This may be my favorite Rex Stout novel. For one thing, it’s early enough in the series that Wolfe is still regularly breaking his ironclad rule never to leave the house. Here, an orchid show in upstate NY pries him out of Manhattan, proves his horror of automobiles, and lands him at a dairy farm where he’s faced with the murder of a victim already marked for death. Even better, this is the one where Wolfe and narrator Archie Goodwin first meet Lily Rowan. She calls Archie Escamillo (after the sexy bullfighter in Carmen), while entrancing every man in sight; he calls her bauble, plaything, and trifle, while recruiting her to help solve what’s now a multiple murder case. The banter is delightful, the plot is satisfyingly complicated, the cops and suspects are antagonistic but never stereotypical, and I learned a lot about cattle.
It took author Jess Walter 15 years to write this wonderful book. I’d have called it something other than “Beautiful Ruins” (maybe one of his working titles, “The Hotel Adequate View”?), because the varied kinds of destruction it chronicles are intertwined with constructive vitality and persistence. Any of Walters’s characters would be easy to dismiss as having ruined or wasted his or her life; yet that’s not how they see themselves, and as we get to know them better, neither do we. Likewise, the story is as intricately constructed as a mosaic; yet it spreads over enough time for the connections between disparate people and incidents to feel plausible rather than ingenious.
I wasn’t intrigued by the opening scenes, in an Italian cliffside hamlet after WWII: a frustrated hotelier, an uprooted actress, a bunch of eccentric villagers, picturesque scenery; so . . . ? Then suddenly we’re in present-day Hollywood, in the midst of a new fracas with a new bunch of eccentrics, and soon I couldn’t put the book down. Clearly it’s all connected, but how? Where will this roller-coaster tale go next? How can it ever reach anything like a resolution?
Shifts in POV as well as chronology continue, each so deft that although I was often jolted, I was never confused. Kudos to Jess Walter for that….and for writing a novel that no Hollywood star or studio is likely to jump on. Unlike the many books that cry out for a movie deal, “Beautiful Ruins” is immune (or at least highly resistant) to film, because one of its key characters is not fictional. From what I know of actor Richard Burton, this is a realistic depiction, both of him as a human earthquake and of the aftershocks he was wont to send juddering through other people’s lives. No one else could have played this role in the story, and who on earth could play him (and his even more famous wife) on screen? Score one for literature!