Set at the time of its writing, IN THE BEST FAMILIES is a period piece today. At the time, federal income taxes were due on March 15, so as the story opens in mid-April Wolfe isn't inclined to turn down millionaire clients on a whim, not even when Mrs. Rackham's request involves investigating her husband. She wants to know why, after gradually escalating requests for money which she'd begun to refuse, Barry Rackham is suddenly flush with cash.
That question seems resolved, if not proved, when Arnold Zeck arranges for a package of tear gas disguised as sausage to be delivered to the brownstone the day after Wolfe accepts the Rackham case. Zeck doesn't casually warn Wolfe to stay out of his operations unless there's something for Wolfe to find, and Zeck's involvement plus Barry Rackham's unaccounted-for cash suggest that Rackham is up to his neck in Zeck's criminal enterprises ("all of them illegal and some morally repulsive").
As the third, decisive clash between Wolfe and Arnold Zeck, this should be read after AND BE A VILLAIN (the Orchard case) and THE SECOND CONFESSION (in which Zeck arranged for men with machine guns to open up on the plant rooms just to make a point).
Previously, as Wolfe points out early on, he and Archie have been lucky in their encounters with Zeck. The resolution of the Orchard case didn't require probing of Zeck's operations, and the problem of THE SECOND CONFESSION actually put Zeck on their side when it turned into the investigation of the murder of a Zeck employee.
The opening superficially resembles the initial situation in THE SECOND CONFESSION, as Archie is dispatched to the Rackham estate in Westchester county for a weekend visit, although on this occasion he's using his own name and claiming to be investigating the poisoning of one of Calvin Leeds' Dobermans (Mrs Rackham's trusted cousin). It's even somewhat justifiable, since Wolfe has strong feelings about dogs.
The case takes a sharp turn, however, when Mrs Rackham and her dog are found stabbed after a late night walk (the dog having dragged himself to Leeds' place before dying). After a regrettable clash with the Westchester powers-that-be, who aren't at all happy to investigate a murder where most of the suspects are filthy rich or rising powers in New York politics, Archie returns home from a weekend in jail to find the door of the brownstone wide open and Wolfe gone, leaving only a note not to look for him.
When Wolfe said he might have to take drastic action someday to remove Zeck as a threat, it never occurred to Archie that *he* might not be involved in the investigation.
Drive in totals:
- Four dead bodies.
- Tear gas.
- Multiple Dobermans.
- Cramer taking a swing at Archie.
- Archie telling Theodore (Wolfe's orchid nurse) where to get off.
- Wolfe leaving the house on business.
- One Wolfe-pulls-out-the-stops meeting in the office.
- Arnold Zeck.
- Lily Rowan.
- Archie setting up on his own rather than continuing to draw salary (even though Marko has power of attorney and is authorized to pay it). He makes a point of attempting to earn more than his old salary. :)