In the Best Families (British title Even in the Best Families) is a Nero Wolfe detective novel by Rex Stout, first published by the Viking Press in 1950. The story was collected in the omnibus volumes Five of a Kind (Viking 1961) and Triple Zeck (Viking 1974).
This is the third of three Nero Wolfe books that involve crime boss Arnold Zeck and his widespread operations (the others are And Be a Villain and The Second Confession). In each book, Zeck – Wolfe's Moriarty – attempts to warn Wolfe off an investigation that Zeck believes will interfere with his criminal machinations. Each time, Wolfe refuses to cooperate, and there are consequences.
A wealthy wife hires Nero Wolfe to learn the source of her husband's mysterious income. In short order, Arnold Zeck horns in, the wife is murdered, and Wolfe disappears.
Reluctantly, Wolfe takes the case. The next day a carton, delivered to his brownstone and thought to contain sausage, turns out to contain a canister of tear gas, which discharges when the carton is opened. Shortly thereafter, Arnold Zeck phones. Zeck heads an organized crime syndicate, insulates himself from publicity by means of several layers of subordinates, and has figured in two of Wolfe's recent cases.
Now he calls Wolfe to stress that the carton of tear gas could have contained an explosive, and that Wolfe should withdraw from the work he is performing for Mrs. Rackham. Wolfe hangs up on Zeck. It now seems likely that Zeck is the source of Barry Rackham's income.
As arranged with Mrs. Rackham, Archie visits her country home in Westchester, ostensibly to investigate a dog poisoning for Leeds, who breeds Dobermans. His actual purpose is to develop an acquaintance with Mr. Rackham.
Over dinner that night, Archie picks up information on several guests, family members and staff. Leeds is to some degree dependent on his cousin for his livelihood: Mrs. Rackham has allowed him to set up a kennels on a corner of her property. Mrs. Rackham's secretary, Lina Darrow, amuses herself by flirting with some of the men present, including Oliver Pierce, a state assemblyman. Dana Hammond, a banker, is trying to establish a closer relationship with Mrs. Rackham's widowed daughter-in-law, Annabel Frey.
Archie also has an opportunity to size up Barry Rackham. Although Archie initially expected that Rackham would turn out to be a gigolo who got lucky, he is actually a very clever man, whose interactions with his wife show real character. After dinner and television, Rackham pointedly implies that he knows what Archie's doing there, and just as pointedly urges him to leave early the next morning.
Later that night, Mrs. Rackham and her pet Doberman are found stabbed to death in the woods near her house. Archie phones Wolfe to report and, after dealing with the local officials, returns to Manhattan to confer further with Wolfe. When he arrives at the brownstone, Archie finds the front door ajar, Fritz and Theodore in confusion, and Wolfe gone. A brief note, inarguably from Wolfe, instructs Archie not to look for him.
Wolfe's disappearance touches off other events. First, a Gazette employee wants to authenticate an order for an advertisement, which announces Wolfe's retirement from the detective business.
Then Marko Vukcic, Wolfe's oldest friend, tells Archie that Wolfe came to see him at 2:00 a.m. that morning. Marko spoke with Wolfe for an hour, and has information for Archie. The orchids are to be moved to Lewis Hewitt's nursery on Long Island, and Marko will hire Fritz to work at Rusterman's. Marko has Wolfe's power of attorney, and will offer the brownstone for sale. Finally, Archie is to "act in the light of experience as guided by intelligence" – his standing instructions when Wolfe is not available to provide specific direction.
And Archie is recalled to Westchester. He took advantage of District Attorney Archer's imprecise instructions when he returned to Manhattan, and now Archer wants him back to clarify some points. Further, Archer wants to speak with Wolfe. When Archie tells him, truthfully, that he doesn't know where Wolfe is, Archer loses his temper and has Archie jailed as a material witness.
Archie's cellmate is Max Christy, who was arrested earlier in a raid on an apparently unsavory establishment. Christy takes an interest in Archie and tries to recruit him for his organization – it goes unnamed, but from Christy's very oblique description, it sounds criminal. For example, it regards the payment of income taxes as optional. And one of the reasons that Christy thinks Archie has potential is that he " . . . has been a private eye for years and so he would be open to anything that sounds good enough." Archie does not commit himself, but he takes Christy's phone number, and is annoyed that Christy gets released before Nathaniel Parker, Wolfe's lawyer, bails Archie out.
Days pass, then weeks and months, with no word from Wolfe. Archie sets up shop for himself, of course as a private investigator. He gets a hint that Wolfe is still alive, when Marko has him prepare a check, drawn to cash and charged to travel expense. A log of some of Archie's cases during this period suggests a much more quotidian professional life than he is accustomed to: finding a stolen cat, supervising workers at Coney Island, and catching a cashier dipping into the till.
Still, Archie makes enough to cover his living expenses, and then some. He's getting ready to spend a month vacationing in Norway with Lily Rowan when Max Christy shows up with an offer. Christy wants Archie to meet with someone – just possibly Arnold Zeck, Archie guesses – to answer some questions. If Archie's answers pass muster, he'll have a chance to " . . . dip into the biggest river of fast dough that ever flowed."
