“In any community, no matter how confined by natural barriers, or how small, there is always murder. I’m unfamiliar with the census number of the population that surrounded Cain and Abel but I imagine it must have been quite negligible.”
On New Year’s Day, most New Yorkers are sleeping off the revels of the night before. Myron Jettwick’s sleep is more permanent. The millionaire lies dead on his yacht, and his nephew Bruce knows that only the eccentric detective (and nut fancier) Cotton Moon can solve the crime. Luckily, Moon’s yacht happens to be docked right next door. With the aid of his secretary/bartender Bert Stanley, Moon’s investigation takes him from the East River to the Caribbean in search of a slippery killer—and the even more elusive sapucaia nut.
In some ways this tale of death among the smart set is typical of Rufus King. Holiday Homicide is a sardonic, urbane murder mystery that unfolds partly during a yacht voyage in the tropics. What makes this story unusual, however, is that it’s also a spot-on parody of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. The fact that King is able to pull off this novel-length exercise while also unfolding a fairly serious mystery is impressive. Whether it was actually necessary is another question.
Consider the paragraph below, which reads more like a Rex Stout pastiche than a parody. It could actually be a passage from a Nero Wolfe story, with only the names changed.
Cotton Moon’s fees have always come high. They’ve got to, if he’s to stay in that state in which he has decided to keep himself. Also if he wants to go plowing about the seven seas on his boat Coquilla in search of rare nuts to add to his collection, and sometimes to eat. You cannot push one hundred and fifty feet of expensive steel and a crew of eighteen men about in the water on charity. Moon informed me of that truism when he first employed me six years ago as his assistant. He claims that he hired me because he had never before found a bartender who could take dictation and type.
Typically, parodies are most effective when pointing up the absurdities of source material that is either dead serious, or has failed horribly in its comedic intentions. To parody a self-aware author seems like a rather pointless challenge, and the Wolfeish elements are so slightly exaggerated that they barely register as mockery. Some of the points King makes are more about the clichés of mystery fiction in general, the kind of thing Stout pokes fun at as well, so it’s odd that King would use Stout as a framework for deflating these tropes. The comedy works, it’s just that the reasoning behind it is strange.
That said, it’s funny every time Moon’s love of nuts comes up, so perhaps that’s all the justification needed. The nuts even turn out to be a vital clue, which is more than Nero Wolfe can say for his orchids.
About half of the characters are tackled with great relish, such as Myron’s secretary Spider McRoss, who is Bert’s prime suspect because of his sinister appearance: “All he needed was a good dark night and an opera cloak, and watch him go to town.” Bruce’s love interest, debutante Elizabeth Schuyler, also offers some scope for fun.
She was wearing [her hair] the way it had been in the Tribune picture, off the ears, and with that crown-roast effect which passed at the time for sophistication and was death on hats.
Her face had the regulation number of features, and would have been a distinct pleasure to look at if she had wiped off the careworn, haggard look of seventeen which, she later told me, was imperative for a girl’s first season.
Other suspects are virtually ignored, and their existence may come as a real surprise during the denouement.
Holiday Homicide is enormous fun for what it is, a lighter-than-air confection that plays fair up to a point. It’s easy to be carried along by the humor even when the plot seems to be going nowhere. None of it could withstand much scrutiny, though; like a soufflé, it’s delicious, but best enjoyed quickly before it collapses.
Ignoring the similarities between this novel and Stout’s series, this is an entertaining, though often far-fetched story. The story does differ from most Nero Wolfe novels in that the adventure continues with a trip (via yacht) to Tortuagas. There is a storm and more deaths. The story is never really serious, although not laugh out loud funny either.