invariably accompanies Cramer to West Thirty-Fifth Street for what the inspector refers to as Wolfe's "charades," those times when all the suspects of a crime are gathered in the office and Wolfe invariably fingers the guilty party for Cramer — and for himself, since he ends up getting his fee from a client for solving the crime.
"What can I do for you, Purley?" I asked, trying to keep the irritation out of my voice.
I could hear deep breathing. "I would like to come and see Mr. Wolfe," he said slowly, as if having rehearsed the line.
"May I ask why?" I knew he was struggling, and darned if I was going to make things any easier for him. If that sounds mean-spirited, then I haven't been clear about just how deep the rancor between us runs.
"It's about the inspector," he said in a voice just above a whisper. "I'd ... rather not talk about it on the telephone."
I cupped my mouthpiece and turned to Wolfe, who was perusing an orchid catalog that had arrived in the morning mail. "It is Sergeant Stebbins," I said. "He wants to come and talk to you about Cramer. He doesn't want to say anything more on the phone."
Wolfe made a face. "Confound it, why can't the man just tell us what he — oh, very well, tell him to be here at three."
I passed that word along to Purley, who muttered that he would be coming. There was no "thank you" from him, but then, that would be out of character.
"So the sergeant himself will be coming to see you, hat in hand, so to speak," I said after hanging up. "What do you think of that?"
"He obviously is concerned about his superior, although I do not know that I can be of any assistance. However, I have agreed to see the sergeant, and I shall," Wolfe said, opening his current book, Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy. If he had any concern about our afternoon visitor, he did not show it.
I put Stebbins out of my mind during lunch, which was veal cutlets and Fritz's special mixed salad of endive, romaine, Bibb lettuce, celery, carrot curls, and grated, cooked beets with devil's rain dressing, followed by pumpkin pie à la mode.
We were back in the office with coffee five minutes before three when the doorbell rang. I went down the hall to the front door and through the one-way glass saw the bony, square-jawed face of Sergeant Purley Stebbins.
Pulling open the door, I nodded and got a nod in return. Purley and I never have been big on conversation. "You know the way," I said after I had taken his coat and hung it on the hall rack. I expected our guest to take the red leather chair at the end of Wolfe's desk, but he fooled me and chose one of the yellow ones. Maybe he figured the only cop entitled to sit in the place of honor was his longtime boss.
"Mr. Stebbins, would you care for something to drink?" Wolfe asked. "As you see, I am having beer."
"Nothing for me, thanks," Purley said. His oversize ears were red, and he obviously was uneasy, given his past experiences with Wolfe.
"Does Mr. Cramer know you are here?"
"He does not, and I would like to keep it that way."
Wolfe nodded. "You requested this meeting, sir. What is your agenda?"
"The inspector has been ordered to take administrative leave, and I am pretty sure that they are out to get him off the force and maybe even charged," the sergeant replied.
"Who are 'they'?"
Purley shifted in the chair and frowned. "It's really Commissioner O'Hara, although he's getting a push from that so-called good government bunch. They haven't come right out and said so, but they believe the inspector had something to do with Lester Pierce's death, and they've got O'Hara believing it, too, which isn't hard to do."
"Twaddle! Mr. Cramer is even less likely than I to commit murder, or to plan one."
"Yes, sir. Commissioner O'Hara has never liked the inspector."
"What are his reasons?"
"I know that you and I haven't always been on the of best terms, Mr. Wolfe, but I feel that I can trust you. I would not want what I say here to be repeated."
"Things discussed in this office are assumed to be confidential, unless of course they have a direct bearing upon criminal activity. You may speak candidly. Mr. Goodwin is every bit as closemouthed as am I."
Purley's expression remained impassive, which is usually the case. He leaned forward, elbows on knees. "As you both know, O'Hara took over the commissioner's office when Skinner retired. He always resented Skinner and felt that he should have gotten the job a lot sooner. Since O'Hara's been in office he has tried to get rid of all the old guard, and he has been damned successful. The inspector is the only department head left from the Skinner era, and I believe the commissioner is looking for an excuse to get rid of him as well."
"Who is the acting head of Homicide in Mr. Cramer's enforced absence?" Wolfe asked.
"Captain Rowcliff," Purley said, unable to keep the contempt out of his voice. George Rowcliff, who was promoted from lieutenant a year ago, ranks as the least-favorite cop of both Wolfe and me. On the plus side, he has been awarded medals for bravery over the years and is moderately handsome, if you overlook his pop eyes and his snarly voice. On the negative side, he once arrived at the brownstone with some underlings and a warrant. Under Rowcliff's direction they conducted a search, which earned him Wolfe's lasting enmity, as well as an apology to Wolfe, ordered by then boss-man Skinner.
When Rowcliff gets irritated or flustered, he starts to stutter and can't stop himself. On several occasions, I have seen him on the verge of this situation and began stuttering myself, which really got Rowcliff going. I probably should be ashamed but I am not, which tells you volumes about my attitude toward the man.
"Well, he has always wanted to run Homicide," I told Purley, "and now he's got the opportunity. Do you think he'll get the post permanently if Cramer ends up out of a job?"
"Yeah, it's possible. And if the inspector goes, then of course I'm gone, too," the sergeant said, pounding a meaty fist on his knee. "It's bad enough now, with Rowcliff ordering me around like some sort of errand boy. He resents me because he sees me as 'Cramer's guy.'"
