The Pequod Review:
Rex Stout (1886-1975) was the creator of the private detective Nero Wolfe, one of the most memorable and eccentric characters in all of detective fiction. Wolfe is in many respects an objectionable individual — selfish, curmudgeonly, egotistical, and indolent. He would prefer to be spending time in his greenhouse tending to his orchids, and can usually only be roused to action early in the year when his marginal tax rates are low. But the redeeming pleasure of Wolfe is that our impressions of him are filtered through Archie Goodwin, his dutiful and reliable assistant. Goodwin may not have the immediate brilliance of Wolfe but through his doggedness and street smarts he is far more essential to actually solving the cases. Because Goodwin excuses Wolfe’s faults, so do we — and Wolfe becomes merely an entertaining eccentric, who when bothered can provide crucial insights, but mostly hangs in the background while Goodwin does the real work.
The obvious parallel to Wolfe & Goodwin is Holmes & Watson, but Stout’s creation is far superior to Doyle’s. He is a better stylist, with witty prose and very funny interplay between Wolfe and Goodwin, and has far better characterization. (The plots of both series are equally average.) To begin a Nero Wolfe novel is to slip into a comfortable old shoe; the characters are familiar and interesting, and populate the memorable setting of Wolfe’s townhouse on West 35th Street in New York City. I feel like I know Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin better than some members of my own family.
It is worth quoting the opening pages to show how Stout pulls you into Wolfe’s and Goodwin’s world. Here is the start of this book, The League of Frightened Men:
Wolfe and I sat in the office Friday afternoon. As it turned out, the name of Paul Chapin, and his slick and thrifty notions about getting vengeance at wholesale without paying for it, would have come to our notice pretty soon in any event; but that Friday afternoon the combination of an early November rain and a lack of profitable business that had lasted so long it was beginning to be painful, brought us an opening scene—a prologue, not a part of the main action—of the show that was about ready to begin.
Wolfe was drinking beer and looking at pictures of snowflakes in a book someone had sent him from Czechoslovakia. I was reading the morning paper, off and on. I had read it at breakfast, and glanced through it again for half an hour after checking accounts with Hortsmann at eleven o’clock, and here I was with it once more in the middle of the rainy afternoon, thinking halfheartedly to find an item or two that would tickle the brain which seemed about ready to dry up on me. I do read books, but I never yet got any real satisfaction out of one; I always have a feeling there’s nothing alive about it, it’s all dead and gone, what’s the use, you might as well try to enjoy yourself on a picnic in a graveyard. Wolfe asked me once why the devil I ever pretended to read a book, and I told him for cultural reasons, and he said I might as well forgo the pains, that culture was like money, it comes easiest to those who need it least. Anyway, since it was a morning paper and this was the middle of the afternoon, and I had already gone through it twice, it wasn’t much better than a book and I was only hanging onto it as an excuse to keep my eyes open.
Wolfe seemed absorbed in the pictures. 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.”
Wolfe turned a page, paying no attention to me. I said, “The shipment from Caracas, from Richardt, was twelve bulbs short. I never knew him to make good a shortage.”
Still no result. I said, “Fritz tells me that the turkey they sent is too old to broil and will be tough unless it is roasted two hours, which according to you will attenuate the flavor. So the turkey at forty-one cents a pound will be a mess.”
Wolfe turned another page. I stared at him a while and then said, “Did you see the piece in the paper about the woman who has a pet monkey which sleeps at the head of her bed and wraps its tail around her wrist? And keeps it there all night? Did you see the one about the man who found a necklace on the street and returned it to its owner and she claimed he stole two pearls from it and had him arrested? Did you see the one about the man on the witness-stand in a case about an obscene book, and the lawyer asked him what was his purpose in writing the book, and he said because he had committed a murder and all murderers had to talk about their crimes and that was his way of talking about it? Not that I get the idea, about the author’s purpose. If a book’s dirty it’s dirty, and what’s the difference how it got that way? The lawyer says if the author’s purpose was a worthy literary purpose the obscenity don’t matter. You might as well say that if my purpose is to throw a rock at a tin can it don’t matter if I hit you in the eye with it. You might as well say that if my purpose is to buy my poor old grandmother a silk dress it don’t matter if I grabbed the jack from a Salvation Army kettle. You might as well say—”
I stopped. I had him. 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.”
I grinned. “Not a chance, sir. Great God, am I just going to sit here until I die? Shall I phone Pinkertons and ask if they want a hotel room watched or something? If you keep a keg of dynamite around the house you’ve got to expect some noise sooner or later. That’s what I am, a keg of dynamite. Shall I go to a movie?”
Wolfe’s huge head tipped forward a sixteenth of an inch, for him an emphatic nod. “By all means: At once.”
The book continues in this vein, with witty repartee between Wolfe and Goodwin, as the death of two men and the disappearance of another lead them to investigate a Harvard hazing prank decades earlier.