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April 07, 2008

The Wolfe That Doesn't Prowl

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I never was much of a fiction reader and hardly touch the stuff any more.

But I do have relapses.

The latest was on my recent trip to Puerto Vallarta. I didn't bring a computer and knew that Nancy would be putting lots of time in with her granddaughters. So there was no real alternative than to bring along some books to read.

For the hell of it, I bought four Nero Wolfe detective novels and tossed them in my suitcase. I went through a Wolfe splurge 45 years ago and had happily forgotten all the plots, thus the deck was clear for another shot. My selection criterion was to load up on the books with the earliest copyright dates. This was because I associate Wolfe with the 1930s and 40s; author Rex Stout kept cranking them out into the 70s.

Perhaps I should have tried one of the later ones to satisfy a point of curiosity. You see, in the books written in the 30s, Nero Wolfe's cheeky leg-man Archie Goodwin zips around Manhattan in a roadster, parking wherever he needs to; he never has trouble finding a spot in front of Wolfe's West 35th Street townhouse. I wasn't around until the last two months of the 1930s, so I'll have to assume that Stout wrote the truth. But I know perfectly well that Manhattan curbside parking was hard to come by in the 1960s -- except maybe Sunday mornings.

Another thing I'm not sure about is how well Nero Wolfe novels rate according to mystery buffs. The stories were popular with the public from the start, but that factor doesn't always count amongst the cognoscenti. Moreover, I haven't read enough detective books to have any sort of handle regarding what's good, mediocre or bad.

I like the Wolfe novels because of the quirky cast of characters that, for the most part, was fully formed in the first of the series, Fer-de-Lance (1934). Perhaps most other detectives spring with the same level of completeness from the heads of their various Zeuses, but I wouldn't know that. The thing with Nero Wolfe is that the books involve a lot more people than the detective himself. Here are some quick sketches of the more important ones.

Nero Wolfe. Born 56 or so years earlier in Montenegro, but now an American citizen with perfect command of English. Agent of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the Balkans and involved in the Great War in various ways. Currently lives in a double-townhouse on West 35th Street in New York, "near the river." Weighs "one-seventh of a ton" and never leaves home unless he absolutely has to. The top floor of the building is devoted to orchids, of which there are 10 or 20 thousand, many rare hybrids. He tends those orchids two hours each morning and two every afternoon at unvarying times; orchids come before crime-solving. His live-in gardener is Theodore Horstmann who seems to have little or no personal life. Another live-in is his personal gourmet cook, Fritz Brenner. Brenner also hasn't much of a personal life. Besides cooking, his main activity is acting as doorman. Brenner is highly uncomfortable around women. Wolfe isn't especially interested in women either, though he might have married once and has an adopted daughter.

Archie Goodwin. He is the first-person narrator of the stories. From Ohio, around age 30, athletic, ladies-man (though not ready to get tied down yet) and street-wise practical detective. He keeps track of Wolfe's business dealings, but when a case is underway he becomes Wolfe's eyes and ears, reporting back all he encounters. Wolfe sits behind his massive desk, swilling beer, barely moving parts of his body, taking in the reports. Goodwin also brings a parade of people to Wolfe's office for interviews and the case's conclusion which is the result of Wolfe's genius brain's deducing from all that input. Whereas Wolfe is dour and ponderous, Goodwin is a breezy, wise-guy sort; a total personality contrast that gives the series both spice and another layer of conflict.

Some other recurring characters are NYPD Homicide Inspector Cramer and Sergeant Purley Stebbins, both pretty much stock-character police dicks, and Wolfe's mini-squad of part-time operatives Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin and Orrie Cather. Cramer gets most of the face-time, but Panzer is the most interesting of this group; apparently a first-rate operative on his own who possesses skills that include piloting airplanes -- unusual in the 1930s.

For more information -- lots more -- click on the Wikipedia link above. Besides the main page, there are links to 'pedia pages dealing with the other characters and other Wolfe trivia.

Finally, below are some artists' conceptions to ponder. The Austin Briggs version of Archie strikes me as being reasonable, but I have trouble with the ones of Wolfe. Rex stout describes him as having a long, pointed nose and a full head of hair, but I can't help but imagine him as having regular features and slight balding.


Nero Wolfe
I didn't dig enough to determine who the artist was.

Nero Wolfe in doorway
The artist was Carl Mueller, the illustration for an American Magazine story, November 1940.

Archie Goodwin
By Austin Briggs for a story in the June 21, 1958 Saturday Evening Post.



posted by Donald at April 7, 2008


I have a brother who basically thinks Nero Wolfe books are the greatest books ever written.

Posted by: annette on April 7, 2008 4:48 PM

That Austin Briggs illustration is nicely done and makes me rethink the controversy about Brigg's work on Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon comic strip.

