It will come as no surprise to anyone who has looked at this blog or listened to these podcasts to find that I am an enthusiastic fan of Rex Stout and, in particular, his novels about Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. A quick check of my "backlist" page will find that I have already reviewed 22 of Stout's books - 21 of them featuring Wolfe and Goodwin. (The one non-Wolfe story, Double for Death, features a detective named "Tecumseh Fox." Worth reading, but not really in the same league.)
In looking back in the vault, I find that the very first Nero Wolfe book reviewed on the podcast nearly a decade ago was The Final Deduction (1961). In my comments, I included a great many of the reasons why Wolfe and Archie and Stout have become so much a part of my mystery-reading life. Here's a slightly edited version of what I had to say:
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Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin take on a kidnapping and double murder in The Final Deduction, by Rex Stout.
I must admit that I am hopelessly devoted to Rex Stout’s novels about Nero Wolfe. And, at the same time, I freely admit that Nero Wolfe just may be the most irritating detective character ever created.
After all – the man is impossible.
He is fat, grossly fat. Archie refers frequently to Wolfe’s “seventh of a ton – in fact, in The Final Deduction, he says specifically that Wolfe weighs 285 pounds.
He is lazy, hopelessly lazy. If Archie didn’t constantly prod him, he would never move – except, perhaps, to and from the dinner table.
He is arrogant. He is rude. He rarely leaves the house – and almost never does so to work. He barely tolerates females.
No, Wolfe is impossible. We don’t really read the novels for Wolfe.
We read them because of Archie. Archie Goodwin, Rex Stout’s narrator, who functions as Wolfe’s arms and legs, his eyes and ears outside the house.
Archie is unlike most other fictional sidekicks. He isn’t the well-meaning but often bumbling associate that Dr. Watson is for Sherlock Holmes. He isn’t the blithering idiot that Hastings is to Hercule Poirot. Archie is smart in his own right – although he is the first to admit that he doesn’t have Wolfe’s genius. We tolerate Wolfe and respect and even admire him because Archie does.
And we read the novels and the novellas for the rest of the regular characters. We read them for Fritz Brenner, Wolfe’s marvelous cook, who serves up gourmet meal after gourmet meal. We read them for the orchids, Wolfe’s other passion besides food. We read them for the often-hired detectives who help out – Saul Panzer, and Fred Durkin and Orrie Cather. We read them for cigar-chewing Inspector Cramer, whose love-hate relationship with Wolfe is marvelous. We read them for Lily Rowan, whose long-standing relationship with Archie is at best ambiguous.
And we read for the delicious writing, in Archie’s voice. Here’s Archie, describing one of his dinners at Wolfe’s table:
“As I helped myself to clams I held my breath, because if you smell them, mixed with shallots, chives, chervil, mushrooms, bread crumbs, sherry, and dry white wine, you take so many that you don’t leave enough room for the duckling roasted in cider with Spanish sauce as revised by Wolfe and Fritz, leaving out the carrot and parsley and putting anchovies in.”
I don’t know about you, but I can practically taste that.
Archie’s descriptions of other characters are wonderful at giving a flavor of those characters’ personalities in a remarkably few words. In The Final Deduction, here’s his description of one rather unpleasant woman who comes to see Wolfe one evening. Note that Archie has predicted to Wolfe that she would be late:
“I don’t know how Wolfe first got the notion that when I’ve had one good look at a woman and heard her speak, especially if she’s under thirty, I can answer any question he wants to ask about her, but I know he still has it, chiefly on account of little items like my saying that Margot Tedder wouldn’t be punctual. She was twenty-five minutes late. Of course, if she had been on time, I would have commented that she must need some ready cash quick. When you once get a reputation, or it gets you, you’re stuck with it for good. I have said that from hearsay she kept her chin up so she could look down her nose, and her manners when she entered the old brownstone didn’t contradict it.”
That gives you a pretty good idea of the personality of the person he’s describing. That level of writing persists throughout all the Nero Wolfe stories.
The Final Deduction begins with Wolfe being hired to guarantee the safe recovery of a kidnapping victim. There are soon two murders to be solved, and a great deal of money to be made by Wolfe – which is almost always a factor in his decision to become involved.
Rex Stout is one of my favorite authors – perhaps because he was nearly 50 when the first Nero Wolfe novel was published. He kept on writing them for more than 30 years thereafter – enough to give the rest of us old codgers some hope for our own futures. Stout was famous, or infamous, for almost never rewriting – he wrote his stories out on yellow pads and only rarely revised them, claiming that he was often as surprised by plot developments as his readers were. Whether you believe that or not, the Nero Wolfe stories are always a good read. We read them to get a glimpse of life inside that old brownstone on West 35th Street in New York City, to stay current on the lives of Wolfe and the people around him, and to follow Archie Goodwin on his errands on behalf of a genius with a flair for the dramatic.
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You can listen to the original podcast by clicking here.
Next week: The Bachelors of Broken Hill, by Arthur Upfield