Mark Richardson —
Classic detective fiction has occupied a lot of my time during this year of pandemic. I have always loved good detective fiction, and I have taken this opportunity to re-read many of my old favorites—Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald, Harry Kemelman, and the magnificent Rex Stout, creator of the reclusive, impatient, pompous, obese genius, Nero Wolfe and his eyes, ears, and voice of reason, Archie Goodwin.
Detective fiction has been one of my greatest pleasures since I was a boy. I had been reading Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen and other mysteries I found since I was eleven or twelve. I loved them. I had read nearly everything Christie had written, and her output was prolific. I had gone on reading her even when she had seemingly lost her faculties and poured out senseless drivel that somehow still saw publication. I knew the movie “The Maltese Falcon,” and was pretty certain that I was ready to read Hammett. I loved the classic mystery about the Black Bird, and began to look for other such mysteries to devour. There was no internet in those days, so learning who were considered the great mystery writers was a chore. But, with help at the school library, I soon knew some names. I began reading those classic writers, and I knew it was the good stuff.
I have always kept an eye out for new authors of good detective fiction, and when I find a good one I go all in, trying to read all of their works, in the order written. So many series’ have recurring characters, many times adding new characters who then join the cast as the series proceeds. So I find that reading them in order is always beneficial. One of these esteemed writers was Rex Stout, creator of Nero Wolfe.
Nero Wolfe (whose initials are the same, and in the same order, as those in the name Sherlock Holmes), is an obese connoisseur of gourmet food, a nurturer of the finest orchids in the world, a guzzler of anywhere from twelve to twenty imported beers a day, and the most brilliant, logical, and obstinate detective since Holmes himself, a genius by any measure. Wolfe is narcissistic, egotistical, and infuriatingly condescending. He has little patience for those of a lesser intellect, and that entails nearly everyone. His detection method, one of observation and inference, echoes that of Holmes.
As we only know Holmes through Dr. Watson, and we only know Hercule Poirot through Captain Hastings, so we only know Wolfe through his assistant, Archie Goodwin. Archie is a dashing thirty-ish, very athletic, intelligent, wise cracking bachelor who lives with Wolfe in the famous brownstone on West 35th St., in New York City. Archie narrates all of the Wolfe stories, and his salty comments and colorful descriptions enliven the books to a delightful level. Also in residence at Wolfe’s home are Fritz Brenner, the chef, and Theodore Horstmann, a gardener who specializes in the care of orchids. The upper floor of the brownstone is an orchid room, filled with thousands of the world’s finest orchids, rare and beautiful. Like his beer and his food, Wolfe has any newly acquired flowers delivered to his door from anyplace in the world. He is a true connoisseur of the finer things. Outside the home are a few characters who crop up over and over again as well. Inspector Cramer, the quick to anger but willing-to-allow-some-leeway homicide detective, has his run-ins with Wolfe, and is continuously out-witted by the PI, but is ever ready to enlist Wolfe’s assistance when his own wherewithal isn’t sufficient. Saul Panzer is an accomplished private detective who Wolfe often employs as an extra operative. Saul is after Archie’s job, and in several stories Wolfe uses this as a threat to get Archie back in line. Nevertheless, Archie and Saul are friends who have a great deal of mutual respect. Fred Durkin is another private snoop, not nearly as bright as the others but often useful to Wolfe, and Orrie Cather, still another private eye, very good, not as good as Saul or Archie, always ready to help when Wolfe calls. These characters came together in a total of seventy two Wolfe stories, nearly all of which were “unsolvable” murder mysteries with all of the clues laid clearly before the reader.
Rex Stout was a child prodigy, his math skills evident at the age of three. His parents home featured a large library containing hundreds of books, all of which he had read by the age of eight. His recognition as a genius set him apart from other children, and books were his refuge. In his young adulthood, he developed a banking system which was adopted by nearly all of the banks in the United States and Canada. He first tried his hand at writing in 1913 with his novel Her Forbidden Knight, which, while not a blockbuster, was well received. He went on to publish seven other novels before he wrote his first Nero Wolfe mystery, Fer-de-Lance, in 1934. Nero Wolfe, was an immediate hit.
