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Over My Dead Body (novel)

Over My Dead Body is the seventh Nero Wolfe detective novel by Rex Stout. The story first appeared in abridged form in The American Magazine (September 1939). The novel was published in 1940 by Farrar & Rinehart, Inc.

Over My Dead Body
AuthorRex Stout
Cover artistRobert Graves
CountryUnited States
SeriesNero Wolfe
GenreDetective fiction
PublisherFarrar & Rinehart
Publication date
January 3, 1940
Media typePrint (Hardcover)
Pages293 pp. (first edition)
Preceded bySome Buried Caesar 
Followed byWhere There's a Will 

Plot introductionEdit

I'm resigning as of this moment."
"Resigning from what?"
"You. My job."
"No, boss, really. You told the G-man you have never married. Yet you have a daughter. Well—" I shrugged. "I'm not a prude, but there are limits—

— A scandalized Archie ragging Wolfe, in Over My Dead Body, chapter 2

In Over My Dead Body Rex Stout begins to explore Wolfe's Montenegrin background. By 1939, of course, the Wolfe/Goodwin books had become an established series but Wolfe's youth had yet to be clarified. Stout starts to do so in this book by ringing in a number of European visitors, including some from Montenegro; the backdrop is the maneuvers of the Axis and Allied powers to dominate Yugoslavia. In the first chapter Wolfe tells FBI Agent Stahl that he was born in the United States—a declaration at odds with all other references in the corpus. Stout's authorized biographer John McAleer explained the reason for the anomaly:

Rex told me that even in 1939 Wolfe was irked by the FBI's consuming curiosity about the private business of law-abiding citizens. In consequence, Wolfe felt under no constraint to tell the truth about himself when interrogated by Stahl. There was, however, another reason for Wolfe's contradictory statements about his place of origin. Rex explained: "Editors and publishers are responsible for the discrepancy. … In the original draft of Over My Dead Body Nero was a Montenegrin by birth, and it all fitted previous hints as to his background; but violent protests from The American Magazine, supported by Farrar & Rinehart, caused his cradle to be transported five thousand miles. … I got tired of all the yapping, and besides it seemed highly improbable that anyone would give a damn, or even, for that matter, ever notice it."[1]

Plot summaryEdit

Carl Mueller illustrated the abridged version of Over My Dead Body for The American Magazine (September 1939), the first appearance of the Nero Wolfe mystery.

Carla Lovchen, a young illegal immigrant from Montenegro, approaches Nero Wolfe to request his help. Her friend and fellow “alien”, Neya Tormic, has been wrongly accused of stealing diamonds out of the coat pockets of Nat Driscoll, a wealthy member of the fencing studio where she and Carla work. However, Wolfe — reacting with unusual passion to Carla’s presence — storms out of the room and refuses to even consider her request.

After she leaves, Wolfe realises that Carla had an ulterior motive; she has hidden a letter inside a book in Wolfe’s office. The letter, written in Serbo-Croatian, empowers a Princess Vladanka Donevich, a Croatian aristocrat, to secretly negotiate with an unidentified foreign power over the rights to Yugoslavian forestry interests via a Manhattan banking firm. Wolfe, unsympathetic to the faction represented by the Donevich family, is incensed by the underhanded dealings at the expense of the local people.

Carla returns, once again demanding Wolfe’s help — and to the surprise of both Wolfe and Archie, she claims that Neya is Wolfe’s daughter, providing an adoption certificate as proof. Wolfe admits that he adopted an orphan girl during his military service in Montenegro but lost contact with her during the political upheavals following the First World War. Faced with the possibility of scandal and embarrassment, Wolfe agrees to act in Neya’s interests and sends Archie to the fencing studio to investigate the alleged theft.

Archie’s investigations prove quicker than he expects. Soon after he arrives and is introduced to Neya, a meeting is called during which Percy Ludlow, a British student at the studio, claims that Neya was simply collecting cigarettes from his coat, which is similar to Driscoll’s. Archie is surprised when Neya seems displeased by Ludlow providing her an alibi, but the matter is soon settled when Driscoll arrives, sheepishly revealing that the diamonds had never been stolen in the first place; he had simply forgotten that he had left them with a jeweller.

