Nero Wolfe: Too Many Clients

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When A&E produced a series based on several Nero Wolfe books by Rex Stout a few years ago, one of the stories they chose was Too Many Clients. It’s a murder mystery about a deeply oversexed man (probably what we would call a sex addict these days) who is murdered in a hideously baroque, pornographic room he’s created secretly in a house in the slums for his many liaisons.  What’s interesting about the TV episode, however, is that every scene it added to the book was one that enhanced one of the female characters. This is very fitting, as the book was written in the 50s and contains a number of women having sex they weren’t supposed to be having.

The women in the story include: Mrs. Yeager (the wife of the murdered man), Meg Duncan (an actress who was one of Yeager’s many lovers), Mrs. Perez (the mother in the immigrant family paid to keep the house in the slums for Yeager) and Maria Perez, her daughter, Dinah Hough, another of Yeager’s lovers, and Julia McGee, Yeager’s secretary who swore she only took late night dictation in that room. The TV script does not expand on Mrs. Yeager or Meg Duncan, because the book covers them sufficiently, but the actresses (Debra Monk and Kari Matchett, respectively) put across elements the book does not convey. For example, when Wolfe realizes that Yeager had the room set up so that all his lovers would be aware of each other, and asks Meg Duncan if he spoke of the others, or compared her to them, she glances down uncomfortably: this is a part of the relationship she doesn’t care to recall. She may have enjoyed the protected sexual adventure, but in order to have it she had to put up with a man who liked to take shots at her self-worth. Mrs. Yeager is played mainly for comedy because she’s very direct and intolerant of bull in a cast full of people hiding things, but when she talks frankly about how her husband was sick and she even saw a doctor to see if they could help him, and there was a time she wanted to kill him but that was long over, she aroused my sympathy completely.

Dinah Hough is the wife of an English Lit professor. As he tells Wolfe, they aren’t a good match, she’s bored, and so she’s been seeing Yeager. In the book, when she first goes to the room and finds Wolfe’s operative Fred instead of Mr. Yeager, she and Fred simply talk and have some champagne while they wait for Wolfe’s right-hand man, Archie Goodwin, to arrive (Fred has been stationed in the room indefinitely to see what potential suspects show up). In the TV episode, she finds Fred taking a bath and attempts to seduce him, takes no for an answer, then pours the champagne. She comes off not as a typical TV vixen, but a lively, spirited woman who enjoys sexual adventuring.

But the TV episode alters her other scene as well: the one in which Archie comes to her home to find her husband has beaten her. She’s in bed with a black eye, and every question her husband addresses to her is answered with a meek and pitiful, “Yes, Austin.” Archie’s reaction is also altered from the book: he’s enraged, and asks her if he should send for a doctor. When her husband says no, Archie shouts him down with “I’m talking to her!” Of course she refuses a doctor. The emotional poignance of both scenes is intense, especially by the stark contrast between Dinah in her lively, adventurous mode and Dinah shocked and traumatized.

Julia McGee is not much altered from the book, but there is a hilarious addition to the scene in which she shows up at the room and finds Fred instead of Yeager. The book informs us that she tussled with him and scratched him before he subdued her, and Archie wonders just how that fight progressed. The TV episode shows us, and it had me laughing out loud.

Maria Perez is the teenage daughter in the family that keeps the house with the hideous love nest for Mr. Yeager. In both the book and show, we learn that she’s incredibly beautiful and proud. Unbeknownst to her parents, she’s been intensely curious about what goes on in that room, and she’s been sketching the people she sees going in and out of it. She’s identified Meg Duncan and started blackmailing her – $5 a month. When she moves on to blackmailing the killer of Mr. Yeager, the murderer kills her as well.

The book is a bit clearer than the TV production on the fact that Maria very cleverly identified and began to blackmail the murderer. But the TV episode emphasizes her sexual curiosity and ambition to make money off what she has learned. These are unusual traits to see in TV teenage girls, and they ring true: if you lived in a house with a secret room and everything was hush-hush and you were intelligent and a teenager, could you resist the mystery? Would you not be tempted to profit from it, especially if you were a poor immigrant to a relatively rich country?

The emotional resonance of Maria’s death is far more profound in the TV show, thanks to the advantage of visuals. In the TV show, we hear Archie’s narration as a medical examiner pulls out the slab with Maria’s body for her parents to identify. We see Timothy Hutton looking devastated (an image the book can’t fully convey, since he tells the story). And we see an altered scene at the very end, when Archie goes to return the keys to the room – Maria’s parents dancing slowly, holding one another very close in their grief, having paused in the middle of dismantling the room.

Nero Wolfe stories are plot-driven, not character driven, and this TV series featured plenty of static male and female characters. But this particular novel gave them an opportunity to hint strongly at the complexity of these women (and the young girl) as human beings with sexuality, ambition, and nerve, and they took it.

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