I discovered the detective story when I picked up my first Sherlock Holmes, somewhere around age 12. I read them all. I subsequently read Agatha Christie, then Ngaio Marsh, backtracked to Poe, and then hit on a detective I’d read about from Sherlockians, Nero Wolfe. I read my first Nero Wolfe in my mid-teens, and continued to read until they were gone.
I have continued, in my mystery-reading, to explore the worlds of Robert Parker, Tony Hillerman, a host of period mystery writers including Steven Saylor and Lindsay Davis, and more recently C.J. Sansom. I’ve read all Nevada Barr’s Anna Pidgeon novels and my share of ‘The Cat Who’ books (of which there will be no more, with the death of Lilian Jackson Braun a few days ago); I’ve dipped into noir with Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder and the grand-daddy of the genre, Raymond Chandler (the list is by no means exhaustive, and still lengthens). And I have loved them all. Last summer I undertook to re-read (in chronological order) all of the Robert Parker’s Spenser series and enjoyed it perhaps even more thoroughly than I did the first time, because I was able to note Spenser’s, Susan’s, and Hawk’s development as characters through the decades and also to observe how very precise and laser-like Parker’s prose became. In the last dozen or more books, he wrote so little and conveyed so much!
It occurred to me recently, based on my experience with the Spenser redux, that I might do the same with Nero Wolfe. I didn’t initially read them in chronological order, after all; I therefore undertook to re-assemble my Nero Wolfe library, and once that was accomplished, I jumped in. Fer-de-Lance, then The League of Frightened Men, and now several chapters into The Rubber Band I realized that I’d like to write posts for this blog on the books as I read them—some 45 years after I started reading them. These posts will not be reviews, of course, Rex Stout needs that like Archie needs more of Nero’s errands to run; they will instead be reflections on each novel in turn.
Fer-de-Lance is the novel where we meet Nero Wolfe, seen through the eyes of Archie Goodwin. Archie is a smoker in this novel, but not often. As I recall, that habit will drop off in a few books. Inspector Cramer also lights his tobacco, a cigar in this one, but a pipe, I believe, in League. The plot is intricate, multi-layered, and reminds me of those hateful 500-piece jigsaw puzzles that are a solid color.
Much of Nero Wolfe’s character is revealed in this first work. Wolfe the philosopher: early on, he remarks, on tasting the fifth sample of his first commercial, post-Prohibition beer, “This is a pleasant surprise, Archie. I would not have believed it. That of course is the advantage of being a pessimist; a pessimist gets nothing but pleasant surprises, an optimist nothing but unpleasant. So far, none of this is sewage.” (p 3, Bantam edition 0-553-27819-3). On his priorities: “Pray for this side [of a newspaper page], Archie. If it’s this one we shall have an Angraecum sesquipedale for Christmas.” (p 21) On his affect: “The folds of his cheeks pulled away a little from the corners of his mouth; when he did that he thought he was smiling.” (p 34) On being over-Archied: “Some day, Archie, when I decide you are no longer worth tolerating, you will have to marry a woman of very modest mental capacity to get an appropriate audience for your wretched sarcasms.” (p 54) One reason why he never leaves his home on business: “…I understand the technique of eccentricity; it would be futile for a man to labor at establishing a reputation for oddity if her were ready at the slightest provocation to revert to normal action.” Archie tantalizes the reader with mention of previous cases never chronicled; we learn of Fritz’ culinary mastery (kidneys and waffles for Archie’s breakfast?) and Horstmann’s invaluable status with the orchids. We quickly learn of Inspector Cramer’s bombast as well as the implicit regard he has for Wolfe. However, the critical component of this novel is that the reader witnesses first-hand the dynamic which is the relationship between Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe, the quintessential irresistible force and immovable object. Without Archie, Wolfe would sink into one of his relapses, sell off the orchids and retire to the house in Egypt he owns but has never seen. Archie would find another position, and quickly, because of his combination of quick-witted fearlessness and native intelligence. And the world of the mystery genre would be so irreplaceably the poorer for it!
Next: The League of Frightened Men.
[The image is from the Wolfe Pack, http://www.nerowolfe.org, which I’ve recently joined and which has hundreds of pages of material on Nero Wolfe titles, as well as other things Rex Stout. Highly recommended!)