Out of curiosity, Archie agrees to a meeting. That night, he joins a man in a chauffered car. It's not Zeck, but a stranger named Pete Roeder. They drive around Manhattan, discussing Roeder's requirement: an expert tailing job on a man named Rackham, and he wants Archie to get Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin and Orrie Cather for the job. Archie verifies that Roeder means Barry Rackham, the one whose wife, Wolfe's client, was murdered. Rackham is the beneficiary of much of his wife's estate, and since her death he's been living well in a suite at the Hotel Churchill in Manhattan.
Roeder won't tell Archie specifically why he wants Rackham tailed, but he's certain that Archie can't turn the job down. As Roeder smugly points out, Archie was there when Mrs. Rackham was murdered, Wolfe disappeared just six hours after Archie phoned him, and Archie was jailed as a material witness. Now he's being offered the job of tailing Rackham, for no apparent reason. How could he turn it down?
He can't. Archie wonders who it is that's after Rackham. If it's Zeck himself, or if Roeder works for Zeck, then Rackham has somehow crossed Zeck since the day when Wolfe was told to lay off. If Rackham is still under Zeck's aegis, it would be dangerous to take a job tailing him for Roeder and Christy. Either way, Archie can't resist getting mixed up in it. So Archie arranges with Saul, Fred and Orrie to tail Rackham. They will report daily to Archie, who will then summarize Rackham's activities for Christy.
Archie confirms that both Christy and Roeder work in the Zeck organization, and that the organization is worried about Rackham. Before his wife's death, Rackham had been working for Zeck, but quit when he became a wealthy widower. Investigations into organized crime are ongoing in both Washington and New York, and Zeck's syndicate is worried that Rackham is meeting with a DA. Roeder would like to rope Rackham back in to participate in a new scheme he's developed, but first he needs to be sure that Rackham hasn't turned informant.
After more than a week of the tailing, Rackham has figured out that he's being followed, and Archie decides that he might as well have a chat with him to see if he can learn anything interesting. Rackham is wild to know who wants him followed, and Archie tells him it's Zeck. Rackham is so frantic that he throws his whisky glass against the wall. He offers Archie $5,000 for further information. Archie tells Rackham about Christy and Roeder, and Rackham tells Archie he'll top any offer that Roeder makes.
Archie reports this conversation to Christy: he doesn't dare conceal it, because Roeder might have other operatives watching Rackham. Archie's report apparently has an effect, for Christy returns the next day to say that Roeder wants to see him. A car and driver take them to Westchester, the location of both the Rackham estate and Zeck's. Upon arrival, Archie is relieved of his gun and escorted into a small waiting room that resembles a fortified bunker. There he meets Arnold Zeck, whose appearance is intimidating:
Zeck tells Archie that he needs good men, including some he can meet with and work through. Archie might be one such, and Zeck would like to try. He has Roeder brought into the room. Zeck explains that he and Roeder want Rackham frightened in order to ensure his cooperation with Roeder's new operation, which requires a well-to-do man with good social connections. Zeck closes the meeting by placing Archie on the B list.
Back in Manhattan, Archie gets a message from Rackham that he wants to meet. Archie arrives at the suite just in time to see Lina Darrow leaving, and he sees that Rackham has deteriorated during the last three days. His skin looks splotchy, his eyes are bloodshot, his muscles twitch, he needs a shave, his clothes are dirty and he's been drinking heavily. Archie turns up the pressure on Rackham by telling him that he has met with Zeck. He adds that because Zeck has evidence that will convict Rackham of murdering his wife, Archie can't help Rackham without becoming an accessory after the fact. He urges Rackham to assist in Roeder's new operation: if he does, Zeck might reciprocate by suppressing the evidence of Rackham's guilt. Rackham tacitly agrees, and Archie makes arrangements for them to meet with Zeck and Roeder.
But then the Westchester authorities butt in and call Archie to White Plains for further questioning. There, he finds that Lina Darrow has provided more information. She has had an intimate relationship with Rackham, but now he has refused to marry her. She has learned from him that Wolfe told Mrs. Rackham over the phone that he had determined Rackham's source of income – a criminal source – and that Mrs. Rackham then told her husband it had to stop.
This gives Rackham a motive, previously unknown to the police, for the murder. Archie has been summoned to White Plains to confirm what Wolfe told Mrs. Rackham, and to answer for not having mentioned it earlier. But Archie can't and won't do it. He says that Miss Darrow is lying, and it's not merely his word against hers. Her story has Wolfe phoning Mrs. Rackham just a few hours after she left his office – much too soon to have gathered so much information. And Archie points out that the Rackhams were getting along fine at dinner the next evening – not the way people behave when the wife tells her husband she's learned that he's a criminal.
The DA buys Archie's version of events and lets him go, so Archie is able to take Rackham to meet with Roeder and Zeck after all.
But the meeting turns into a bloodbath.