Each of the stories involves a character who is posing as someone else.
A notorious gangster, Dazy Perrit, arrives at the brownstone to enlist Wolfe's help and, over Archie's protests, Wolfe invites him inside. Archie fears that Perrit will tell Wolfe something that Wolfe would prefer not to know. But Wolfe wants meat and thinks that Perrit's black market connections might enable him to get it, so he makes, as Archie puts it, " . . . a frantic snatch at a pork chop.
Once inside, Perrit gives Archie a phone number and tells him to ask for Tom, who might have meat, and then tells Wolfe his problem. He has a daughter, but he has kept her existence and identity a secret to protect her from his enemies. One of them, Thumbs Meeker, has recently let Perrit know that his daughter's existence is no longer a secret. Meeker apparently doesn't know the daughter's identity or location, just that Perrit has a daughter somewhere. So Perrit has found a grifter named Angelina Murphy who's on the run from authorities in Utah, and has installed her as his daughter in his Fifth Avenue penthouse. This, Perrit thinks, will keep his enemies from seeking out and harming his real daughter.
But Miss Murphy has figured out that she can blackmail Perrit. She demands money from him and threatens to disclose Perrit's secret if he doesn't pay up. She starts out by asking for a few thousand each month (in 1946 dollars), but the night before Perrit calls on Wolfe she demands $50,000. Now Perrit wants Wolfe to make her stop.
Wolfe needs to meet Perrit's real daughter, whose name is Beulah Page, and he sends Archie for her. When he arrives at her apartment, Archie learns that she has just become engaged to marry a young law student, Morton Schane. On the pretext of making it an engagement celebration, Archie persuades them to come to Wolfe's house for dinner. Wolfe uses the occasion to acquaint himself with Miss Page's plans and concerns, as well as Mr. Schane's.
It has been arranged that Perrit will send the ersatz daughter, Miss Murphy, to Wolfe's office later that night. When she arrives, after the other guests have left, Wolfe delivers this threat: She must give 90% of any money she extorts from Perrit to Wolfe – otherwise, he will tell the Utah authorities where they can find her. Her threats to disclose that she's not really Perrit's daughter may worry Perrit, but they're of no concern to Wolfe.
It's past midnight by the time that Wolfe has delivered his ultimatum, and Archie offers to escort Miss Murphy home. As they arrive at her residence, a car drives by, and from it a man is firing a gun at them. Several bullets hit Miss Murphy. She is dead, but Archie is unhurt.
The police arrive at the scene and Archie is taken to the local precinct, where he is questioned by Lt. Rowcliff. Archie perturbs Rowcliff enough to be released, and as he arrives back at the brownstone, around 4:00 a.m., he is stopped outside by Perrit and one of his thugs. As they are questioning Archie, a taxi comes driving by, and again bullets are fired. This time it's Perrit and the thug who are killed, and again Archie is unscathed.
Later that day, a lawyer named L. A. Schwartz arrives at the brownstone. He had represented Perrit, and has some information for Wolfe. After his meeting with Wolfe, Perrit met with Schwartz and arranged to have his will altered, naming Wolfe as executor. Wolfe is to use his best judgment in the administration of the estate, including the disbursement of its assets to Beulah, in return for a $50,000 fee.
Wolfe accepts the commission and arranges for Beulah and Schane to come to the brownstone for another meeting. A gangster known simply as Fabian also appears, not only invited and expected but armed. Saul Panzer, who has been checking backgrounds for Wolfe, is present, along with lawyer Schwartz. The meeting has barely begun when Thumbs Meeker – who originally gave Perrit a problem by learning of his daughter – shows up, not expected but also armed.
Wolfe outlines the reasons that the murderer killed three people, the hint that pointed him at the murderer, and the motive. In a violent climax, the murderer of Angelina Murphy and Dazy Perrit is shot to death, right there in Wolfe's office – by Saul Panzer.
Jensen is a publisher who figured in an earlier Wolfe case, in which he helped convict an Army captain named Peter Root for attempting to sell classified information. The next morning's newspaper reports that Jensen is dead: shot in the back just a few hours after leaving Wolfe's office. In the same day's mail comes another copy of the magazine ad, but this time it's addressed to Wolfe.
