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Nero Wolfe Revisited

By: 22 June 2010 2 Comments

Fer-De-LanceI recently moved and ever since I have been occupied with reorganizing my books.

To be sure it is a laborious, time consuming joy, but not one without its complications. Sadly I did not find any way to pack my books without completely discombobulating their order.

I am not bound by the alphabet or the Dewey Decimal system, but I am bound to a certain kind of contextual organization that allows me to recall the location of any title without resorting to actually cataloging them. If I have to explain to you why Franz Kafka, Frederick Nietzsche, and the Complete Peanuts are on the same shelf, it’s no look out to me. Obviously there’s no hope for you, but still, you have my best wishes for a complete recovery from whatever cerebral injury you’ve suffered.

As I was opening boxes and doing my best to refrain from re-reading every book I touched, I happened across a box of detective novels I haven’t read in a long time. Most of these are books my father bought many years ago so there are twenty or thirty Perry Mason novels, a half dozen each of Mike Shayne and Lew Archer, and a handful of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels that were bought by my mother sometime in the late eighties or early nineties.

I remember having read the Nero Wolfe books and all of the ones I could find in the library as well in the years that I was too poor to buy new books. I always liked them so I couldn’t resist and I have revisited the Nero Wolfe novels. I had a few unpleasant surprises in returning to the stories, but also a couple of pleasant ones.

There are a couple of main schools of mystery novels; in broad terms there are the cerebral, British style whodunits with there usually upper class amateur sleuths, and then there are the American style detective novels with the hard drinking private detectives. In the Nero Wolfe stories you get the best of both worlds, again, broadly speaking. The novels are narrated by Nero Wolfe’s right hand man, Archie Goodwin, who is a Midwesterner, a bit of a lady’s man, and certainly a man of action when necessary.

In Wolfe you have the eccentric genius who solves mysteries for purely financial reasons. After all it costs a pretty penny to care for ten thousand orchids, retain a gourmet chef, and maintain his daily intake of six quarts of beer.

One of the things that struck me on re-reading these books is that at Wolfe’s rate of beer consumption he must not have ever solved a mystery without being thoroughly buzzed. It’s not right up there with Sherlock Holmes’s issues with cocaine, but it is a fairly amazing thing that anything more complicated than the TV Guide crossword ever gets solved in that house.

Another thing that struck me in the earlier novels (Fer-de-Lanceand Too Many Cooks)was that Rex Stout felt no compunction in having Archie use racial slurs. Wolfe never does, and by example at least repudiates Archie’s racism. In the later novels, written during the sixties Archie is at least as liberal as Wolfe in his antipathy to racism.

Whether that is a result of Archie being enlightened by the civil rights movement or Rex Stout being enlightened is a toss-up in my mind. Presumably, Stout was always on Wolfe’s side of the matter, but the passages in Fer-de-Lance aren’t written as an argument for tolerance as the ones in Too Many Cooks seem to be. It’s hard to judge him too harshly; the book was written in 1934 a time when racist terms were used reflexively, without overt thought or calculated intent by millions of Americans. Still, it’s jarring to run across terms like “Spiggoty” in reference to Spaniards or “Smoke” in reference to black people.

Another thing that struck me was that the actual plots of the stories just don’t amount to much. For that reason alone they lend themselves to multiple readings. In some detective novels, John Dickson Carr’s for example, the whodunit is the entire value of the story. If it weren’t for the puzzle there would be no point in it and consequently if you know the answer to the puzzle there is nothing to compel you to read it a second time. My recollection of the Nero Wolfe stories was that they were puzzlers.

In point of fact I can almost guarantee you that the reveal of the murderers, while dramatic and well staged, will not provide much of a eureka moment for you. What Stout did well however, was to create an atmosphere of detection and if there really isn’t much to figure out, and if, in fact, many of the plots seem hopelessly contrived, at least he keeps the pages turning.

More than most of his contemporaries, Rex Stout understood that his audience was returning not for puzzles but for the company of his characters and it is in the peculiar relationship of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin that the stories derive their value. Wolfe is at times imperious and at other times childish, always vain and frequently insulting, despite that Archie only quits him four or five times over the course of the series. They seem to constantly badger and bait each other and yet there is something bordering on affection in Wolfe’s patient explanations of the perfectly (to him) obvious solutions, while Archie openly admires Wolfe’s genius at least when he’s out of Wolfe’s earshot.

One of the other things that Stout did well, not just well, flawlessly actually, was to provide you with the complete setup in every single story without ever making it feel forced or coming across as mere exposition. Think about how difficult it must be to do that. For over forty years in every single story he managed to work in the details of Wolfe’s daily schedule, two daily sessions with the orchids, his meals served like clockwork, lunch at one fifteen and at dinner at eight. In every story he manages to work in the details of Wolfe’s beer consumption his eclectic reading, his aversion to physical contact, his refusal to leave his home except under duress. All of that is effortlessly conveyed in every single one of the stories.

If you don’t think that’s hard, try to imagine a superman TV show where in every single episode they had to tell you that he’s nuts about Lois but Lois doesn’t think much of Clark Kent, he can be killed by kryptonite, he came to earth in a spaceship as an infant because his home world of Krypton exploded, and Lex Luthor is his arch nemesis. That’s in addition to the actual story. Believe me the way Rex Stout imparts this information is one of his most impressive achievements.

I’ve read most of the Nero Wolfe stories at one time or another, I probably won’t interrupt the reorganization of my books for the sake of buying any new printings, but if you are of a mind to, I would recommend starting with the first one, Fer-de-Lance, and working your way forward from there. The novels are not exactly episodic but there are elements that carry over from one to the next and it really would be more satisfying to come across those items in their proper sequence. In particular leave A Family Affairfor last. It was the last Nero Wolfe novel published during Stout’s lifetime and it serves as a fitting endpoint, but without spoiling it for anyone it would make you read many of the earlier novels with a bit of a jaundiced eye.

Oh well, back to the shelving.

Bonus points if you can figure out why Nero Wolfe belongs on the shelf below Faulkner.

About: Edwin E. Smith:
Edwin E. Smith is a poet, heckuva writer and all around swell guy. Send him an email at edwinesmith@gmail.com or visit him on the Internet at edwinesmith.com

2 Comments »

  • Chris said:

    Excellent essay! You really hit the nail on the head. The fun in the Wolfe stories is the trip to that brownstone and hanging out with the characters. You really feel like they’re old friends and despite Wolfe’s prickly qualities you kind of miss the guy when you haven’t read about him in a while.

    Those Lew Archers hold up pretty well, too.

    Chris Cunnyngham, Strange & Mysterious Facts Examiner

  • Edwin E. Smith said:

    Yeah, I always liked the Lew Archer stories, not quite so hardboiled as the Dashiel Hammett stuff, but with a little more believable motivation for he antagonists.

    I’m afraid the Perry Mason stuff has not held up as well for me. Tried to read two of them and got mind numbingly bored within twenty pages. Of course Erle Stanley Gardner wrote over eighty Perry Mason novels so it’s possible I just randomly picked two of the lesser efforts. I certainly enjoyed the heck out of them when I was fifteen.

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