Nero Wolfe: The League of Frightened Men
We learn rather a lot more about Nero Wolfe in The League of Frightened Men (Pyramid Books, 1963). The plot concerns a group of Harvard upperclassmen who caused, through hazing the undergraduate Paul Chapin, Chapin’s 3-story fall and subsequent lifelong crippling. Decades later, two of the hazers have died, and each survivor receives a poem that could only have been penned by Chapin, now a successful writer; some of these guilt-ridden men come to Wolfe. Here’s another complex plot; even though I read the book (ok, 40 years ago), I still missed (again!) what was one of the major dénouements of the story.
In League, we’re treated to some of the lengths Archie goes to impel Wolfe to action; or maybe just to bug him. The book opens with Wolfe’s having his customary beer while looking through a book of snowflake photographs. “Looking at him, I said to myself, ‘He’s in a battle with the elements. He’s fighting his way through a raging blizzard, just sitting there comfortably looking at pictures of snowflakes. That’s the advantage of being an artist, of having imagination.’ I said aloud, ‘You mustn’t go to sleep, sir, it’s fatal. You freeze to death.” (p5) We learn of one of Wolfe’s annoyance tells: “”He did not lift his eyes from the page, his head did not move, there was no stirring of his massive frame in the specially constructed enormous chair behind his desk; but I saw his right forefinger wiggle faintly—his minatory wand, as he once called it—and I knew I had him. He said: ‘Archie. Shut up.’” (p6) Of course, Wolfe can, when he can be bothered, give Archie as good as he gets. Archie remarks, “’If I sit here about two more days I’ll be so damn goofy I won’t know anything.’ Wolfe’s eyes flickered faintly. ‘I would not care to seem mystic, but might not that, in your case, mean an increase?’” (p9)
We are allowed to peer into the depths of Wolfe’s—is it agoraphobia? Or is it rather, that having travelled the world, roughing it through some of the most dangerous territory imaginable, now that he has a home that suits him, he prefers not to leave it? Archie tries to get him to take a look at a taxi driver across the street, one of the hazers; he says “He won’t come in. He may not be workable at the present moment, but I was thinking of suggesting that you go out and look at him.’ ‘Out?’ Wolfe raised his head at me. ‘Out and down the stoop? ’Yeah, just on the sidewalk, you wouldn’t have to step off the curb. He’s right there.’ Wolfe shut his eyes. ‘I don’t know, Archie. I don’t know why you persist in trying to badger me into frantic sorties. Dismiss the notion entirely. It is not feasible.’” (p84)
We read some tantalizing hints about Wolfe’s past relationships with women; he says, “The things a woman will think of are beyond belief. I knew a woman once in Hungary whose husband had frequent headaches. It was he custom to relieve them by the devoted application of cold compresses. It occurred to her one day to stir into the water with which she wetted the compresses a large quantity of a penetrating poison whish she had herself distilled from an herb. The result was gratifying to her. The man on whom she tried the experiment was myself. The woman—“ (p87) And again, inspecting some intimate women’s garments: “Wolfe … held up a stocking to look through it at the light. To see him handling female hosiery as if he understood it gave me a new insight into the extent of his pretensions. He held up another one, dropped it back gently to the table, and took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his hands, carefully, fingers and palms.” (p93) Was it the odor of a woman’s perfume he was cleaning from his hands, or was it the actual molecules of the woman’s skin, transferred to his own, he hoped to remove?
And, in this book, we get to witness first-hand one of the very few times Archie is bested, verbally, by someone other than Wolfe: Mike Ayers, a reporter and one of the hazers, has come for an interview. “I poured him another drink and he sat down and held onto it and crossed his legs. ‘Tell me,’ he said, ‘is it true that Nero Wolfe was a eunuch in a Cairo harem and got his start in life by collecting testimonials from the girls for Pyramid Dental Cream?’ Like an ass, for half a second I was sore. ‘Listen,’—I said, ‘Nero Wolfe is exactly—‘ Then I stopped and laughed. ‘Sure,’ I said. ‘Except that he wasn’t a eunuch, he was a camel.’” (p36)
Already, in but the second book of the series, the reader can tell that it’s going to be a lovely ride!