Despite the accusation being withdrawn, Wolfe asks Archie to bring Neya back to the office, wanting to meet the woman claiming to be his daughter. This means that Archie is present in the studio when Percy Ludlow is found dead, killed with an épée; although the studio’s swords are blunted, the murderer has stolen a device called a cul de mort that can be attached to the end of one to turn it into a deadly weapon. In the confusion, Archie discovers that someone has slipped something into his coat pocket; suspecting that it is the cul de mort, he sneaks out of the studio as the police arrive and escapes to the office, where his suspicions are confirmed.

Initial evidence points to Neya Tormic, Ludlow’s fencing instructor and the last person seen with him before his death. Furthermore, her alibi — provided by Rudolf Faber, a fellow member — is weak, and Madame Zorka — a mysterious Manhattan couturière apparently from Eastern Europe, and a fellow member of the studio — claims to have seen Neya slip the cul de mort into Archie’s pocket and threatens to tell the police. However, when the police try to interview Zorka, they learn that she has disappeared.

Inspector Cramer — already annoyed by Archie’s stunt, Zorka’s disappearance and the fact that Wolfe, who has never had a client be proved guilty of murder, is representing Neya — is further aggravated when his investigation is stymied by powerful forces. Ludlow was an agent of the British government, and Wolfe realises that he was investigating the Yugoslavian forestry deal. The links to the letter are strengthened when Faber, an agent suggested to be representing Nazi Germany, visits Wolfe seemingly to consult with him. Although claiming to be acting on Neya’s behalf, when Wolfe and Archie test him by leaving the room he immediately tries to find the letter, identifying the exact book it was hidden in.

When Neya demands the return of the letter, Wolfe confronts her about her claims of being his daughter. Neya reveals that, following the deaths of her guardians, she fell in with the Donevich family after a secretary of theirs took a fancy to her. Wolfe remains skeptical both of her claims to be his daughter and that she is uninvolved with the letter, and warns her that he will only act in her interests if she genuinely is his daughter.

Donald Barrett, a banker and friend of Neya’s, approaches Wolfe claiming to be acting in Neya’s interests. Barrett is the son of John Barrett, one of the partners of the firm named in the letter, and Wolfe realises that he is responsible for Madame Zorka’s disappearance. As the firm’s involvement with the deal is illegal under American law, Wolfe threatens to expose Barrett and his father to the authorities unless Barrett produces Zorka. Capitulating, Barrett takes Archie to a love nest where he is housing Zorka, but when they arrive Zorka appears to be incredibly drunk. Archie takes Zorka back to Wolfe’s office, but the resulting interview produces little valuable information; Wolfe allows Zorka to stay overnight to sleep off her intoxication, but when Archie goes to wake her next morning she has slipped out via a fire escape.

Neya returns to the office alone, demanding the letter. Wolfe refuses to surrender it without Carla also being present, and instructs Archie to hand the letter to Carla in Neya’s presence. When the two arrive at the apartment Neya and Carla share, however, they discover the body of Rudolf Faber, who has been murdered. Carla has apparently fled, leading suspicion to fall on her. Archie intercepts a phone call to Cramer revealing that Carla has been traced to a nearby office building; panicking, she has taken shelter with Nat Driscoll, her student at the fencing studio. Archie convinces Carla to come with him to Wolfe’s office, and slips her out of the office under the noses of the surrounding police officers by disguising her as a hotel bellboy.

Madame Zorka is found and brought to Wolfe’s office, where Wolfe reveals he has had Saul Panzer investigating her; her true identity is Pansy Bupp, a farm girl from Iowa who reinvented herself as Zorka to increase her chances of success as a fashion designer. Zorka admits that she did see Neya put the cul de mort into Archie’s pocket, but when she told this to Donald Barrett he convinced her to go into hiding.