The situation takes on added urgency, not simply because Wolfe is now the target, but because the person behind the threats means business and isn't simply a crank. The case involving Captain Root is all that Wolfe and Jensen had in common, and so Wolfe wants all current information about those connected with the Root case: Root himself, his family and his erstwhile fiancée.
All this is taking place during the waning months of World War II, and Archie has several appointments to keep in Washington D.C., so Wolfe makes arrangements to check on Root and his family. Archie does have time to bring Jane Geer, Root's ex-fiancée, to the brownstone for a meeting with Wolfe. As they arrive, they find Emil Jensen, the murdered man's son and an Army major, about to ring the doorbell, looking for Wolfe. All three enter, but Wolfe, giving no reason, tells Archie over the in-house phone to send Major Jensen and Miss Root away. Archie complies, and then rushes off to make his train to Washington.
On his return to Manhattan, Archie does a double-take as he walks into the office. There is a very large man sitting in Wolfe's chair, but it's not Wolfe. During Archie's absence, Wolfe has hired a body-double, a man named H. H. Hackett, who is being paid $100 a day to draw the fire of anyone bent on killing Wolfe.
Wolfe has learned from Army Intelligence that the Roots – son, father and mother – are out of the picture, and tells Archie to get Miss Geer back for an interview. Hackett will pretend to be Wolfe, and Wolfe will watch proceedings from the peephole in an alcove adjacent to the office. Archie now understands why she was sent away a few days before: Wolfe did not want her subsequently to realize that she was talking not with him, but with a stand-in.
Miss Geer arrives with Major Jensen in tow: it seems that they have developed a personal relationship since Archie last saw them. Archie has them wait in the front room and goes to confer with Wolfe. Just as Wolfe is telling Archie what to do about Jensen, they hear a gun fired. Archie races back to the office to find Hackett looking startled, and then to the front room to find Jensen and Geer, also looking startled.
Back in the office, it turns out that Hackett has been injured. His earlobe is torn and bleeding, and Archie finds a bullethole in Wolfe's chair, and in the wall behind the chair. He digs a .38 caliber bullet out of the wall. At first there is no gun to be seen, but then Archie finds one, wrapped in a handkerchief, in a vase in the front room. It is also a .38, and it smells like it has been fired recently. The only two people who have been in the front room are Miss Geer and Major Jensen.
Then Wolfe, the real one, enters and introduces himself. After the dust settles, Wolfe notifies Inspector Cramer to come to the brownstone; Cramer's men have been investigating the Jensen murder and Cramer will want to know about the attempt on Wolfe's life – rather, on that of the stand-in. As Cramer, accompanied by Sgt. Stebbins, is inspecting the front room, Wolfe notices that one of the sofa cushions is missing. And then, as he's standing there in the front room, Wolfe's neck goes rigid and with his eyes half shut, his lips start pushing in and out.
Eugene and Martha Poor bring Wolfe an unusual problem. They believe that Conroy Blaney, Poor's business partner, wants to kill him. As he does in Help Wanted, Male, Wolfe starts to remonstrate that he cannot possibly prevent Blaney or anyone sufficiently determined from killing Mr. Poor. But that is not what Poor wants. If Poor dies, he wants the matter investigated competently and his murderer, presumably Blaney, exposed. Wolfe won't do that for the $5,000 that Poor offers, but he does agree to inform the police of what Poor tells him, should Poor die within one year.
Mr. and Mrs. Poor tell Wolfe and Archie many things, among them that the firm of Blaney and Poor manufactures novelty items: " . . . they make things like matches that won't strike and chairs with rubber legs and bottled drinks that taste like soap – Blaney wants to buy Poor out, but he's offering only about 10% of what the company is worth. Now the Poors are worried that Blaney will kill Poor, because their partnership agreement states that should either of them die, full ownership of the business goes to the surviving partner. The Poors are sure that Blaney is capable of murdering Poor and getting away with it.
But that evening, after dinner, Inspector Cramer phones to tell Wolfe that Eugene Poor is dead. Back at their apartment, Poor lit a cigar and it exploded with much more force than is usually found in a novelty item. A receipt for $5,000, signed by Wolfe, was in the dead man's pocket, and Cramer wants to know about it. Wolfe sends Archie to see Cramer and meet his commitment to Poor: to inform the police that Poor thought Blaney would kill him.