Wolfe’s luxurious home doubles as his office. Because he disdains travel, and only leaves his house on those few occasions which absolutely demand he do so, Wolfe can be found at home any time. (That does not mean that he can be seen at any time.) Archie, Fritz and Theodore all have their own large, comfortable rooms. Wolfe, in his room, rises each morning at 8:00 and has his breakfast, prepared by Fritz. From 9:00 until 11:00 he is in the orchid room with Theodore, tending to his beauties. At 11:00, he descends to his office, where he remains until 4:00. Lunch is usually served in his office at 1:00. From 4:00 until 6:00 he is back with the orchids. No one, and nothing, is allowed to impose upon this schedule. If the president of the United States rings the bell at 4:15 with a dire national emergency that requires Wolfe’s intellect, he is told to call back after 6:00. When faced with unpleasantness, which for Wolfe, includes most things on earth, he becomes petulant, dour, and nasty. One of cut-up Archie’s roles is to bring Wolfe out of these dark moods and stir his creative thinking abilities.
As would probably be expected, Rex Stout was an avid reader of mysteries. He felt that mystery writers too often cheated, not giving the reader all the clues needed to solve the case until the final page or two. He was a purist who believed in following the established conventions of the genre, for instance, the presentation of vital evidence as the story goes along rather than tossing it out at the reader for the first time as the book concludes with the detective’s summation. He throws out many red herrings, but the real clues are always there for all to see. He believes in the nobility of the detective’s motives. Despite Wolfe’s enjoyment of the finest things in life, and in making the money necessary to their support, he, sometimes guided by Archie’s sense of right, acts to end threats to society and to pursue justice. He has even been known to forego his fee on rare occasions, when his sense of decency has intruded upon him.
Yet, his arrogance and snobbishness notwithstanding, we like Wolfe. We like Wolfe, I think, because we like Archie. Archie is one of us. He’s a down to earth, regular guy who makes us laugh. A lot. He is a very capable investigator in his own right, an observer of detail nonpareil. He has a very strong sense of morality, which guides his actions. The same might be said of Wolfe. It is often necessary, though, that Wolfe choose his cases based upon the monetary reward, while he is often reluctant to choose high-paying clients. Archie, with his eye on household finances and an understanding of Wolfe’s penchant for excessive spending, tries to steer the detective more toward the money. While Wolfe is unwieldy and sedentary, Archie is lithe and athletic. He loves and admires Wolfe, but sees, and takes great joy in pointing out, Wolfe’s foibles. He is in many ways Wolfe’s undisciplined son, and Wolfe would be hopeless and helpless without him. This filial affection is not lost upon Wolfe. He understands exactly how much he needs Archie, and he, in his own inimical way, returns Archie’s affection. It is for this very reason that he likes to toy with Archie, threatening at every turn to fire Archie and hire Saul Panzer in his place. Archie is always half-inclined to believe that Wolfe may do so, and knowing this, Wolfe takes devilish delight in making Archie squirm. This affection is present throughout the household. Fritz and Theodore, both long in Wolfe’s employ and intimately familiar with all of his quirks, are loyal and faithful…I don’t want to say “employees” or “servants”, it’s much more than that…friends, who, on a few occasions over the years, have been called upon to lay down their lives for Wolfe, and have done so nobly and willingly.
Most of Wolfe’s clients arrive at his doorstep in search of a private investigator who can help them out of some sort of trouble. Almost invariably, that trouble escalates very quickly into a more serious type, ending in murder. Like Watson, Archie always attempts to solve the case before Wolfe can. And, again like Holmes’ dear companion, he fails time and again. He thinks he has it solved. He is certain of it. But, he is always, like the rest of us, left to marvel as Nero Wolfe, in his final chapter summation, expounds upon just whodunit, and how, and why.
All of these actors make for some of the most remarkable stories in the detective fiction genre. When his first Nero Wolfe book, Fer-de-Lance, was published, it was an immediate success. Stout knew that he had a winner in Wolfe, and he developed a whole slate of future stories in his gifted mind. He followed up Fer-de-Lance with The League of Frightened Men in 1935, and then followed with The Rubber Band, The Red Box, Too Many Cooks, and Some Buried Caesar. He continued this output, without ever losing his ability to present fresh situations and fresh humor. By this time he was recognized as one of detective fiction’s masters, and he never let up, penning Nero Wolfe stories right up to his death in 1975. (Another manuscript, found after his death, was a final Wolfe book published in 1985 under the title Death Times Three.)
It is always a pleasure to crack open a Nero Wolfe mystery and begin reading. It is hard to put Stout down, and his books are written to be read in one or two sittings. If you haven’t read Nero Wolfe before, you’ll be glad if you do so. If you have read him, you are probably already eager to read more. I would, as I said, recommend reading the books in chronological order, so as to keep up with the introduction of new characters and the references to previous cases. However, the books all do stand alone and can be read with perfect sense in any order. So surround yourself with rare orchids, pop open an imported beer, sit back with a saucer full of $4000.00 truffles, and enjoy the wittiest of all our mystery writers.