The Silent Speaker

The Silent Speaker

infobox Book |
name = The Silent Speaker
title_orig =
translator =

author = Rex Stout
cover_artist = Robert Hallock
country = United States
language = English
series = Nero Wolfe
genre = Detective fiction
publisher = Viking Press
release_date = October 21, 1946
media_type = Print (Hardcover)
pages = 308 pp. (first edition)
isbn = NA
preceded_by = Not Quite Dead Enough
followed_by = Too Many Women

"The Silent Speaker" is a Nero Wolfe detective novel by Rex Stout, first published by the Viking Press in 1946. It was published just after World War II, and key plot elements reflect the lingering effects of the war: housing shortages and restrictions on consumer goods, including government regulation of prices.

"The Silent Speaker" was Stout's first full-length Nero Wolfe novel since "Where There's a Will" in 1940. "Thereafter, though he would continue writing for another thirty years, his stories would all be Nero Wolfe stories," wrote biographer John McAleer. "He liked Wolfe and Archie. After all, they were an essential part of himself. 'During the war years I missed them,' he told me." [McAleer, John, Rex Stout: A Biography (1977, Little, Brown and Company; ISBN 0316553409), p. 356]

Plot introduction

The head of a Federal agency is bludgeoned to death just before giving a speech to an industrial association. Public opinion quickly turns against the association, which is thought to have been involved in the murder. The association hires Wolfe to find the murderer in hope of ending the public relations disaster.

Plot summary

Cheney Boone is the Director of the Bureau of Price Regulation (BPR), an agency of the Federal government. [As Stout describes it, the BPR functions as did the Office of Price Administration, or OPA, created by executive order in 1941. In 1946, the year that "The Silent Speaker" was published, its Administrator was Chester Bowles.] He has been invited to speak at a dinner in New York hosted by the National Industrial Association (NIA). Alone in a small room near the reception, Boone is looking over his speech when someone enters and beats him to death with a monkey wrench.

A few minutes earlier, Boone's confidential secretary Phoebe Gunther had brought several consumer items, including two monkey wrenches, to Boone for his use as exhibits during his speech. She then returned to the reception, and a little later Alger Kates, a BPR researcher, finds Boone's corpse and phones the police.

There is considerable bad blood between the BPR and the NIA and the public is generally aware of the antagonism. [Stout never specifies the causes of the antagonism. Wolfe notes that the NIA is "… bitterly hostile to the Bureau of Price Regulation," (chapter 7) and Miss Gunther considers the NIA "… the dirtiest gang of pigs and chiselers on earth" (chapter 11).] Members and officers of the NIA are frantic because the public has assumed that someone in the association instigated Boone's murder.

In need of cash, Wolfe sends Archie to stir the pot. He visits several interested parties, including Manhattan Homicide, the FBI, the Waldorf (where the event had been scheduled) and the NIA. Having attracted the NIA's attention, Wolfe agrees to its request to investigate the murder, and his first step is to meet with key members of both the NIA and the BPR. But before the meeting takes place, another NIA member appears at the brownstone: Don O'Neill, whose unctuous style causes Archie to take him at first for a vacuum cleaner salesman. An irritant, Wolfe shoos him.

The meeting includes Boone's widow and niece, the BPR's acting director Solomon Dexter, Alger Kates, the NIA's executive committee, and O'Neill. Also present are Inspector Cramer, Sergeant Stebbins and a representative of the FBI. Phoebe Gunther had been invited but did not attend.

Wolfe and Archie learn that:

*Everyone present at the dinner has an alibi, but the alibis are all mutual: NIA and BPR people cannot, or will not, alibi a member of the opposition.
*Anyone present at the dinner "could" have murdered Boone – hundreds of attendees had opportunity.
*Miss Gunther has stated that she mislaid a leather case that Boone handed her, which contained cylinders from a dictating machine. Mrs. Boone implies that Miss Gunther's statement is false, and several other witnesses have stated that Miss Gunther left the reception holding the case.
*A BPR delegation, including Kates, Dexter, Gunther, and Boone's wife and niece, came to New York by train. Boone stayed behind in Washington for a conference, then recorded some dictation, and finally flew to New York in time to rehearse his speech.

The meeting in Wolfe's office, testy from the start, becomes bedlam, with heated charges and indignant denials flung back and forth. Cramer finally halts the proceedings, declaring that he had been a "sucker" to attend a meeting whose sole purpose was to help Wolfe get information.

After the meeting's participants depart, Wolfe sends Archie for Miss Gunther. Entering her apartment, Archie finds both Miss Gunther and Kates. Archie is uncharacteristically disconcerted: he is immediately smitten by Miss Gunther's looks and intelligence, and he's surprised to find Kates in Miss Gunther's apartment in the middle of the night. [It is later revealed that it's actually Kates' apartment. He has loaned it to Miss Gunther while she is in New York, and he is staying elsewhere.] But Archie maintains enough aplomb to persuade Miss Gunther to meet with Wolfe. She accompanies Archie to the brownstone and agrees to answer Wolfe's questions if he will answer hers. Miss Gunther states that she lost the dictation cylinders through pure carelessness, and that Boone had not told her what was on them.

