James Herold was a Nebraska businessman, accustomed to getting what he wanted when he wanted it. Right now, what he wanted was his son, Paul Herold, found. Paul Herold had left home a decade before, when accused by his father of stealing money from the company business. Now, his father had proof that his son wasn't a thief and wanted to find him and make amends. As he had no idea where his son might be - except that he was probably in New York - James Herold hired Nero Wolfe to find him. It wasn't going to be easy, as there was a man with the same initials as his son - P. H. - on trial for murder - a man who offered no defense, beyond observing repeatedly, "Might as well be dead." No, it wasn't going to be an easy job...
That's the starting point for Might as Well be Dead, by Rex Stout, one of my favorites among the Nero Wolfe books. It's the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the complete review by clicking here.
Might as Well be Dead was published in 1956, about two-thirds of the way through Rex Stout’s career, and it shows off all of his characters at their best – or worst, I suppose, depending on how you view their behavior. The story begins with Wolfe being hired to find Paul Herold – and discovering that a man with Paul’s initials, calling himself Peter Hays, is currently on trial for first degree murder. The police believe that the young man murdered the husband of the woman he loved – and, in fact, a jury is convinced that this indeed is what happened. P-H is found guilty of the murder.
But when Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin get involved, they will have to work very hard – first to identify P.H., then to find out what really happened and why the young man is so determined to end his life – for, as he says repeatedly, “might as well be dead.”
This isn’t the first time I’ve re-read this book. Stout really was at the top of his form by the mid-1950s. The plot is cleverly worked out – and it is a plot that will involve several deaths before Wolfe gathers the suspects for a final confrontation.
But my real reason for re-reading it this year is that Might as Well be Dead has been turned into a play by Joseph Goodrich (who did the same thing for Stout's The Red Box a few years ago) that will have its world premiere in St. Paul, Minnesota, this June. Members of The Wolfe Pack, the organization of Stout/Wolfe/Goodwin fans, will be traveling to St. Paul for opening night. I plan to be with them. If you can't get to St. Paul for the play, Might as Well be Dead remains in print, available in both print and e-book formats. I highly recommend it.