After receiving a photograph uncovered by Orrie Cather and convincing Cramer to let Neya go, Wolfe gives Neya an envelope apparently containing her letter. Once she has gone, Wolfe is able to reveal the murderer — Neya Tormic. Neya is actually Princess Vladanka Donevich, posing as Neya to provide cover for her negotiations with Nazi Germany via Faber and Barrett’s bank. Ludlow had discovered the corrupt deal, and Neya murdered him to prevent him from exposing it. Faber witnessed the murder and provided Neya with an alibi to gain leverage and blackmail her for a better deal, but underestimated Neya’s ruthlessness and unstable nature. Barrett, knowing who Neya really was and trying to salvage the deal, hid Zorka to prevent her from revealing what she knew, becoming an accessory to murder in the process. The “letter” Wolfe gave Neya was actually a note informing her that she was no longer his client — and when she realises this, Neya rushes back to the brownstone to take revenge, but Wolfe kills her with a beer bottle in self-defence when she attacks him.

After Neya’s death, Carla admits that although the account Neya gave of her childhood was based in truth, Carla is in fact the girl Wolfe adopted in Montenegro. Neya forced Carla to accompany her in case her connection to Wolfe could prove to be useful, but Carla — secretly opposed to the Donevich family — hid the letter in the office intending for Wolfe to find it. Wolfe reveals that he suspected the truth on learning Carla’s adopted name, “Lovchen”, and offers to support Carla as she builds a life in America.

Cast of charactersEdit

  • Nero Wolfe — Famous detective
  • Archie Goodwin — Wolfe's young assistant, and the narrator of all Wolfe stories
  • Carla Lovchen — Beautiful Montenegrin girl
  • Neya Tormic — Carla's emotional friend and Wolfe's client
  • Nikola Miltan — Macedonian épée champion, owner of a fencing and dancing studio in Manhattan where Tormic and Lovchen work
  • Jeanne Miltan — His wife
  • John P. Barrett — Wealthy international banker, involved with intrigues and secret transactions involving royal holdings in Bosnia
  • Donald Barrett — His son
  • Madame Zorka — Couturière, client of Miltan's studio, and business associate of Donald Barrett
  • Inspector Cramer — Head of the New York Police Department's homicide squad[2]
  • Nat Driscoll, Rudolph Faber, Percy Ludlow — Fencing students at Miltan's studio
  • Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin, Orrie Cather — Freelance detectives employed by Wolfe

Fair useEdit

The following excerpt from Over My Dead Body was used as the quotation in a New York Times[3] Sunday acrostic: "When an international financier is confronted by a holdup man [with a gun], he automatically hands over not only his money and jewelry but also his shirt and pants, [because] it doesn't occur to him that a robber might draw the line somewhere."[4] (The bracketed words did not appear in the acrostic.)

Reviews and commentaryEdit

  • Isaac Anderson, The New York Times Book Review (January 7, 1940) — There is more of Archie Goodwin than of Nero Wolfe in this book, and that is all to the good, for, although Wolfe is Archie's boss and the one who does the heavy thinking, Archie is, unless our guess is wide of the mark, the person whom readers of the Nero Wolfe stories take to their hearts. If Nero is the brains of the concern, Archie is its arms and hands and legs. When Nero wants something done, he does not need to tell Archie how to do it. Archie will figure that out for himself, and the thing is as good as done, however difficult the assignment may be. In the murder case with which this story deals there are international complications which make things unusually difficult. The police and the G-men are in it too, but the best that they can do is to watch Nero Wolfe and wait for him to come through with the solution. The book is full of surprises for everybody concerned, including not only the reader but also the police, Archie and even Nero Wolfe himself. Read one chapter of this book and you will need no urging to go on with it.[5]
  • Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor, A Catalogue of Crime — This is the tale in which we learn that Nero has been married, has adopted a daughter in his native Montenegro, and has become a U.S. citizen in order to enjoy peace and democracy. The plot hinges on international and domestic secrets but it is sober and sound. Archie, Cramer, and the rest of the cast are in top form, and Nero is noticeably more outspoken and impulsive than he subsequently became.[6]
  • J. Kenneth Van Dover, At Wolfe's Door — The first half dozen Wolfe novels established the detective as an original creation. Over My Dead Body begins the long line of pleasant entertainments in which Wolfe and Archie exploit the familiar formulas.[7]


A Nero Wolfe Mystery (A&E Network)Edit

An adaptation of Over My Dead Body concluded the first season of the A&E TV series A Nero Wolfe Mystery (2001–2002). Sharon Elizabeth Doyle and Janet Roach wrote the teleplay for the episode, which was directed by Timothy Hutton. "Over My Dead Body" made its debut in two one-hour episodes airing July 8 and 15, 2001, on A&E.

