Under the Influence: Nero Wolfe

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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 (over 300 pounds) 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 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. 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 almost 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; 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, but 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 more mundane 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 part of Nero Wolfe's standard operating procedure and 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 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 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. Alas, this is one of the several series which I have experienced only via television. Like Perry Mason. You hear a particular “voice” when you read the book. I associate a particular actor.

    I have a Kindle now. I could accumulate a few Rex Stout books. But I’d still see that fat man in my head, and TV went a long way to making Archie a secondary character.

    • Gary, if you’re thinking of the (very good) A & E series with Maury Chaykin as Wolfe and Timothy Hutton as Goodwin, I can see your point without sharing it – I thought that the series had inspired casting, and remarkably faithful adherence to the stories, but Archie still got the spotlight.

      Of course, I’ll admit that I first encountered them both in written form many years ago; my grandfather was an avid mystery reader and I first encountered characters such as Wolfe, Holmes, Wimsey, and McGee on his shelves. And years later my grades suffered when I found an even wider selection of Wolfe in the stacks of my college library.

      So I already had a very clear mental image of Nero Wolfe; unlike the various incarnations of Peter Wimsey on BBC that ignored his physical appearance, the A & E series did its best to match everything in the books – characters, setting, ambiance, and storylines. Seeing Chaykin as Wolfe had a strange shock of recognition precisely because he WAS Wolfe, while Hutton as Archie did a masterful job as his legman, gadfly, and occasional conscience.

      And now, after seeing Ryk’s essay, I’ll always imagine Khoros speaking with Maury Chaykin’s voice. Though even at 7+ feet in height I imagine Khoros weighs a bit less than “a seventh of a ton”.

  2. David Carrico says:

    I particularly like Randall Garrett’s homage to Stout and Goodwin in his Lord Darcy novel “Too Many Magicians”. Quite good.

Your comments or questions welcomed!