Previously in our discussion of Golden Age detectives we learned that these detectives have characteristics that cause them to stand out from the average person. These characteristics can be in the form of quirks, habits, hobbies or even physical appearance. And what better example of a detective that stands out from the crowd than Nero Wolfe created by Rex Stout. What makes Wolfe different from others?
First Wolfe is a very, very large man. Archie Goodwin, Wolfe’s assistant and narrator of the stories describes Wolfe as weighing a seventh of a ton. Then throughout the narratives Archie makes constant references to Wolfe’s rotund size and his lack of movement. Even Wolfe makes a point of his weight when he explains why he doesn’t stand to great a visitor to his office: Mr. Kimball, you will forgive me for not rising; I am not rude, merely unwieldy.
There are a couple of other elements which emphasize the weight factor. Wolfe uses an elevator to go between floors of his house rather than take the steps. And then there is the alarm set-up in Wolfe’s bedroom that rings a gong in Archie’s room should anyone approach the door. Archie states that the alarm exists not because Wolfe is a coward, but he has an intense dislike for being touched by anyone or for being compelled without warning to make any quick movements. And imagine the intruder’s surprise when he finds Wolfe in yellow silk pajamas resting between yellow sheets?
Wolfe is a gourmet who loves food and has a live-in chef, Fritz Brenner. He takes part in the food discussions and preparations of his meals. Of course eating all this rich food adds to the visual of his immense size. And if a gourmet meal was not enough Wolfe spends his evenings drinking beer.
Let’s talk about beer! During prohibition Wolfe bought his beer in bootlegged kegs and drank it by the pitcher. After prohibition Wolfe switches to bottled beer. In fact in the opening chapter of the first book Fer-de-Lance Wolfe has dozens of samples brought in for tasting so he can select a suitable brand of bottled beer. He drinks a minimum of five bottles of beer each night and tracks his consumption by placing the bottle caps in his top desk drawer. Archie returns to the office one day to find the desk covered with bottle caps that Wolfe is stacking and counting.
Nero Wolfe deals with very gruesome murders, but these crimes are balanced by a defined order for the events in his everyday life. Wolfe has a daily schedule that he follows religiously even when there is breaking news concerning the case. He has breakfast in bed. Then he proceeds to his rooftop greenhouse where he tends his orchids from 9:00 until 11:00 a.m. and then again in the afternoons from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. Lunch is at 1:00 pm and dinner at 8:00 p.m. Wolfe does not allow business discussions to interrupt his meal times. Interviewing clients and witnesses, meeting with the police, reviewing case notes with Archie and solving crimes are restricted to the remaining hours of his day.
Wolfe also has a fetish about leaving his house and rarely does. There are some occasions when Wolfe has left the comfort of his brownstone such as in The Black Mountain where he returns home to Montenegro to solve the murder of his best friend and in Some Buried Caesar where he is on his way to an orchid show and gets sidetracked with a case about
a prize bull. However, for the reader there is comfort in knowing that Wolfe is at home working on the case.
Of course we would be remiss if we did not mention Wolfe’s love or orchids. He grows 10,000 plants in his rooftop greenhouse that he maintains with gardener Theodore Horstmann. He often sends client orchids and when Wolfe leaves his greenhouse for his office hours he brings a fresh orchid for his desk.
And what about the cases? We are given access to all the interviews and all the information gathered by Archie for Wolfe. We watch the preparation and execution of Wolfe’s elaborate schemes carried out by Archie, Saul Panzer, Orrie Cather and Fred Durkin designed to catch the criminal. We sit with Archie and watch as Wolfe closes his eyes and goes into a trance to ponder the facts of the case and we try like Wolfe to sift through all the information. But somehow Wolfe possesses a unique insight and is always one step ahead. He can discern from the smallest piece of information an enormous clue that solves the case. And like Archie we are often amazed at the results.
The Wolfe-Goodwin stories are also more lighthearted than other mysteries due to the constant banter between Archie and Nero. Archie is constantly prodding Wolfe to either take action or explain his actions.
Wolfe wiggled a finger at me. “Compose yourself Archie. Why taunt me? Why upbraid me? I am merely a genius, not a god.”
There were times when Wolfe’s awful self assurance gave me a touch of a dash of a pain in the neck, but there were other times when it was as good as a flock of beautiful maidens smoothing my brow.”
It is this father-son relationship and Archie’s jaunty writing style that makes these stories fun to read.
Nero and Archie don’t age throughout the entire series of 33 books and 30 short stories. But readers don’t seem to mind that they are locked in a particular period of time. In fact there seems to be a bit of comfort in knowing the routine and the habits of the detective duo.
Wolfe mysteries are a combination of the English style cozy with Wolfe sitting comfortably in his home and sorting through the clues and the hard boiled detective exemplified in the work that Archie does. We see the stories from two points of view; the young and energetic student and the sedentary wise master. Archie and Nero are indeed an odd combination, but in the end it works and provides a delightful read.
(Note: Quotes are from the first Wolfe novel Fer-de-Lance –1934)