On My Shelves: Nero Wolfe, Revisited

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Recently, I was in a discussion where I referred someone to the first version of this review/overview of one of the best series of mysteries ever written. To my surprise, the point I referred them to… wasn't there. I then found that, somehow, several pieces of the review had been left out.

Thus, having also recently re-read the entire series, I decided it would be worthwhile to re-publish this review – with some considerable and considered additions!

In a timeless brownstone in New York City, on West 35th Street, there lives a very unusual man. He is moody, arbitrary, arrogant, quite rotund and highly eccentric. He is also the best detective in the world ("Probably not. The best detective in the world may be a rude tribesman with a limited vocabulary.") – all right, one of the finest private detectives in the world… if you can afford him. He's expensive; has to be, as his fees must support his world-class gourmet lifestyle and the upkeep for the brownstone, his household, various expenses, and the extensive nursery of ten thousand orchids he tends every day, from nine in the morning until eleven sharp and again from four in the afternoon until six in the evening.

His name is Nero Wolfe.

I first encountered the Nero Wolfe novels in the Scotia library – a converted old mansion itself, which seemed somehow appropriate. I visited the library regularly because that was the meeting place for the local writer's group, which I belonged to for quite a while (I may write a bit on that group later). As I often got there earlier than the others, I would read until they arrived; one day, a thick book in the mystery section caught my eye and I took it down. The name of the author, Rex Stout, rang a faint bell, so I started reading.

I had to be called up by one of the other people, because I didn't notice them arriving. That was how strongly Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe grabbed and held my attention.

Undoubtedly one of the strongest reasons for it to work is the narrative voice. The Nero Wolfe novels are told universally from the first-person viewpoint of Archie Goodwin, Nero Wolfe's right-hand man, gadfly, backup, and living data repository. Archie is good enough to be a top-flight private detective on his own (as he gets to show a couple of times), but knows that Wolfe is better yet. Though there's a common point made of Wolfe's genius, it's made clear that Archie is actually very little behind Wolfe in many ways, and in some ways is quite superior. He will duel with Wolfe in verbal sparring matches that can get heated, and Wolfe does not always get the best of the deal.

Wolfe's most prominent peculiarity is his unwillingness to leave his comfortable house; in general, only immediate and dire threats to his life or liberty will induce him to leave it. Because of that, he needs an extension of his own capabilities that can go elsewhere, question people, examine scenes… and remember everything. Archie Goodwin has one unique talent; he has, apparently, a photographic memory, or as near as makes no difference. He can repeat conversations verbatim, hours after having them. This, combined with his experience in many levels of society and his quick wit, makes him an ideal choice as Wolfe's avatar.

Personality-wise, Archie is not much like his employer. He likes going out, he likes dating, he enjoys the world outside the brownstone – though he very much appreciates Wolfe's tastes as well. His narrative voice is dry, humorous, rarely cynical, usually surprisingly optimistic. He will stick an occasional verbal barb into his employer, but usually to get Wolfe to do something when Wolfe's being particularly stubborn for one of a number of reasons. This is, of course, a large part of why Wolfe hired him (although he'd rarely admit it): Archie is capable of finding even Wolfe's weak spots and poking at them, which keeps Nero Wolfe out of the kind of trouble he'd likely get himself into otherwise.

I loved the "tone" of Archie Goodwin a great deal, enough that he was probably the major influence on the tone in which I write Jason Wood's adventures. Wood isn't Goodwin, but Goodwin is a large part of Jason's ancestry, certainly.

The mysteries Nero Wolfe tackles are – like most classic mystery novels – almost invariably murders, or become murder after an apparently less extreme beginning. It may well be that it was Rex Stout who solidified the meme of a detective calling the interested parties into a room in order to go over the events of the case and, eventually, point out the murderer; others certainly did it before (Dame Agatha Christie, for instance), but it is so very much a part of Nero Wolfe's standard operating procedure that he must have codified it, and it is a useful tactic that he rarely varies.

Stout's mysteries themselves are generally good, solid puzzles, with more than enough turns and twists to keep you reading and scratching your head. They are, of course, quite dated now; the first Nero Wolfe story was printed in 1934 and the last, I believe, in 1974 – forty years later. Other people have occasionally tried their hand at writing them, but I think this is a mistake. There are some characters and "voices" that are virtually impossible to replicate without being the original author; one winds up with pastiche rather than actual continuation of the original. Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe is one of these.

While Wolfe is the "headliner", so to speak, I would tend to agree with many who think that it is really Archie Goodwin who's the protagonist, the main character of the stories. We watch everything from his point of view, we feel what he feels, and go through the challenges and sometimes dangers of the cases with him. Wolfe is a friend, an employer, sometimes a pain-in-the… rear obstacle, but not the main character of the series.