Archie heads for the Poor apartment and finds, besides the usual complement of police and scientists, a young woman named Helen Vardis being questioned by Lt. Rowcliff. Miss Vardis works for Blaney and Poor, and came to the apartment to meet with Poor on a confidential matter. Then Joe Groll shows up; he is the factory foreman at Blaney and Poor, and had been following Miss Vardis – why, he doesn't say. But he says that Miss Vardis thinks Mrs. Poor killed her husband. He also says that Miss Vardis is crazy. Mrs. Poor agrees.
Finally, Blaney himself arrives, an undersized figure without much chin who speaks in a squeaky tenor, but who nevertheless quiets the room. Mrs. Poor turns and leaves, and Miss Vardis and Groll merely hush up.
The next morning, Blaney comes to the brownstone. He wants information, such as what the Poors told Wolfe about him, but he also wants to design and manufacture an imitation orchid plant which, when its pot is lifted, will say in Wolfe's voice "Orchids to you!" Wolfe, aghast, walks out of the office, and Archie shoos Blaney. But the visit stirs Wolfe to action, and he sends Archie to talk with Joe Groll.
Over a couple of Scotches, Archie pumps Groll for information about the state of affairs at Blaney and Poor, and Groll suggests that Archie accompany him to the factory for a look around. At the factory, Groll starts opening what he calls "abditories," hiding places such as the interiors of chair legs and typewriter platens. The police had searched the factory following Poor's death, but Groll chose not to tell them about the hiding places. Inside a desk calendar, Groll finds something he hasn't seen before: a small metal capsule with a thread attached to it. There are four of them in the calendar, which was on Blaney's desk. Archie insists that they take the capsules to Wolfe.
Archie has surmised that they are explosives, and at Wolfe's office they test one of them by setting it off inside a coffee percolator. The explosive force is enough to destroy the percolator, certainly enough to kill a man if hidden inside a cigar.
Meanwhile, Wolfe has given Saul Panzer a chore that he won't let Archie in on. After Saul reports, Wolfe telephones the Westchester district attorney. A man's naked body has been found in an orchard near White Plains, run over by a car and unrecognizable. Wolfe identifies him for the DA. Then he takes one of the remaining capsules, tapes it to a photograph, and sends Saul and Archie off on another errand.
Timothy Hutton is Archie Goodwin; distinguished character actor Maury Chaykin is Nero Wolfe. Other members of the cast (in credits order) include Colin Fox (Fritz Brenner), Bill Smitrovich Inspector Cramer, Conrad Dunn (Saul Panzer), Christine Brubaker (Violet Perrit), Seymour Cassel (Dazy Perrit), Lindy Booth (Beulah Page), Joe Pingue (Archie 2), Ken Kramer (L.A. Schwartz), Bill MacDonald (Lieutenant Rowcliff), Matthew Edison (Morton Schane), Beau Starr (Thumbs Meeker), Doug Lennox (Fabian), Nicky Guadagni (Fabian's Girl) and Angela Maiorano (Archie 2's Girl).
In international broadcasts, the 45-minute A&E version of "Before I Die" is expanded into a 90-minute widescreen telefilm.
"Help Wanted, Male" was adapted for the second season of the A&E TV series A Nero Wolfe Mystery (2001–2002). Directed by John L'Ecuyer from a teleplay by Sharon Elizabeth Doyle, "Help Wanted, Male" made its debut June 23, 2002, on A&E.
Timothy Hutton is Archie Goodwin; Maury Chaykin is Nero Wolfe. Other members of the cast (in credits order) include Colin Fox (Fritz Brenner), Bill Smitrovich (Inspector Cramer), R.D. Reid (Sergeant Purley Stebbins), James Tolkan (Ben Jenson), Richard Waugh (Major Emil Jensen), George Plimpton (General Carpenter), Robert Bockstael (Colonel Dickey), Steve Cumyn (Peter Root), Kari Matchett (Jane Geer), Larry Drake (Fake Wolfe) and Randy Butcher (Doyle).
A Nero Wolfe Mystery is available on DVD from A&E Home Video. ISBN 076708893X
"Instead of Evidence" was adapted as the eighth episode of the CBC radio series. Written by Ron Hartmann, the hour-long adaptation aired March 6, 1982.