At Miss Gunther's turn, she asks Wolfe who from the NIA approached him and the terms of the agreement. At first Wolfe demurs, but Miss Gunther insists on their bargain and Wolfe accedes. She asks further questions, but eventually, exhausted, she lets Archie drive her back to her apartment. Upon returning to the brownstone, Archie finds instructions from Wolfe that he is to have no further communication with Miss Gunther: she is not a fool and is therefore dangerous.

But Don O'Neill has received in the mail a claim check from the parcel room at Grand Central Station. Alerted by an otherwise bogus telegram, Archie follows O'Neill, sees him exchange the claim check for a leather case, and intercepts him. Archie gives O'Neill the choice of going to the police, or going to Wolfe's office to open the case. Eventually O'Neill agrees to go with Archie to the brownstone, where the leather case is found to contain ten dictation cylinders. A machine is procured and the cylinders played. When Archie and Wolfe listen to the cylinders, Boone's references to dates and events makes it clear that these are not the cylinders that he gave Miss Gunther prior to his speech. Wolfe notes in disgust that he and Archie have been "sniggled."

Wolfe calls another meeting of the NIA and BPR representatives, but once again Miss Gunther is absent. The BPR people come to help advance the search for Boone's murderer; the NIA people come to try to get the case solved and off the front page. Wolfe has just begun speaking when Fritz comes to the office door and beckons Archie urgently. Fritz takes Archie to the area under the front stoop, where Miss Gunther lies dead.

Archie is profoundly affected, [In other Wolfe stories, Archie reacts in similar fashion to the death of a character: for example, the deaths of both Priscilla Eads and Sarah Jaffee in "Prisoner's Base". But in no other story does the news of a death hit Archie as hard as it does in "The Silent Speaker".] but there is little he can do to assist as the police investigate Miss Gunther's murder. They find the length of rusty iron pipe used to bludgeon her, and also a scarf belonging to the NIA's Winterhoff, dirty with rust flakes and concealed in the pocket of Kates' topcoat.

But there is no evidence that points directly at anyone present, and by now everyone has lost patience. Cramer instructs the well connected members of the NIA to remain in New York – thus alienating the NIA's out-of-towners. Wolfe is annoyed when he learns that a search of Miss Gunther's apartment in Washington has turned up some dictation cylinders, but only nine instead of the expected ten. Wolfe is convinced that the only way to identify the murderer is to locate the missing dictation cylinder.

The NIA's sense of urgency to get the case solved soars as public opinion turns more decisively against it. Then it comes out that Cramer has been relieved of his responsibilities, replaced by Inspector Ash – Wolfe later learns that the degree of political pressure to relieve Cramer is unprecedented. Ash calls Wolfe to police headquarters and threatens a search warrant to force entry to the brownstone. Although Wolfe is in a rage at the highhanded treatment, he and Archie meet with Commissioner Hombert, District Attorney Skinner and Inspector Ash.

Ash is abrasive with Wolfe. After some verbal sparring, Ash takes Wolfe by the arm to prevent him from leaving. Wolfe smacks Ash on the jaw, and Archie stops things from escalating by stepping between the two. But Hombert just wants the case to go away. Regretting that he brought Ash onto the case, he instructs him to continue the investigation and placates Wolfe by vacating the open warrants. Wolfe controls himself and draws the picture for Hombert and Skinner: that Miss Gunther wanted to use Boone's death to damage the NIA by keeping the public's attention on it; that she did so by concealing evidence on the missing cylinder, hiding it where she could eventually retrieve it; that the recording would unmistakably identify the murderer; and that Inspector Cramer was correct to focus his resources on finding the cylinder.

Wolfe takes an action not explained until the novel's final pages: he dictates a letter to the NIA, terminating his engagement and returning the retainer. Having broken with his client, Wolfe anticipates a renewed assault by the police, since he is no longer shielded by his arrangement with the NIA. So he stages a mental breakdown, persuading Dr. Vollmer to certify him as suffering from a persecution complex and to deny him visitors, including the police.

Archie gets word that the police are sending a doctor with a court order to see Wolfe. Wolfe bestirs himself and gives the matter further consideration. Then, for the first and only time in the series, he appears downstairs wearing pajamas – eight yards of yellow silk. He tells Archie where to search for the cylinder. When it is found and played back, both Wolfe and Cramer are vindicated, for it does reveal the murderer's identity and the motives for killing Boone and Gunther.

The unfamiliar word

In most Nero Wolfe novels and novellas, there is an unfamiliar word, usually spoken by Wolfe. "The Silent Speaker" contains just this one:
*Gammer. Chapter 29.

