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    Compose yourself, Archie.  Why taunt me?  Why upbraid me?  I am merely a genius, not a god.
           -Nero Wolfe

Rex Stout was in the midst of an unusually interesting life (including being a child math prodigy and serving on President Theodore Roosevelt's yacht) when he created one of the great detective series of all time, introducing Nero Wolfe for the first of 72 adventures in Fer-de-Lance.  The brilliance of Stout's creation lies in the blending of Wolfe--an eccentric, elephantine, misanthropic, misogynistic, beer guzzling, gourmand--and his footman, Archie Goodwin--a classic, wise cracking, hard boiled dick.  The combination, sort of like teaming Mycroft Holmes and Sam Spade, allowed him to use the best elements of both the British drawing room mystery and the American private eye novel.  The result has enchanted readers for almost 70 years. Fans include everyone from Oliver Wendell Holmes to PG Wodehouse, James M. Cain to Kingsley Amis.

Nero Wolfe, logging in around 280 lbs and quaffing 6 quarts of beer a day, rarely leaves his 35th Street brownstone in Manhattan, preferring to tend his orchids and worry over the exquisite meals prepared by his butler/chef Fritz.  To support his high living, Wolfe takes on investigations in a very unofficial capacity, relying on Goodwin to do the physical work and periodically summoning the principals in a case to his home for an exhibition of his deductive genius.  His arrogant manner is nicely captured in the following admonition to a sporting goods salesman who has condescendingly demonstrated the proper use of golf clubs:

    You know, Mr. Townsend, it is our good fortune that the exigencies of birth and training furnish all
    of us with opportunities for snobbery.  My ignorance of this special nomenclature provided yours;
    your innocence of the elementary processes provides mine.

Meanwhile, Archie narrates the stories in the familiar sardonic banter of the great noir novels:

    When I consider the different kinds I've seen it seems silly to say it, but somehow to me all lawyers
    look alike.  It's a sort of mixture of a scared look and a satisfied look, as if they were crossing a
    traffic-filled street where they expect to get run over any minute but they know exactly what kind
    of paper to hand the driver if they get killed and they've got one right in their pocket.

This sets up an amusing dramatic tension between the two, as when Nero tells Archie:

    Sit down.  I would prefer to have you here, idle and useless...As I have remarked before, to have
    you with me like this is always refreshing because it constantly reminds me how distressing it
    would be to have someone present--a wife, for instance--whom I could not dismiss at will.

Lest it seem that Wolfe is to much of an egomaniac to be tolerated, Archie makes it clear that he stays around just for the sheer joy of watching the elephantine savant in action and Wolfe himself acknowledges that much of his facade is mere pretense when a District Attorney commands his presence in Westchester, he tells Archie to refuse, saying "I understand the technique of eccentricity; it would be futile for a man to labor at establishing a reputation for oddity if he were ready at the slightest provocation to revert to normal action."  And Wolfe sometimes lets slip his admiration for Archie, telling a witness in the case, "Mr. Goodwin is a man of discretion, common decency and immeasurable valor."

It has long been a theory of mine that if you create characters of sufficient interest to enrapture your audience, you can get away with not always cranking out a top flight story, we'll show up just to spend some time with familiar friends (this carried Magnum PI and Cheers through some mighty lean episodes & even whole seasons).  Nero and Archie are always worth a visit, never more so than in this their inaugural case.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A)

  

Websites:

See also:

Private Eyes
Book-related and General Links:
    -Rex Stout (1896-1975)
    -Nero Wolfe Site
    -Nero Wolfe
    -Nero Wolfe/Rex Stout Page
    -Merely a Genius: A fan site dedicated to Nero Wolfe and his creator, Rex Stout
    -The Art of Nero Wolfe
    -Nero Wolfe's Orchids: text and photos by Raphael Carter
    -West 35th Street: Introduction to Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe Mysteries
    -A Stout Fellow:  David Langford flips idly through some 1992 Nero Wolfe reissues.
    -ETEXT: Under the Andes  by Rex Stout  Hypertext Meanings and Commentaries  by Mark Zimmerman
    -TV PROGRAM: The Golden Spiders (A&E)

GENERAL
    -African American Mystery Page
    -Black Street Fiction
    -Crime Writers (David King)
    -Dangerous Dames: A Timeline of Some of the Major Female Eyes (Thrilling Detectives)
    -Edgar Award: Best First Novel
    -Film Noir and Pulp Fiction
    -A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection
    -Gumshoe Site
    -Hardboiled : online reference site for all things noir
    -Hardboiled Heaven
    -Hard Boiled Noir Webring
    -Martin's Film Noir Page
    -Mysterious Home Page
    -MysteryNet.com: The Online Mystery Network
    -Mystery Net Awards Page
    -No Night Sweats
    -RARA-AVIS : mailing list devoted to the discussion of hardboiled (and noir) fiction
    -The Reader's Corner presents  Female Sleuths
    -Thrilling Detective Website
    -Twists, Slugs and Roscoes: A Glossary of Hardboiled Slang
    -Women of Mystery (Bookaholic)

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