In the Best Families

In the Best Families
Author Rex Stout
Cover artist Bill English
Country United States
Language English
Series Nero Wolfe
Genre Detective fiction
Publisher Viking Press
Publication date
September 29, 1950
Media type Print (Hardcover)
Pages 246 pp. (first edition)
OCLC 1387038
Preceded by Three Doors to Death
Followed by Curtains for Three

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.

Plot introduction

Do not look for me.
My very best regards and wishes. . . .
Nero Wolfe's parting instruction, In The Best Families, chapter 6

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.

Plot summary

Nero Wolfe is approached by heiress Sarah Rackham and her cousin Calvin Leeds, a breeder of Dobermans, to investigate Sarah's husband Barry, who maintains an unusually lavish lifestyle despite having no income or support from Sarah. After Wolfe reluctantly accepts the job, the next day a tear-gas bomb disguised as a package of sausage is delivered to the brownstone. Afterwards, Wolfe is warned to drop the case by Arnold Zeck, a shadowy criminal mastermind who has matched wits with Wolfe twice before. Although it is clear that Barry Rackham is one of Zeck’s operatives, Wolfe orders Archie to investigate further.

Soon after Archie arrives, Sarah Packham is found murdered along with her dog. Archie calls Wolfe with the news and returns to the city, suspecting that Barry or someone else in Zeck's enterprise may be responsible. When he arrives, however, he discovers that Nero Wolfe has disappeared during the night, leaving only instructions that Archie should not look for him and a newspaper advertisement announcing Wolfe’s retirement from the detective business. The Westchester authorities refuse to believe that Archie doesn’t know where Wolfe is, and he is briefly detained as a material witness. While Archie is in jail his cell-mate, Max Christy, implies that he is part of Zeck’s organisation and offers Archie work.

After being released, Archie is hired by Sarah’s daughter-in-law Annabel to investigate her murder, but his attempts soon stall. Over the following months, as Wolfe seems unlikely to return, Archie opens his own detective agency. He is eventually approached by Christy, who renews his offer of employment in Zeck’s organisation. Suspecting that Zeck is connected to Sarah’s murder, Archie agrees. He is put in contact with Pete Roeder, a high-ranking operative in Zeck’s organisation. During a private meeting, however, Roeder reveals he is in fact Wolfe, having lost weight and changed his appearance. After fleeing, Wolfe travelled to the West Coast and established his identity as Roeder to infiltrate Zeck’s organisation in order to dismantle it from within, and now needs Archie’s help to spring his trap.

Archie persuades Lily Rowan to pose as Roeder's mistress so that the three of them can use her apartment as a covert meeting place. Zeck formally employs Archie to locate the whereabouts of Barry Rackham, and Archie hires Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin, and Orrie Cather to do so. Barry soon realises what is happening and confronts Archie, but is terrified to learn that Zeck is also interested in his whereabouts; Barry had attempted to leave Zeck’s employment, only to be threatened with exposure as a murderer. As Wolfe’s trap nears completion, Archie is detained by the Westchester district attorney; Sarah’s secretary Lina Darrow has formally claimed that Barry murdered his wife. Realising that Darrow’s claims could get Barry convicted, and thus ruin Wolfe’s plan, Archie discredits Darrow by revealing that she was Barry’s mistress and has been spurned by his refusal to marry her.

Archie takes Barry to meet with Zeck to negotiate an end to his employment. During the meeting, Archie overpowers Zeck, and Wolfe reveals his true identity. Wolfe has gathered enough evidence to destroy Zeck’s criminal empire, but is willing to trade it for an end to hostilities and the evidence Zeck has against Barry. Realising that he is doomed either way, Barry shoots Zeck with a concealed gun before being killed by Zeck’s bodyguards. With Zeck dead, Wolfe returns to the brownstone intent on exposing Sarah’s murderer. He summons the key witnesses to his office and reveals that Sarah was in fact murdered by Calvin Leeds, not Barry. Leeds, who had raised and trained Sarah’s dog, was the only person who could have gotten close enough to kill her and it without the dog raising an alarm. Barry had in fact committed an unrelated murder several years previously that Zeck had used to blackmail him. Afterwards, Archie takes a well-deserved vacation in Norway with Lily, where he receives a letter describing Wolfe’s return to his normal routines — and informing him of Leeds' suicide in jail before the start of his trial.

The unfamiliar word

In most Nero Wolfe novels and novellas, there is at least one unfamiliar word, usually spoken by Wolfe. In the Best Families contains the following:

"You should act as if ... you knew nothing. Under what circumstances would you do that most convincingly? You are capable of dissimulation, but why try you so severely?"[1]

Cast of characters

Reviews and commentary


Nero Wolfe (Paramount Television)

In the Best Families was adapted as the seventh episode of Nero Wolfe (1981), an NBC TV series starring William Conrad as Nero Wolfe and Lee Horsley as Archie Goodwin. Other members of the regular cast include George Voskovec (Fritz Brenner), Robert Coote (Theodore Horstmann), George Wyner (Saul Panzer) and Allan Miller (Inspector Cramer). Guest stars include Linden Chiles (Calvin Leeds), Juanin Clay (Annabel Frey), Lawrence Casey (Barry Rackham), Burr DeBenning (Max Christy), Diana Douglas (Sarah Rackham), Robert Loggia (Arnold Dorso [Zeck]) and Alex Rodine (Marko Vukcic). Directed by George McCowan from a teleplay by Alfred Hayes, "In the Best Families" aired March 6, 1981.

Publication history

In his limited-edition pamphlet, Collecting Mystery Fiction #9, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe Part I, Otto Penzler describes the first edition of In the Best Families: "Yellow cloth, front cover and spine printed with purple; rear cover blank. Issued in a purple, black and white dust wrapper."[6]
In April 2006, Firsts: The Book Collector's Magazine estimated that the first edition of In the Best Families had a value of between $300 and $500. The estimate is for a copy in very good to fine condition in a like dustjacket.[7]
The far less valuable Viking book club edition may be distinguished from the first edition in three ways:
  • The dust jacket has "Book Club Edition" printed on the inside front flap, and the price is absent (first editions may be price clipped if they were given as gifts).
  • Book club editions are sometimes thinner and always taller (usually a quarter of an inch) than first editions.
  • Book club editions are bound in cardboard, and first editions are bound in cloth (or have at least a cloth spine).[8]


  1. In the Best Families, chapter 13; Viking edition, p. 145.
  2. Other editions, such as the 1995 Bantam, use minimum rather than minim.
  3. Symons, Julian, Manchester Evening News, April 5, 1951; quoted in McAleer, John, Rex Stout: A Biography. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1977 ISBN 0-316-55340-9 page 382
  4. 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. 26
  5. Townsend, Guy M., Rex Stout: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography (1980, New York: Garland Publishing; ISBN 0-8240-9479-4), pp. 27–28. John McAleer, Judson Sapp and Arriean Schemer are associate editors of this definitive publication history.
  6. 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. 25-26
  7. 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
  8. Penzler, Otto, Collecting Mystery Fiction #9, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe Part I, pp. 19–20
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