Thursday, July 25, 2013

Nero Wolfe: My Favorite Detective

For a little over a year, I've been reading Nero Wolfe mysteries by Rex Stout. I'm still not finished and I haven't repeated any: that should give you some idea of just how prolific Stout was.
With a few notable exceptions like Gordianus the Finder and Inspector Banks, (not to mention Sherlock) I'm not a huge fan of the mystery genre (though both Encyclopedia Brown and his more realistically smart-ass 1970s successor, Jack McGurk, played huge parts in my childhood). But there's something about the world Rex Stout has created that keeps me coming back and back and back.

It's not even the plots of the mysteries. These are by and large fairly simple, without too many twists and turns. What makes these books special is the characterization. Imperious, arrogant, gormandizing, misogynistic, lazy, beer-swilling, orchid-loving Nero Wolfe is one of the most sharply drawn and consistently realized characters I've ever read. And of course, the narrator of the books, Wolfe's wise-cracking legman Archie Goodwin, is hands-down the most flat-out likeable narrator I've ever had between my ears.

Stout's writing is simple, crisp, uncluttered, and rolls off the page. For me, the best writing is the kind that makes me forget I'm reading and get completely lost in the fictive dream. In this, Stout delivers, and between 1934 and 1975 he cranked out about 75 Nero Wolfe mysteries - that's far more than one a year.

I was introduced to Nero Wolfe through the A&E Network's short-lived and much lamented series A Nero Wolfe Mystery, with the late (and vastly underrated) Maury Chaykin as Wolfe and evergreen good-guy Timothy Hutton as Goodwin. I can say without reservation this series is the most true to the source material of all the book-to-TV-or-movie adaptations I've ever seen. The show is a bit old-fashioned, but in the timeless, not dated, sense, and uses an ensemble cast to play different roles in different episodes (only Chaykin, Hutton, and a few other regulars don't rotate between roles).

So if you ever want to get lost in a rat-a-tat-tat whodunit, you could do much worse than picking up any Nero Wolfe mystery. You can start anywhere - one of the charms of the books, for me, is that from 1934 to 1975, the outside world did, occasionally, intrude into the lives of the characters, but the bulk of the action takes place in Nero Wolfe's home office (he refuses to leave the house on business), which is as timeless a place as I can think of. No matter how crazy or upsetting real life ever becomes, I will always know a place where I can sit back in the red leather chair, order a beer from Fritz (Nero's chef/caretaker) and see my old friend Archie. Wolfe's office in his New York brownstone is refreshingly comforting.

I'm a big fan of the original Sherlock Holmes mysteries, but I'm not so sure Nero Wolfe couldn't out-fox and out-detect Holmes any day of the week. The difference is that Wolfe needs Goodwin far more than Holmes ever needed Watson. But in almost every way that counts, Nero Wolfe is the American Sherlock Holmes.

1 comment:

  1. As as aside - if anyone ever decides to do more TV/film adaptations of Wolfe (and it's really a matter of if, not when) then my vote to play Wolfe is Modern Family's Eric Stonestreet. He's not only got the right physique, but more importantly, he's eloquent and articulate and has a sense of class, and can scowl like nobody's business.

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