Timothy Hutton is Archie Goodwin; Maury Chaykin is Nero Wolfe. Other members of the cast (in credits order) are Bill Smitrovich (Inspector Cramer), Ron Rifkin (Nikola Miltan), Colin Fox (Fritz Brenner), James Tolkan (Percy Ludlow), George Plimpton (John Barrett). Kari Matchett (Carla Lovchen), Debra Monk (Madame Zorka), Francie Swift (Neya Tormic), Trent McMullen (Orrie Cather), Conrad Dunn (Saul Panzer), Robert Bockstael (Agent Stahl), Nicky Guadagni (Jeanne Miltan), Hrant Alianak (Nat Driscoll), R.D. Reid (Sergeant Purley Stebbins), Richard Waugh (Rudolph Faber), Dina Barrington (Belinda Reade) and Boyd Banks (Duncan Barrett, the same character called "Donald Barrett" in the original novel, yet, oddly, still referred to as "Donny-Bonny" in the teleplay's dialog by Belinda Reade, Madame Zorka, and sarcastically by Archie, just as in the novel).

In addition to original music by Nero Wolfe composer Michael Small, the soundtrack includes music by Johannes Brahms (opening sequence), Ib Glindemann, Jacques Offenbach and David Steinberg.[8]

In North America, A Nero Wolfe Mystery is available on Region 1 DVD from A&E Home Video (ISBN 0-7670-8893-X). "Over My Dead Body" is divided into two parts as originally broadcast on A&E.[9]

"Over My Dead Body" is one of the Nero Wolfe episodes released on Region 2 DVD in the Netherlands by Just Entertainment, under license from FremantleMedia Enterprises. A Nero Wolfe Mystery — Serie 2 (2010) was the first DVD release of the international version of the episode, which presents "Over My Dead Body" as a 90-minute film with a single set of titles and credits. Included is a brief scene in which Archie and Fritz put Madame Zorka to bed in the south room. "Fritz is a real gentleman," Archie says in voiceover. "She may not have arrived with a nightie or a toothbrush, but for the honor of the house, by golly, she got orchids." The Netherlands release has optional Dutch subtitles and, like the A&E DVD release, presents the episode in 4:3 pan and scan rather than its 16:9 aspect ratio for widescreen viewing.[10][11]

The adaptation is faithful to the novel save for a few changes in detail, such as Donald Barrett being renamed Duncan Barrett and Archie conscripting a bellboy at the Maidstone Building to provide his uniform for Carla Lovchen instead of phoning a nearby hotel and asking the house detective he knows there to send a bellboy over to make the switch with Carla. The script also contains a factual error: when Zorka is unmasked, Wolfe says she was born in "Ottumwa, Minnesota", instead of Ottumwa, Iowa, as in the novel.

Nero Wolfe (Radiotelevisione italiana S.p.A.)Edit

Over My Dead Body was adapted for the eighth episode of the RAI TV series Nero Wolfe (Italy 2012), starring Francesco Pannofino as Nero Wolfe and Pietro Sermonti as Archie Goodwin. Set in 1959 in Rome, where Wolfe and Archie reside after leaving the United States, the series was produced by Casanova Multimedia and Rai Fiction and directed by Riccardo Donna. "Coppia di spade" aired May 24, 2012.[12][13]

