A young woman who will shortly inherit control of a large manufacturing firm wants to rent a room in Nero Wolfe's house. Wolfe, outraged, puts her out; she is found murdered later that night. With no client in sight, Wolfe is not interested, but Archie feels responsible. His first step is to crash a meeting of the manufacturer's board of directors.
The 1992 Bantam edition reprints the typewritten title page of Stout's 1952 manuscript, showing that the book's original title was Dare-Base. Dare-Base is a children's game which is apparently also called Prisoner's Base. Late one night, Archie muses that the situation faced by one of the characters is like the game – it's up to her to get from one base to another without being tagged. But she does get tagged.
During one of the periodic disagreements Wolfe has with Archie, a young woman with a suitcase rings Wolfe's doorbell. Wolfe is busy in the plant rooms, so she meets with Archie but refuses to identify herself. She asks to rent a room and remain incommunicado at the brownstone for a week. So as to annoy Wolfe, Archie grants her request, contingent on Wolfe's approval, and locks her and her suitcase into a third floor bedroom.
After Wolfe returns to the office, Archie fills Wolfe in. As expected, Wolfe not only refuses to grant the young woman's request but tells Archie to put her out immediately. Archie gets Wolfe to allow her to remain for dinner, which she eats upstairs.
After dinner, a lawyer named Perry Helmar arrives at the brownstone, without an appointment. He wants to hire Wolfe for $10,000 to find one Priscilla Eads: Helmar is her guardian and she has disappeared. Helmar needs to locate her before her 25th birthday, which is one week away. Archie immediately suspects that she's upstairs and, asking Helmar for her photograph, confirms his suspicion and surreptitiously alerts Wolfe.
Wolfe shoos Helmar without committing himself to the job, and finally speaks with Miss Eads. He gives her the choice of renting the room for one week for $10,000 – the amount he would forego if he turns Helmar down – or leaving the brownstone immediately – in that case, Wolfe will accept Helmar's job but will give her until the next morning before he starts looking for her.
Miss Eads opts to leave. The next morning, Inspector Cramer arrives and informs Archie that his fingerprints have been found on luggage belonging to Priscilla Eads and – Miss Eads having been found murdered in her apartment – wants to know what his fingerprints were doing there. The body of Miss Eads' maid, Margaret Fomos, has also been found, in a vestibule 35 blocks away. It appears that Miss Eads was the murderer's main target, and that Mrs. Fomos was killed to get the keys to Miss Eads' apartment.
With no fee in sight, Wolfe refuses to involve himself. Archie, infuriated by Wolfe's attitude, storms out of the brownstone. He blames himself for the Eads death, and resolves to start his own investigation. Archie crashes a meeting of the officers of the Softdown corporation – Miss Eads had been scheduled to inherit a controlling interest in Softdown's stock on her birthday, so Archie starts there. He allows the officers to assume he's a police detective and starts gathering information. Among other items, Archie learns that the corporation's officers will receive title to the stock that would have gone to Miss Eads had she lived.
Just then, Archie's local bête noire, Lieutenant Rowcliff, arrives, discovers Archie, and arrests him for impersonating a police officer. Rowcliff goes much too far, though, when he arrests Wolfe as a material witness and brings him to the District Attorney's office. Wolfe, in a rage, bullies the DA and the police into releasing both him and Archie, whom Wolfe now claims as his client.
Proceeding with the investigation, Archie encounters Sarah Jaffee, a young widow, a childhood friend of Miss Eads', another significant stockholder in Softdown, and self-described nut. Archie earns her gratitude by removing her dead husband's hat and coat from her apartment – Mrs. Jaffee has been unable to do so since his death in Korea a year earlier.
Wolfe makes use of her gratitude by convincing her to enjoin the Softdown officers from exercising ownership of the stock before it is determined that none of them obtained the stock by committing a crime – specifically, the Eads and Fomos murders. Mrs. Jaffee would prefer to have nothing to do with Softdown, but considers herself in Archie's debt and therefore agrees.
Wolfe uses the threat of the injunction to force the corporate officers to meet with him at the brownstone. Mrs. Jaffee attends the meeting. So does Miss Eads' ex-husband, Eric Hagh, and his lawyer; it turns out that Hagh has a credible claim on Miss Eads' inheritance. Later that night, well after the meeting has adjourned, Mrs. Jaffee phones Archie from her apartment to ask if her keys have been found in Wolfe's office – she's lost them and had to have the doorman let her in. Archie is immediately worried, because of the role played by apartment keys in the Eads and Fomos murders. He tells Mrs. Jaffee to put the phone down but leave the line open, and to flee her apartment right away.
Archie doesn't hear her leave, so he rushes to her apartment and finds her dead, strangled in the same fashion as were Miss Eads and Mrs. Fomos. Feeling guiltier yet, Archie assists the police in their ongoing search for the murderer. The police finally decide that their best course is to re-enact the meeting of the corporate officers at Wolfe's office. Wolfe agrees to cooperate, but uses the occasion to his own purpose: the exposure of the murderer and the murderer's motives.
Timothy Hutton is Archie Goodwin; distinguished character actor Maury Chaykin is Nero Wolfe. Other members of the cast (in credits order) are Bill Smitrovich (Inspector Cramer), Saul Rubinek (Lon Cohen), Colin Fox (Fritz Brenner), James Tolkan (Bernard Quest). Ron Rifkin (Perry Helmar), Kari Matchett (Sarah Jaffee), Shauna Black (Priscilla Eads), Conrad Dunn (Saul Panzer), Nicky Guadagni (Viola Duday), R.D. Reid (Sergeant Purley Stebbins), Steve Cumyn (Eric Hagh), Gary Reineke (Oliver Pitkin), David Schurmann (Jay Brucker) and Wayne Best (Albert Irby).
A Nero Wolfe Mystery is available on DVD from A&E Home Video. ISBN 076708893X
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