The Next Witness

"The Next Witness"

Illustrated by Thornton Utz
Author Rex Stout
Original title "The Last Witness"
Country United States
Language English
Series Nero Wolfe
Genre(s) Detective fiction
Published in The American Magazine
Publication type Periodical
Publication date May 1955

"The Next Witness" is a Nero Wolfe mystery novella by Rex Stout, first published as "The Last Witness" in the May 1955 issue of The American Magazine. It first appeared in book form in the short-story collection Three Witnesses, published by the Viking Press in 1956.

Plot summary

Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are in court, under subpoena to testify as witnesses for the prosecution in a murder trial. The State contends that Leonard Ashe hired Bagby Answers, Inc., an answering service, and that he did so to get information about his wife's phone calls. The State also contends that when one of the operators refused to cooperate with Ashe, and threatened to tell his wife, Ashe strangled her with a phone cord. Wolfe and Archie are in court to testify that Ashe had tried to hire Wolfe to spy on his wife. Ashe had been circumspect about it, but that's what Wolfe inferred, and he turned Ashe down.

Now Clyde Bagby, owner of the answering service, is on the witness stand and ADA Mandelbaum is questioning him. Bagby testifies that one of his operators, Marie Willis, came to him to complain that Ashe had asked her to listen in on his wife's telephone conversations. Miss Willis had refused, and was going to tell Ashe's wife, the actress Robina Keane, what her husband was doing. Bagby tried unsuccessfully to dissuade Miss Willis. That evening, the police phoned to tell Bagby that Miss Willis had been found, strangled, at her switchboard.

At this point in Bagby's testimony, Wolfe leaves the courtroom, with Archie in tow. Wolfe wants to see some people, but Archie objects that they are both under subpoena and Wolfe's testimony is scheduled to follow Bagby's. Wolfe doesn't care: he has now concluded that Ashe did not kill Marie Willis, he does not want to testify in corroboration of Bagby, and the woman sitting next to him in the courtroom was wearing too much perfume. He's not returning until he has more information.

Wolfe and Archie head for the answering service's office, where they find Bella Velardi and Alice Hart, two of Miss Willis' co-workers. Due to arcane employment regulations, the offices are in an apartment, where each of the employees has a bedroom. Wolfe and Archie invade one of the bedrooms, and Wolfe is determined to be as obnoxious as possible, so as to see how much incivility the service's employees will stand for. As they are questioning Miss Velardi and Miss Hart, they note the presence of an original Van Gogh painting on the wall, and a stack of racing forms on a table.

The interrogations yield little information, except that the women are scared enough to submit to Wolfe's boorish behavior in their own rooms. Wolfe does learn that another employee, Helen Weltz, is in Westchester that afternoon, at a cottage that she has leased for the summer. That's Wolfe and Archie's next stop.

When they arrive, Archie has to avoid hitting a new Jaguar parked in front of the cottage. Miss Weltz is not alone, but accompanied by Guy Unger, an acquaintance of several of the women who work at the answering service. To Archie, Unger has the look of an underworld character – mean little eyes and mouth in a big round face. He describes himself as a broker, but when Wolfe presses him, Unger is vague about the sort of business he transacts.

Unger wants to talk with Wolfe alone. When Archie takes Miss Weltz for a stroll he learns that she wants out from under something, but is too frightened of Unger to tell Archie what it is. Archie gets her to agree to phone Wolfe's office that evening; Fritz will relay her call to Archie. Back in the car, Wolfe tells Archie that Unger tried to pay him to drop his investigation.

Wolfe and Archie head back to the city. They can't go to the brownstone because the judge has issued a warrant for their arrest – they have not complied with their subpoenas. Archie phones Saul and arranges for them to spend the night at his apartment. First, though, Wolfe has another errand: he wants to meet with Ashe's wife.

She agrees to see them, and Wolfe convinces her to set up a meeting with Ashe the following morning. By meeting with Ashe, Wolfe contrives to trap ADA Mandelbaum into asking a particular question – one with an answer that Mandelbaum doesn't want to hear.

Cast of characters

The unfamiliar word

"Readers of the Wolfe saga often have to turn to the dictionary because of the erudite vocabulary of Wolfe and sometimes of Archie," wrote Rev. Frederick G. Gotwald.[1]

Examples of unfamiliar words — or unfamiliar uses of words that some would otherwise consider familiar — are found throughout the corpus, often in the give-and-take between Wolfe and Archie.