This isn't to say that Wolfe doesn't have his own voice; he does, and it's a powerful and emphatic one. I "hear" it in a particular tone in my head when I read, and Wolfe – along with some other sources – inspired much of the character, and almost all of the "voice", of the mysterious mage Konstantin Khoros. Despite his indolence, Wolfe is more than capable of startling feats of physical strength, speed, and endurance, and will not stint on any effort – mental or physical – when one of his few friends, or a client, is in real danger.

A minor, but notable, peculiarity in the series is that the main characters – Archie and Wolfe in particular – do not age. This is even brought into sharp relief in one story where a character who was first met in one of the 1930s stories shows up in the 1970s – he's aged while Wolfe and Archie haven't. No explanation is given, but this has occasionally given me the vision of Wolfe rising from behind his desk, brandishing a broadsword and bellowing, "THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE!… well, two. I really can't do without Archie."

For a modern reader, there are of course a number of other oddities and challenges. Perhaps the largest stem from the assumptions of the society of the 1930s and somewhat later and how these emerge in conversation and events. Racism, classism, sexism – so pervasive that to a great extent they're the ideological water our character-fish swim in. Archie judges every female to enter his view according to his personal preferences and can be – by any standards I was raised with – pretty arbitrary and pushy in his interactions with people.

Some of the assumptions can be gobsmacking. We're familiar with sexism today, and while Archie's behavior there is clearly very old-school it's not so far removed (unfortunately) from modern knowledge that we can't understand where he's getting it from… but to have it casually mentioned that a woman can't get their own checking account? That's the kind of thing that just blows me out of the mental water on occasion.

Similarly, the political elements can be startling; Archie ending up temporarily in the military with the rank of Major, coming home to find Wolfe and Fritz training to go join the army themselves – jingoistically saying they intend to "kill Germans" – really threw me for a loop. That really is a quote; Wolfe says that he'd apparently failed to kill enough of them in 1918. Politically, the Nero Wolfe novels cover a pretty fascinating span in time and attitude, going from pre-WWII and showing the development of concern about the Nazi party, through the actual war with patriotic flags flying, through the Red Scare and up through the Nixon years, and – especially for those of us who didn't live through them – can often have some strange and surprising tidbits on the then-prevalent assumptions and attitudes.

Other things can surprise you as well. Wolfe himself is nearly always described in terms appropriate for someone of truly heroic girth – elephantine, his weight given in fractions of a ton, being eye-searingly blinding in a canary-yellow shirt, causing an elevator to groan under his weight, requiring custom built chairs, waddling rather than striding, etc.

But the most oft-mentioned actual weights for him start with him at about 285 pounds ("one-seventh of a ton"). As of this writing, I'm about 20 pounds below that. I am, admittedly, much heavier than I should be, but I've never been described as a moving mountain, I don't need custom-built chairs, and I certainly don't waddle; I walk (or as Archie likes to say, stride) quite well, thanks. And Wolfe is about my age. Later on he is given weights up to 390, which seem more in keeping with the descriptions, but for many years that wasn't so.

I've idly wondered if that was because, back in the pre-WWII and actual war years, it was much harder for someone to get to be fat; perhaps that's the case. If so, then 285 might well have seemed huge, even if they really wouldn't loom like a tanker and have trouble fitting through doors.

Undoubtedly the most obvious change is money. Sixty-six dollars is an expensive car repair; in some places you can get a decent lunch for a dime. Wolfe rakes in extravagant fees… which if in today's money might manage to keep my family in my house. Since Wolfe first made his appearance, inflation's multiplied the money by over 18 times!

Still other oddities of the times crop up in different ways – ranging from the number of people who have multiple servants working for them, to the absolutely casual way that things like dangerous chemicals and even explosives are treated. Wolfe not only casually uses mixtures of nicotine and soap to kill off aphids, but has a system of "ciphogene gas" for fumigating his plant rooms when needed. While ciphogene itself is an invention of Stout's (along with other brand names of various objects in the series, such as the Heron automobile), in general name, use and action it is clearly modeled after war gases like phosegene. No one seems particularly surprised by this. There's strict gun laws in New York City, but people playing with explosives in their own buildings or building delivery systems for poison gases to keep insect pests at bay? No problem!

This is, of course, part of the appeal and power of the novels as well. You're stepping into a different time, a different society, and that difference helps set the stage, tell you "here's something new" even if, in fact, it's something old.

For those who have a taste for mystery, I recommend you make an appointment to visit that old brownstone. Make sure you're on time!

 

Comments

  1. ntwkgestapo says:

    Brings back Many memories! I read Rex Stout and Dell Shannon back in the ’60s. Nero Wolf, Archie Goodwin and Luis Mendoza, good times!

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