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on April 7, 2008 6:43 PM

A friend of mine once told me that because of the series characters, reading one of these stories is "like spending time with old friends." I've never tried the series myself because I seem to prefer endlessly rereading Raymond Chandler, but maybe I should get out of this rut I'm in.

Posted by: Lester Hunt on April 7, 2008 7:15 PM

I reread 3 of the Wolfe books this past year (the TRIPLE ZECK collection for the curious) and found they had stood up very well after 15-20 years of abeyance. Stout was a pretty damned decent writer, with a good sense of humor and a slightly left-of-center perspective on economics and politics. (Several of the books make clear Wolfe's disdain for J Edgar Hoover and the FBI, well before such potshots were commonplace.)

OTOH ... These days I've gotten accustomed to Ruth Rendell, P.D. James, Peter Lovesay, Robert Bernard, and Elizabeth George. Comparing crime writers of Stout's era with the modern crew is like comparing the performance of DC-3s with late model 747s or Concordes or the space shuttle. Things aren't just faster and bigger -- there are qualitative differences.

The mystery story has moved into quite a different world in the last several decades. Raymond Chandler and perhaps Ross Macdonald pointed in this direction. Rex Stout, fond as I am of his work, didn't.

Posted by: mike shupp on April 7, 2008 10:39 PM

I'm not that fond of the Wolfe novels as reading, but the TV adaptations with Timothy Hutton and Maury Chaykin are wonderful. Splendid period production values, and both Hutton and Chaykin were very convincing.

One nitpick: Wolfe being Montenegrin, he fought against Austria-Hungary in the Great War.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on April 8, 2008 3:53 AM

Rich -- Upping the ante one more nit, Wolfe was an Austrian agent, but before the war. The few books I read didn't explain who he was observing/spying on. I would have guessed Serbia. But then he did fight against Austria, and they fought the Serbs.

However, this was in the Balkans, remember, and the Balkans do have this reputation ...

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on April 8, 2008 10:04 AM

Those were/are very entertaining books, aren't they? Fun seeing all the illos too.

I wonder if it'd be useful to organize a college course in "Novels as Entertainment in the 20th Century." Skip the "art" and "intellectual" disputes, and focus instead on novels that aim only to deliver enjoyment, distraction, and delight. What'd be on it? P.G. Wodehouse, for sure. Rex Stout and N'gaio Marsh. Donald Westlake. "Gone With the Wind"? (Not that I've read it ...) I read "Topper" not long ago and it was pure delight.

Not that I'd trust any prof *not* to start making boring and pretentious cases for these books ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 8, 2008 12:00 PM

To M Blowhard's class: I'd add: Scott Turow, "Silence of the Lambs"---can't remember the author, and Agatha Christie. And Ian Fleming. Also, there was a female author---have to google her---who wrote a bunch of sexy espionage thrillers in the sixties---"Murder in Vienna" kinds of things, always set in some great European location.

Posted by: annette on April 8, 2008 12:35 PM

I agree that Maury Chaykin was great in the role of Wolf in the A&E series. The look was right, and the voice, with its relentless edge of haughty disdain, was perfect.

Posted by: Fredosphere on April 8, 2008 1:23 PM

Agree with Rich R. on the TV series. After seeing quite few of the films, I can't even imagine Mr. Wolfe with a long nose.

Donald, re: Wolfe's residence: do you know that I almost (alas, alas! consequences beyond my control) bought an apartment in a walk-up directly across his townhouse, this January? And I've been inside his house? Sat in a lobby, with fireplace and French doors into the back garden? Not on the roof, though, and I don't think inhabitants of this building care much for noble orchids...
And do you know there is a Nero Wolfe Society - and that they have installed a memorial plaque on the wall - and photographed it, for our enjoyment? Here.

The parking: I can attest to the unusual abundance of parking spots on the block of 454 W.35th street. Amazing - but it seems such a quiet street - maybe because a police precinct is 1.5 blocks away.

Posted by: Tatyana on April 8, 2008 3:33 PM

Browsing thru Nero Wolfe Pack site, I found this amusing bit of trivia I think you'll be interested in (as a commercial artist yourself):

Another Archie Goodwin is a very famous (and real) person. Archie Goodwin (9/18/1937 -- 2/28/1998) was an editor, writer, and artist on a wide variety of projects at Marvel, DC, Warren, and elsewhere. He also wrote several newspaper comic strips including Star Wars and Secret Agent Corrigan. Mr. Goodwin was the keynote speaker at the 1993 Black Orchid Banquet. His topic? "What's It's Like to be Archie Goodwin."

For a complete listing of his Spider-Man credits:

For more information, this page has a number of links to sites with information regarding Archie Goodwin:

Posted by: Tatyana on April 8, 2008 3:35 PM

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