Publication historyEdit

In his limited-edition pamphlet, Collecting Mystery Fiction #9, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe Part I, Otto Penzler describes the first edition of Over My Dead Body: "Turquoise cloth, front cover and spine printed with dark blue; rear cover blank. Issued in a full-color pictorial dust wrapper … The first edition has the publisher's monogram logo on the copyright page."[15]
In April 2006, Firsts: The Book Collector's Magazine estimated that the first edition of Over My Dead Body had a value of between $4,000 and $7,500.[16]
  • 1940, New York: Omnibook Magazine, February 1940, abridged
  • 1940, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1940, hardcover
  • 1940, London: Collins Crime Club, October 7, 1940, hardcover
  • 1943, New York: Lawrence E. Spivak, Jonathan Press Mystery #J6, 1943, abridged, paperback
  • 1945, New York: Avon #62, 1945, first unabridged paperback
  • 1955, Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books #1106, 1955, paperback
  • 1965, London: Panther, February 1965, paperback
  • 1979, New York: Jove #M4865, March 1979, paperback
  • 1992, London: Scribners (Macdonald) "by arrangement with Bantam Books" ISBN 0-356-20110-4, hardcover
  • 1994, New York: Bantam Crimeline ISBN 0-553-23116-2 January 1994, paperback, Rex Stout Library edition with introduction by John Jakes
  • 2007, Auburn, California: The Audio Partners Publishing Corp., Mystery Masters ISBN 1-57270-730-5 March 28, 2007, audio CD (unabridged, read by Michael Prichard)
  • 2010, New York: Bantam ISBN 978-0-307-75608-4 July 21, 2010, e-book


  1. ^ McAleer, John, Rex Stout: A Biography (1977, Little, Brown and Company; ISBN 0-316-55340-9); p. 403
  2. ^ Page 74, halfway through chapter 5.
  3. ^ June 17, 2001 edition.
  4. ^ Page 138, halfway through Chapter 10.
  5. ^ Anderson, Isaac, The New York Times Book Review; January 7, 1940, p. 17
  6. ^ 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. Barzun and Taylor may have learned that Wolfe has been married, but the novel does not so state. To the contrary: Archie pretends to be scandalized that the unmarried Wolfe has a daughter (chapter 2). Further, in this novel Wolfe states in chapter 1 that he was born in the United States, not Montenegro.
  7. ^ 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 0-918736-51-X / Paperback ISBN 0-918736-52-8); p. 13
  8. ^ Johannes Brahms, Waltz in A flat Major, Op. 39, No. 15; KPM Music Ltd. KPM CS 7, Light Classics Volume One (track 12). Ib Glindemann, "Moonlight Promenade"; Carlin Music CAR 202, Big Band / Jazz / Swing (track 10). Jacques Offenbach, "The Doll's Song," from The Tales of Hoffmann. David Steinberg, "Tom Toms Jam"; 5 Alarm Music, Swing (iTunes Store). Additional soundtrack details at the Internet Movie Database and The Wolfe Pack Archived 2013-05-14 at the Wayback Machine, official site of the Nero Wolfe Society
  9. ^ "Champagne for One" (disc 1), "Prisoner's Base" (disc 2) and "Over My Dead Body" (disc 3) are split into two parts as they originally aired on A&E. Three other telefilms originally shown as two-parters — "Motherhunt" (disc 5), "Too Many Clients" (disc 6) and "The Silent Speaker" (disc 7) — are issued by A&E Home Video as continuous films with a single set of titles and credits.
  10. ^ A Nero Wolfe Mystery — Serie 2, February 11, 2010; EAN 8717344739801. Two-disc set features include "Over My Dead Body" (presented as a 90-minute film with a single set of titles and credits) and "Death of a Doxy." Screen format is 4:3 full frame. Licensed by FremantleMedia Enterprises to Just Entertainment Archived 2011-07-24 at the Wayback Machine. (Retrieved January 1, 2011)
  11. ^ "Over My Dead Body," FremantleMedia Enterprises; retrieved September 11, 2012
  12. ^ Nero Wolfe, Casanova Multimedia; retrieved May 27, 2012
  13. ^ Episodes, Nero Wolfe (TV series 2012), Italian Wikipedia; retrieved May 27, 2012
  14. ^ Townsend, Guy M., Rex Stout: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography (1980, New York: Garland Publishing; ISBN 0-8240-9479-4), pp. 18–19. John McAleer, Judson Sapp and Arriean Schemer are associate editors of this definitive publication history.
  15. ^ Penzler, Otto, Collecting Mystery Fiction #9, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe Part I (2001, New York: The Mysterious Bookshop, limited edition of 250 copies), pp. 15–16
  16. ^ Smiley, Robin H., "Rex Stout: A Checklist of Primary First Editions." Firsts: The Book Collector's Magazine (Volume 16, Number 4), April 2006, p. 33

External linksEdit