Publication history

"The Next Witness"

Three Witnesses

Contents include "The Next Witness", "When a Man Murders" and "Die Like a Dog".
In his limited-edition pamphlet, Collecting Mystery Fiction #10, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe Part II, Otto Penzler describes the first edition of Three Witnesses: "Pale blue cloth, front cover and spine printed with gold; front and rear covers blank. Issued in a red, black and white dust wrapper."[3]:3
In April 2006, Firsts: The Book Collector's Magazine estimated that the first edition of Three Witnesses had a value of between $200 and $350. The estimate is for a copy in very good to fine condition in a like dustjacket.[4]
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).[5]:19–20


A Nero Wolfe Mystery (A&E Network)

"Will you have some beer?" Saul Panzer (Conrad Dunn) is host to Nero Wolfe (Maury Chaykin) in A&E's 16:9 letterbox version of "The Next Witness"

"The Next Witness" was adapted for the second season of the A&E TV series A Nero Wolfe Mystery (2001–2002). Written by Sharon Elizabeth Doyle and directed by James Tolkan, the episode made its debut April 21, 2002, on A&E.

Timothy Hutton is Archie Goodwin; Maury Chaykin is Nero Wolfe. Other members of the cast of "The Next Witness," in credits order, include Bill Smitrovich (Inspector Cramer), Conrad Dunn (Saul Panzer), Christine Brubaker (Bella Velardi), R.D. Reid (Sergeant Purley Stebbins), Saul Rubinek (Lon Cohen), Robert Bockstael (Jimmy Donovan), Nicky Guadagni (Alice Hart), Richard Waugh (Guy Unger), David Schurmann (Leonard Ashe), Boyd Banks (Clyde Bagby), Wayne Best (District Attorney Mandelbaum), Francie Swift (Helen Weltz), Beau Starr (Judge Corbett), Rebecca Jenkins (Robina Keane) and Hrant Alianak (Coroner).

In addition to original music by Nero Wolfe composer Michael Small, the soundtrack includes music by Henry Davies (titles) and Johannes Brahms (opening sequence).[6]

Broadcast in widescreen when shown outside North America, "The Next Witness" is also expanded from 45 minutes to 90 minutes for international broadcast.[7] Solo interviews with Leonard Ashe, Jimmy Donovan, Robina Keane and the coroner punctuate the 90-minute episode. Other scenes are expanded; Wolfe and Archie's visit to Saul Panzer's apartment runs five minutes longer in the international version.[8]

In North America, A Nero Wolfe Mystery is available on Region 1 DVD from A&E Home Video (ISBN 0-7670-8893-X). The A&E DVD release presents the 45-minute version of "The Next Witness" in 4:3 pan and scan rather than its 16:9 aspect ratio for widescreen viewing.[9]

Nero Wolfe (CBC Radio)

"The Next Witness" was adapted as the 11th episode of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's 13-part radio series Nero Wolfe (1982), starring Mavor Moore as Nero Wolfe, Don Francks as Archie Goodwin, and Cec Linder as Inspector Cramer. Written and directed by Toronto actor and producer Ron Hartmann,[10] the hour-long adaptation aired on CBC Stereo March 27, 1982.[11]


  1. Gotwald, Rev. Frederick G., The Nero Wolfe Handbook (1985; revised 1992, 2000), page 234
  2. 1 2 Townsend, Guy M., Rex Stout: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography. New York: Garland Publishing, 1980. John McAleer, Judson Sapp and Arriean Schemer are associate editors of this definitive publication history. ISBN 0-8240-9479-4
  3. Penzler, Otto, Collecting Mystery Fiction #10, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe Part II. New York: The Mysterious Bookshop, 2001. Limited edition of 250 copies.
  4. Smiley, Robin H., "Rex Stout: A Checklist of Primary First Editions." Firsts: The Book Collector's Magazine (Volume 16, Number 4), April 2006, p. 34
  5. Penzler, Otto, Collecting Mystery Fiction #9, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe Part I. New York: The Mysterious Bookshop, 2001. Limited edition of 250 copies.
  6. Henry Davies, "All Day Long I Dream (of Caroline)" and "Trombone Chutney"; Carlin Production Music CAR 148, The History of Jazz (tracks 11 and 1). Johannes Brahms, Hungarian Dance No. 5; KPM Music Ltd. KPM CS 7, Light Classics Volume One (track 11). Additional soundtrack details at the Internet Movie Database and The Wolfe Pack, official site of the Nero Wolfe Society
  7. Sky Movies HD; Fremantle Archive Sales; retrieved January 11, 2011
  8. Transcription of the dialogue; retrieved January 11, 2011
  9. VHS recording created for NW Production Services, Inc., labelled as follows: NERO WOLFE: EPS:202B "THE NEXT WITNESS" A&E 16 X 9 LETTERBOX VERSION DUR: 47:42:13 5 JUNE 02
  10. MacNiven, Elina, "Nero Wolfe: Wolfe's verbal coups rendered on radio"; Globe and Mail (Toronto, Canada), January 16, 1982.
  11. Hickerson, Jay, The Ultimate History of Network Radio Programming and Guide to All Circulating Shows, 1992, Box 4321, Hamden, CT 06514, p. 6; The Thrilling Detective, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe
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