We have chatted about Seconds before, but I must admit that Archie Goodwin is my personal favorite. As mentioned in a previous blog Archie is the Second to the Rex Stout’s
incomparable Nero Wolfe and I think Archie in his own way is unique.
How did Archie and Wolfe get together? Archie mentions that he met Wolfe after “the only girl I had ever been really soft on had found another bargain she liked better.” So after that incident Archie begins working for Wolfe. He lives in Wolfe’s Brownstone, manages the accounts, pays the bills and works as a partner on their cases.
As with all Seconds Archie is opposite of Wolfe in so many ways and here are a few examples. Archie is young, active and embraces the outside world of New York. Archie drives their roadster and on the rare occasions when Wolfe goes out in the car he holds on for dear life in the back seat. Archie is interested in women and enjoys a long standing
relationship with Lilly Rowan. Wolfe has no time for women because he feels they are too emotional. Wolfe is a gourmet and spends hours discussing and enjoying the recipes from his chef Fritz Brenner. Archie enjoys these meals but also enjoys stopping by local eateries to get a corn beef sandwich or a plate of liver and onions. While Wolfe’s consumes numerous bottles of beer after dinner each night, Archie’s drink of choice is milk.
Archie also has one difference from other mystery book Seconds. He is a licensed private detective and acts as the legman for Wolfe’s cases. He is the one out on the street conducting interviews and gathering information that he brings back for Wolfe to review. When he conducts interviews we get his opinions and a totally different perspective. Here is his description from an interview in the District Attorney’s Office.
“I just simply didn’t like that man. I couldn’t even have any fun with him, to speak of, because whatever it was disagreeable about him, his face and his manner, was so deep and primitive that the only possible way to get any real satisfaction would have been to haul off and plug him in the nose.”
While we may not get a clue from this exchange we do get a different viewpoint about one of the people involved in the case. So in addition to Wolfe’s office chair perspective we get a second “street smart” opinion from Archie.
And Wolfe trusts Archie to ask the right questions that advance the case. There are times when Wolfe gives Archie no specific instructions or as Archie says he is left “Fancy Free.”
Wolfe’s favorite saying when he leaves Archie to his own devices is “any spoke will lead the ant to the hub.”
As readers, we also have the opportunity to learn as Archie learns and decide along with him if the information is important to solving the case. Like Archie we want to see if our conclusion is the same one Wolfe will pick. Along with Archie we are in the competition to solve the puzzle before Wolfe. And just like Archie we hate it when Wolfe beats us to the punch. Here’s a comment from Archie’s when this happens.
“I was a little sore, of course; I always was when I knew that he had tied up a nice neat bundle right in front of me without my even being able to see what was going in it.”
We are provided with all the same information and clues that Wolfe has. But it is annoying to Archie and to the reader when some little piece slips past us. But these little bits and pieces don’t slip past Wolfe.
Archie like other Seconds is the narrator of the mysteries and a superb storyteller. Archie’s style of writing is light and sometimes even flip. Below is an example when he is interviewing Susan Barstow.
And may I say without offense, you’re looking swell. I was thinking when you came in, I’d like to pinch your cheeks.
“What!” she stared, then she laughed. “That’s a compliment.”
It sure is. If you know how many cheeks there are I wouldn’t bother to pinch.
Archie has fun with the potential suspects and likes to push them as far as he can. Sometimes this pushing causes the suspect to reveal something important.
Last but not least Archie is often responsible for carrying out the final act that will reveal and capture the killer. With the next quote we get insight into how Archie feels when the case is in its final stage.
I was pretty well on edge. I always am when I’m really on my way for a man; there never seems to be quite enough air for me; I breathe quicker and everything I touch–the steering wheel, for instance–seems to be alive with blood going in it. I don’t like the feeling much but I always have it.
Regardless of Archie’s nerves the murderer is revealed and captured. And if we didn’t have the solution prior to the capture all the details are filled in for us by Archie and Wolfe at the end.
Nero Wolfe mysteries like many books from the Golden Age are a little dated. Archie makes phone calls from the phone booth at the drug store and drives a roadster or thinks people are swell. But the style is light and fun to read and the plots are always intricate. It’s a good puzzle and a challenge to solve the murder. What do you think of Archie Goodwin?
(Note: Quotes are from the first Wolfe novel Fer-de-Lance –1934)