The Second Confession

The Second Confession
Author Rex Stout
Cover artist Bill English
Country United States
Language English
Series Nero Wolfe
Genre Detective fiction
Publisher Viking Press
Publication date
September 6, 1949
Media type Print (Hardcover)
Pages 245 pp. (first edition)
OCLC 1468849
Preceded by Trouble in Triplicate
Followed by Three Doors to Death

The Second Confession is a Nero Wolfe detective novel by Rex Stout, first published by the Viking Press in 1949. The story was collected in the omnibus volume Triple Zeck (Viking 1974).

It is the second of three Nero Wolfe novels that involve crime boss Arnold Zeck and his widespread operations. (The others are And Be a Villain and In the Best Families.) In each story, Zeck Wolfe's Moriarty telephones Wolfe to warn him off an investigation that Zeck believes will interfere with his crime syndicate. Each time, Wolfe refuses to cooperate and there are consequences.

Plot introduction

Then I saw that I wasn't standing on the stone of the stoop but on a piece of glass, and if I didn't like that piece there were plenty of others. They were all over the stoop, the steps, the areaway, and the sidewalk. I looked straight up, and another piece came flying down, missed me by a good inch, and crashed and tinkled at my feet. I backed across the sill, shut the door, and turned to face Wolfe, who was standing in the hall looking bewildered.

"He took it out on the orchids," I stated.
Archie, viewing Zeck's handiwork, in The Second Confession, chapter 5

Hired to find evidence that Louis Rony is a Communist, Nero Wolfe finds himself under attack from Arnold Zeck and stymied by his own client. Wolfe solves Rony's murder by coercing the assistance of the American Communist Party.

Plot summary

James U. Sperling, a prominent industrialist, approaches Nero Wolfe to investigate Louis Rony, a criminal attorney and admirer of Sperling’s youngest daughter Gwenn. Sperling distrusts Rony and wants Wolfe to find evidence that Rony is a member of the American Communist Party. Wolfe is reluctant to accept the job, as he knows of Rony’s reputation and believes that he has connections to Arnold Zeck, a shadowy criminal mastermind who has crossed paths with Wolfe before and whom Wolfe is hesitant to tangle with again. Nevertheless, Archie Goodwin is dispatched undercover to Sperling’s Westchester estate to learn what he can about Rony and see if he can discover any reasonable grounds for Sperling to convince his daughter to break off their relationship.

Present at Sperling’s estate are his family, including his wife, his son Jimmy, and his daughters Gwenn and Madeline; Rony himself; Paul Emerson, a controversial conservative radio commentator who is sponsored by Sperling’s business; Emerson’s flirtatious wife Connie; and Webster Kane, an economist and friend of the family. Madeline reveals that she is aware of Archie’s true identity, having read about his exploits with Wolfe in the newspapers and nursing something of a crush on him. That night, after dinner Archie plans to surreptitiously drug Rony’s drink in order to ensure he is unconscious while Archie searches his room for evidence; much to Archie’s surprise, however, when he switches drinks with Rony he discovers that Rony’s drink was already spiked and that Rony had already discarded his drink, apparently anticipating being drugged by someone else.

The next night, Archie launches a back-up plan; offering to drive Rony to the nearby railway station, he instead arranges for operatives of Wolfe, Saul Panzer and Ruth Brady, to pose as robbers and waylay them. Once Rony is rendered unconscious, Archie searches him and discovers a membership card for the Communist Party under the name of William Reynolds. Returning to New York, Archie learns from Wolfe that Arnold Zeck has been in contact, confirming that Rony is one of his operatives; Zeck has warned Wolfe to withdraw from the case. As a threat, while Wolfe and Archie are in his office the greenhouse on the roof of Wolfe’s brownstone is attacked with machine-gun fire, destroying many of the orchids within.

Wolfe meets with Sperling and his family and explains the situation; without naming Zeck, he informs them that while he cannot necessarily prove that Rony is a Communist, he can prove that Rony is a member of Zeck’s organisation, but to do so would potentially be incredibly dangerous for him and them, and it is Gwenn’s decision whether he is to proceed. That night, while everyone is awaiting for her decision, Gwenn goes missing, prompting Archie and Madeline to search the grounds for her. Gwenn is found on the grounds, and reveals that she has contacted Rony and asked him to meet with her so that she can break off their relationship. Following this, Archie discovers Rony’s body; he has been hit by a car and moved into the bushes a few feet from the estate’s driveway.