Cast of characters

*Nero Wolfe — The private investigator
*Archie Goodwin — Wolfe's assistant (and the narrator of all Wolfe stories)
*Doctor Vollmer — Wolfe's neighbor and practitioner of choice when medical treatment is needed

For the BPR:
*Solomon Dexter — Acting Director of the BPR following Cheney Boone's death
*Phoebe Gunther — Boone's confidential secretary, and second in command at the BPR in all but title
*Alger Kates — A researcher for the BPR
*Mrs. Cheney Boone — Widow of the murdered BPR director
*Nina Boone — Boone's niece

For the NIA:
*Frank and Edward Erskine — Father and son members of the NIA's Executive Committee
*Messrs. Breslow and Winterhoff — Other members of the Executive Committee
*Don O'Neill — Chairman of the dinner committee for the NIA event at which Boone was murdered
*Hattie Harding — Assistant Director of Public Relations

For New York law enforcement:
*Inspector Ash, Inspector Cramer, Commissioner Hombert and District Attorney Skinner


The reader is given the opportunity to see how much Wolfe's attitude toward sentiment changes over a brief span of time. In "The Silent Speaker", he tells Archie, "One of your most serious defects is that you have no sentiment." [Chapter 35.] Only two years later, in "And Be a Villain", he tells Archie, "You would sentimentalize the multiplication table." [Chapter 17.]

Literary significance and criticism

* Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor, "A Catalogue of Crime" — The least likely suspect is well hidden, Wolfe does some thinking, and Archie is Archie. Not too much wrangling with the police, and in truth one of Rex Stout's best in the semi-demi form.Barzun, Jacques and Taylor, Wendell Hertig. "A Catalogue of Crime". New York: Harper & Row. 1971, revised and enlarged edition 1989. ISBN 0-06-015796-8]

* J. Kenneth Van Dover, "At Wolfe's Door" — Wolfe's return to the novel-length mystery is a strong one: the plot is solid and the characters — especially Phoebe Gunther — are interesting. There are also strong ideological implications to the action. Miss Gunther refers to the capitalists of the NIA as "the dirtiest gang of pigs and chiselers on earth." Solomon Dexter calls them "the dirtiest bunch of liars and cutthroats in existence." Archie and Wolfe evidently share this estimation. Wolfe deliberately prolongs the public rancor against the NIA until events force him to disclose the criminal and to accept the NIA's gratitude and money. [Van Dover, J. Kenneth, "At Wolfe's Door: The Nero Wolfe Novels of Rex Stout" (1991, Borgo Press, Mitford Series; second edition 2003, James A. Rock & Co., Publishers; Hardcover ISBN 091873651X / Paperback ISBN 0918736528); p. 19]


"A Nero Wolfe Mystery" (A&E Network)

"The Silent Speaker" was adapted for the second season of the A&E TV series "A Nero Wolfe Mystery" (2001–2002). The only episode to be both written and directed by "Nero Wolfe" executive producer Michael Jaffe, "The Silent Speaker" made its debut in two one-hour episodes airing July 14 and 21, 2002, on A&E.

Timothy Hutton is Archie Goodwin; distinguished character actor Maury Chaykin is Nero Wolfe. Other members of the cast (in credits order) are Debra Monk (Mrs. Boone), Colin Fox (Fritz Brenner), Bill Smitrovich (Inspector Cramer), Cynthia Watros (Phoebe Gunther), Joe Flaherty (Dr. Vollmer), George Plimpton (Winterhoff), James Tolkan (FBI Agent Richard Wragg), Conrad Dunn (Saul Panzer), Fulvio Cecere (Fred Durkin), David Schurmann (Frank Erskine), Christine Brubaker (Hattie Harding), Bill MacDonald (Breslow), Matthew Edison (Edward Erskine), R.D. Reid (Sergeant Purley Stebbins), Nicky Guadagni (Mrs. Cramer/Secretary), Richard Waugh (Don O'Neill), Manon von Gerkan (Nina Boone), Julian Richings (Alger Kates), Robert Bockstael (Solomon Dexter), Gary Reineke (Hombert), Steve Cumyn (Skinner) and Doug Lennox (Inspector Ash).

"A Nero Wolfe Mystery" is available on DVD from A&E Home Video (ISBN 076708893X). The bonus 16:9 letterbox version [] of "The Silent Speaker" is the only episode of "Nero Wolfe" that A&E Home Video has made available in widescreen format.

Release details

The first edition of this novel marks the change from Stout's previous publisher, Farrar & Rinehart, to The Viking Press, which would remain his (first edition) publishers for the remainder of his writing career.

*2002, USA, The Audio Partners Publishing Corp., Mystery Masters ISBN 1572702702 May 2002, audio cassette (unabridged, read by Michael Prichard)
*1994, USA, Bantam Crimeline ISBN 0553234978 January 1994, paperback


External links

*imdb title|id=0394821|title=A Nero Wolfe Mystery — "The Silent Speaker"'
* [ "A Nero Wolfe Mystery" — "The Silent Speaker"] at The Wolfe Pack, official site of the Nero Wolfe Society
* Farkash, Michael R., [ "Nero Wolfe: "Silent Speaker"] ; "Hollywood Reporter", July 12, 2002

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