"I sympathize with your frustration," Wolfe said, "but I fail to see how I can be of any help."
"Maybe you can't, but I know that you respect the inspector, even though the two of you haven't always seen eye-to-eye. I just wanted you to know the situation. I don't have the money to afford your rates, but if the inspector is indirectly charged with the murder of Lester Pierce, as I think will happen, he's going to need someone on his side."
Wolfe raised his eyebrows. "I believe such a charge to be highly unlikely."
"Possibly," Purley said, "but I can tell you this much: at the moment, the inspector has no one in his corner, not the press, not that so-called Good Government Group, not the current police commissioner, and certainly not Captain Rowcliff, who would like nothing more than to stab his former boss in the back and take over his chair for good. Well, I have said my piece and I will be going." He looked at me and said, "Don't bother to see me out; I know the way."
The sergeant rose slowly and lumbered down the hall to the front door, with me following just to make sure he left, and I closed the door behind him. Old habits die hard.
"Well, just what do you make of all that?" I asked Wolfe when I got back to the office and eased into my desk chair.
"Mr. Stebbins is clearly troubled or he would not have come to us today. I hardly need tell you we are not among his favorite people. This visit cannot have been easy for the sergeant."
"Well, he certainly is no favorite of yours. Of course, neither is Cramer, for that matter."
"Archie, I neither like nor dislike Mr. Stebbins. The same is true of my attitude toward Inspector Cramer. That, however, is not the case where Mr. Rowcliff is concerned."
"Yeah, I will add an amen to that. That man is in a class by himself, or a lack of class. So, now what?"
"I do not see myself as being an advocate for Mr. Cramer. He is capable of taking care of himself, as he has manifestly shown over the years. Do you agree?" "He's tough, no question. And the two of you have butted heads more times than I can begin to count. But do we want to trade Cramer in and take our chances with Rowcliff every time we have to deal with the New York police?"
Wolfe leaned back and closed his eyes. "It is out of our hands," he said, blinking, getting to his feet, and heading for the elevator. It was time for his afternoon visit with the ten thousand orchids in the plant rooms on the roof.
For the next hour, I typed up the correspondence to orchid growers that Wolfe had dictated the day before and put Inspector Cramer's plight out of my mind. However, a phone call changed that. It was Lon Cohen of the New York Gazette.
"Haven't heard from you lately, other than at our Thursday night poker games," I told him. "I seem to recall that I took more than a few dollars from you last week in the largest pot of the evening."
"It was bound to happen sometime," Lon said. "Even the mighty Yankees occasionally have themselves an off day."
"Even when you lose, you act like you've won," I grumbled. "To what do we owe this intrusion?"
"Intrusion, you say? That's a fine way to treat an old friend. I thought I would just check in and see what you folks are up to."
If you are new to these stories, you need to know that Lon Cohen is a longtime Gazette writer and editor. He currently does not have a title I am aware of, but he occupies an office high up in the newspaper's Midtown building, just three doors down the hall from the publisher. He has gotten some dandy scoops from us over the years, but he also has supplied us with valuable information on individuals and events that were vital to cases Wolfe and I have worked on.
"You never 'just check in' on us," I told him. "Come on now, out with it. Don't be coy."
"As usual, you have seen right through me," Lon said with a theatrical sigh. "I simply have got to stop being so transparent. Okay, I'll come clean: I am wondering if you have heard from your old buddy Inspector Cramer lately."
"He is hardly what I would term our old buddy, as you well know, but back to your question. Is there any reason why we should have heard from him?"
"I know you read the papers, including this morning's Times. The inspector finds himself in a whole lot of trouble, possibly more than at any time in his long career."
"So it would seem. But where do we come in?"
"Well, this may sound crazy, but I'm curious as to whether Cramer has gone to Wolfe for help."
"Lon, that doesn't just sound crazy, it is crazy. The man would sooner jump off the George Washington Bridge than turn to Nero Wolfe for help."
"Okay, okay, so maybe I was reaching."
"I'll say you were. But since you are on the wire and it's your dime, what do the boys on the Gazette who cover the police beat think about Cramer's situation?"
"They believe that he's finished as the head of Homicide, and based on what they have been hearing, he may also end up getting indicted."
"Close ties and dealings with, shall we say ... certain undesirables."
"Meaning, of course, members of the crime syndicate, Archie."
"Oh, come on now! This is Inspector Cramer we're talking about, not some sleazy copper like that lieutenant who got sent up last year for filling his pockets with soiled money."
"I must remind you that the man you refer to as a 'sleazy copper' once was among the most honored and decorated members of the department. It is amazing how the lure of great amounts of money can alter an individual's behavior."
"Are you suggesting Cramer is on the take?"
"I am suggesting such a possibility," Lon said, "as far-fetched as that may sound to you."
"Sorry, my headline-hunting friend, but I am not buying what you seem to be selling. I am by no means a close friend of the inspector, but I do feel I know the man fairly well, given all the times Wolfe and I have had run-ins and other dealings with him over the years, and I cannot conceive of his consorting with the mob."
"Suit yourself," Lon said. "But be prepared for the possibility that Cramer's reputation may end up being tarnished, or worse — and I mean a lot worse."
Excerpted from "The Battered Badge"
Copyright © 2018 Robert Goldsborough.
Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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