Among the investigators is Lieutenant Con Noonan of the New York State Police, who still holds a grudge over his interactions with Wolfe and Archie during a previous investigation. Evidence is found on Wolfe’s car indicating that it was the car that ran over Rony, prompting the investigators to suspect Archie of committing a hit and run. They attempt to force a confession out of him, but he refuses. Webster Kane steps forward, claiming to have borrowed Wolfe’s car the previous night to run an errand and to have accidentally run over Rony in the dark. Satisfied by Kane’s confession, the investigators prepare to rule Rony’s death an accident, but when Sperling attempts to pay Wolfe off Wolfe becomes convinced that Kane’s confession is false, and determines to discover what really happened.

Later that day, an anonymous package containing $50,000 cash arrives at the brownstone. Zeck calls Wolfe to explain that he sent the money as payment for the damage to the orchid rooms, and attempts to hire him to catch Rony's murderer. On his weekly radio broadcast, Emerson ridicules Wolfe and his investigation. Wolfe meets with Mr. Jones, a consultant whom Archie is forbidden to meet, and dispatches Archie to the estate to locate evidence that Rony was struck down before being run over. After discovering a stone that could possibly be the murder weapon, Archie is approached by Connie, who attempts to seduce him and then take the stone from him and dispose of it. Wolfe contacts Lon Cohen, the city editor of the Gazette, and puts his plan into action.

Over the next three days, with information provided by Jones, Archie drafts and submits a series of reports detailing confidential plans and meetings of the Communist Party, which are then published in the Gazette. Among other disclosures, they detail the efforts of the Communist Party to influence the presidential campaign of Henry A. Wallace in the 1948 elections. Wolfe subsequently meets Mr. Harvey and Mr. Stevens, senior officials of the American Communist Party, and convinces them to aid him by identifying the man they know as William Reynolds, against whom Wolfe has fabricated evidence to suggest that he is the leak. Wolfe has deduced that Reynolds is the murderer.

That night, in his office, Wolfe gathers the suspects and reveals what he has learned, pressuring Webster Kane to refute his previous confession. Once Kane has done so, Stevens and Harvey enter the room, where they expose him as William Reynolds; Kane murdered Rony after Rony discovered he was secretly a Communist and fabricated the earlier confession of accidental manslaughter in order to avoid being suspected of murder. As his payment, Wolfe demands that Sperling end his contract with Paul Emerson’s radio show, thus forcing Emerson off the air. Zeck calls Wolfe to congratulate him on solving Rony's murder, and Wolfe and Archie receive another anonymous package, this one containing the exact amount that Wolfe paid to Jones for his services. Wolfe and Archie set aside this money, as well as the remainder of the first $50,000, as an emergency fund to be used in case they ever have to face Zeck head-on and must leave the brownstone.

Cast of characters

The unfamiliar word

In most Nero Wolfe novels and novellas, there is at least one unfamiliar word, usually but not always spoken by Wolfe. The Second Confession contains these two:

Reviews and commentary

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 The Second Confession: "Blue-green cloth, front cover and spine printed with green-yellow; rear cover blank. Issued in a mainly blue-green dust wrapper with black and white."[5]
In April 2006, Firsts: The Book Collector's Magazine estimated that the first edition of The Second Confession had a value of between $300 and $500. The estimate is for a copy in very good to fine condition in a like dustjacket.[6]
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).[7]


  1. Barzun and Taylor are in error here: no in-laws appear in The Second Confession.
  2. 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
  3. 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. 23
  4. Townsend, Guy M., Rex Stout: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography (1980, New York: Garland Publishing; ISBN 0-8240-9479-4), pp. 26–27. John McAleer, Judson Sapp and Arriean Schemer are associate editors of this definitive publication history.
  5. Penzler, Otto, Collecting Mystery Fiction #9, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe Part I (2001, New York: The Mysterious Bookshop, limited edition of 250 copies), p. 24
  6. 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
  7. Penzler, Otto, Collecting Mystery Fiction #9, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe Part I, pp. 19–20

Quotations related to The Second Confession at Wikiquote

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