Compose yourself, Archie. Why taunt me?
Why upbraid me? I am merely a genius, not a god.
Rex Stout was in the midst of an unusually interesting life (including being a child math prodigy and serving on President Theodore Roosevelt's yacht) when he created one of the great detective series of all time, introducing Nero Wolfe for the first of 72 adventures in Fer-de-Lance. The brilliance of Stout's creation lies in the blending of Wolfe--an eccentric, elephantine, misanthropic, misogynistic, beer guzzling, gourmand--and his footman, Archie Goodwin--a classic, wise cracking, hard boiled dick. The combination, sort of like teaming Mycroft Holmes and Sam Spade, allowed him to use the best elements of both the British drawing room mystery and the American private eye novel. The result has enchanted readers for almost 70 years. Fans include everyone from Oliver Wendell Holmes to PG Wodehouse, James M. Cain to Kingsley Amis.
Nero Wolfe, logging in around 280 lbs and quaffing 6 quarts of beer a day, rarely leaves his 35th Street brownstone in Manhattan, preferring to tend his orchids and worry over the exquisite meals prepared by his butler/chef Fritz. To support his high living, Wolfe takes on investigations in a very unofficial capacity, relying on Goodwin to do the physical work and periodically summoning the principals in a case to his home for an exhibition of his deductive genius. His arrogant manner is nicely captured in the following admonition to a sporting goods salesman who has condescendingly demonstrated the proper use of golf clubs:
You know, Mr. Townsend, it is our good fortune that
the exigencies of birth and training furnish all
Meanwhile, Archie narrates the stories in the familiar sardonic banter of the great noir novels:
When I consider the different kinds I've seen it
seems silly to say it, but somehow to me all lawyers
This sets up an amusing dramatic tension between the two, as when Nero tells Archie:
Sit down. I would prefer to have you here,
idle and useless...As I have remarked before, to have
Lest it seem that Wolfe is to much of an egomaniac to be tolerated, Archie makes it clear that he stays around just for the sheer joy of watching the elephantine savant in action and Wolfe himself acknowledges that much of his facade is mere pretense when a District Attorney commands his presence in Westchester, he tells Archie to refuse, saying "I understand the technique of eccentricity; it would be futile for a man to labor at establishing a reputation for oddity if he were ready at the slightest provocation to revert to normal action." And Wolfe sometimes lets slip his admiration for Archie, telling a witness in the case, "Mr. Goodwin is a man of discretion, common decency and immeasurable valor."
It has long been a theory of mine that if you create characters of sufficient interest to enrapture your audience, you can get away with not always cranking out a top flight story, we'll show up just to spend some time with familiar friends (this carried Magnum PI and Cheers through some mighty lean episodes & even whole seasons). Nero and Archie are always worth a visit, never more so than in this their inaugural case.
See also:Private Eyes
-ESSAY: Eccentricity and Domesticity: The World of the Nero Wolfe Mysteries (Benjamin Welton, July 15th, 2014, Imaginative Conservative)
-REVIEW: REX STOUT: A CRIME READER'S GUIDE TO THE CLASSICS: Nero Wolfe, Archie Goodwin, and a Crime Fiction Legend (NEIL NYREN, 8/23/19, CrimeReads)
-ESSAY: Rex Stout on the Air (Matt Barton, curator of the Recorded Sound Section, 10/14/20, Library of Congress)
Book-related and General Links:
-Rex Stout (1896-1975)
-Nero Wolfe Site
-Nero Wolfe/Rex Stout Page
-Merely a Genius: A fan site dedicated to Nero Wolfe and his creator, Rex Stout
-The Art of Nero Wolfe
-Nero Wolfe's Orchids: text and photos by Raphael Carter
-West 35th Street: Introduction to Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe Mysteries
-A Stout Fellow: David Langford flips idly through some 1992 Nero Wolfe reissues.
-ETEXT: Under the Andes by Rex Stout Hypertext Meanings and Commentaries by Mark Zimmerman
-TV PROGRAM: The Golden Spiders (A&E)
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd