Secondary sources include two biographies, several book-length essays or collections of essays, and sundry criticism going back at least to a famous annotation in 1935, when the 93-year old Oliver Wendell Holmes scribbled in the margins of his fresh copy of Fer-de-Lance, “This fellow is the best of them all.”
The Wolfe Pack is an excellent fan site (they also promote varied in-person activities) and the associated Wikipedia pages are remarkably detailed. The Pack refers to the 33 novels and 38 novellas and short stories as the corpus, a helpful locution.
One of the reasons to do an overview like this is to pass judgement: Which books are the best? My selection of the top ten follows commentary on The Mother Hunt (1963).
1) Fer-de-Lance (1934)
The first sentence starts in the middle of things, establishing the basic dominance hierarchy.
There was no reason why I shouldn’t have been sent for the beer that day, for the last ends of the Fairmont National Bank case had been gathered in the week before and there was nothing for me to do but errands, and Wolfe never hesitated about running me down to Murray Street for a can of shoe-polish if he happened to need one.
Nero Wolfe is a great detective with a brilliant mind and a big stomach. His brownstone at 35th street on the west side of Manhattan is the home, haven, and workplace for one master and three followers.
Theodore Horstmann tends the orchids upstairs, helping Wolfe produce rare blooms of astonishing beauty. Theodore’s contribution to the stories is negligible.
Fritz Brenner is the chef, creating three delicious meals a day. Fritz occasionally gets a few lines of dialogue but never oversteps his bounds (except for the time he used tarragon and saffron instead of sage to season starlings).
Our narrator, Archie Goodwin, is a detective, secretary, and majordomo; he’s also good with a gun and can hold his own in a fistfight. Archie is on call to his higher authority, but he’s also the only person who dares to tease and criticize that authority, which he does at least three or four times a day. During their banter, Wolfe and Archie debate their unwritten interpersonal contracts; they also draw up a literal contract for every official client.
Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes looms over all of genre fiction. During the Golden Age of Detection, idiosyncratic detectives in the Holmes mold proliferated across the globe, the greatest being Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, who first appeared in The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1920.
Stout would have read Conan Doyle and Christie, of course. Two other important Golden Age of Detection series were set New York City and made a direct impact on Stout: S.S. Van Dine’s first Philo Vance novel The Benson Murder Case was published in 1926, while Ellery Queen’s debut The Roman Hat Mystery is from 1929.
The other big influence was Dashiell Hammett. Red Harvest appeared in 1929, The Maltese Falcon in 1930. These Hammett masterpieces are still mysteries, but the atmosphere is comparatively economical and street-wise. This new genre would take the name “hardboiled.” Certain critics and practitioners like Raymond Chandler would proudly place this tougher style in opposition to the Golden Age of Detection.
As is well known: Nero Wolfe belongs in the aisle marked “Golden Age of Detection,” Archie Goodwin belongs in the aisle marked “hardboiled.” Rex Stout put these two characters under the same roof and captured lightning in a bottle.
Stout was 47 years old when he wrote Fer-de-Lance. The somewhat awkward title refers to a poisonous snake. (Perhaps the title used for magazine serialization proceeding the novel, Point of Death, is better.) The plot is clever, and the finale raucous.
At this point, Archie is quite raw and uncivilized, with Wolfe towering over his assistant in almost every respect. Later on, Archie smooths out and shares more common ground with the boss.
2) The League of Frightened Men (1935)
The opening chapter of The League of Frightened Men has a bit of domestic comedy that foreshadows the plot, a conceit Stout would use again and again.
Wolfe and I sat in the office Friday afternoon. As it turned out, the name of Paul Chapin, and his slick and thrifty notions about getting vengeance at wholesale without paying for it, would have come to our notice pretty soon in any event; but that Friday afternoon the combination of an early November rain and a lack of profitable business that had lasted so long it was beginning to be painful, brought us an opening scene — a prologue, not a part of the main action — of the show that was about ready to begin.
The work of Sigmund Freud was another big influence on 20th-century crime fiction, and The League of Frightened Men is unrestrainedly psychological. It’s the longest Wolfe novel and the plot is quite brilliant; when I was much younger I thought it was the greatest of the series. (Now I think it overreaches a bit, although it’s still a wonderful 1935 period piece.)
Stout is one of the most quotable of all the famous mystery writers. Two sentences explaining Wolfe’s hobby are familiar to any serious fan:
Wolfe had once remarked to me that the orchids were his concubines: insipid, expensive, parasitic and temperamental. He brought them, in their diverse forms and colors, to the limits of their perfection, and then gave them away; he had never sold one.
Most of the aphorisms come from Wolfe, but Archie gets a few good ones off over the years. Even a guest might strike gold, in this case potential client Andrew Hibbard:
A man may debar nonsense from his library of reason, but not from the arena of his impulses.
After Archie is drugged, he has to try to walk and talk himself back to functioning condition; this light lift from Hammett may be the most authentically hardboiled moment in the corpus.
Eventually, the clients and suspects gather at the brownstone to hear the great detective expound the solution. Going forward this kind of concluding party will be a recurring event.
3) The Rubber Band (1936)
In the first two novels, Wolfe works with officialdom, but in The Rubber Band, evading the law is almost as important as catching the killer. To that end, Stout elevates Inspector Cramer’s status to steady antagonist.
For the rest of the run, Wolfe will ignore Cramer’s requests to cooperate for several reasons. He brags to his clients that he will keep them out of D.A.’s office, and also schemes with Archie on how to get paid. If the cops solve the mystery first, Wolfe doesn’t get paid.
It’s also another way to negotiate, another set of contracts. A long chapter towards the end of The Rubber Band has Wolfe joyfully playing a tune on not just the lead voice, Cramer, but an accompanying choir of three other law enforcement professionals. This kind of flawless dialogue — Wolfe, deadpan and stone brilliant against the cops, with Archie in sarcastic counterpoint — goes a long way to ensuring the re-readability of the series.
While Wolfe and Archie are forces for good, they aren’t that good. Mainly they believe in being the best at what they do and getting well remunerated for their services. It’s a set of ethics that mirrors much of American life, and certainly far closer to Hammett than Conan Doyle or Christie.
Their client is Clara Fox, who jokes with Archie:
You know, Mr. Goodwin, this house represents the most insolent denial of female rights the mind of man has ever conceived. No woman in it from top to bottom, but the routine is faultless, the food is perfect, and the sweeping and dusting are impeccable. I have never been a housewife, but I can’t overlook this challenge. I’m going to marry Mr. Wolfe, and I know a girl that will be just the thing for you, and of course our friends will be in and out a good deal. This place needs some upsetting.
The ironclad “no women allowed” rule is vital to the mythos. Each recurring character fits into an unemotional hierarchy, and barring women helps seal the brownstone off from the outside world.
Did Stout feel guilty for choosing to make his all-male universe reject women? In the following year, Stout published The Hand in the Glove starring Dol Bonner, one of the very first female P.I.’s in American literature.
The Rex Stout books without Nero Wolfe are comparatively dull. Stout himself said that Wolfe was born whole while his other detectives, Alphabet Hicks, Tecumseh Fox, and Dol Bonner, were assembled from bits and pieces. However, in the context of a larger discussion about Stout and sexism, The Hand in the Glove is an important curio.
Despite Stout’s well-intentioned efforts, The Hand in the Glove feels more dated and sexist than most of the corpus. Since Wolfe and Archie are on perpetual guard, women characters have a chance to effect momentary positive change, and some of the dialogues can be amusing in the way that the war between the sexes is essentially timeless.
Clara Fox’s old-fashioned suggestion of “female rights” in the above quote — “the food is perfect, and the sweeping and dusting are impeccable” — is exactly what Dol Bonner is fighting against in The Hand in the Glove. Rex Stout just didn’t have the ability to make Bonner’s fight all that convincing, possibly because Stout didn’t really believe in that fight himself. Still, it’s interesting that Stout at least gave it a go. (Dol Bonner also appears as a walk-on in a couple of later books with Wolfe and Archie.)
4) The Red Box (1937)
In the first sentences, our great detective reconfirms one of his eccentricities:
Wolfe looked at our visitor with his eyes wide open — a sign, with him, either of indifference or of irritation. In this case it was obvious that he was irritated.
“I repeat, Mr. Frost, it is useless,” he declared. “I never leave my home on business. No man’s pertinacity can coerce me. I told you that five days ago. Good day, sir.”
Eating gourmet food and tending to orchids aren’t such bad habits for a detective. However, a detective who never leaves his house? That’s ridiculous on the face of it.
Well, it’s book four, time for the author to push Wolfe out the door for an hour. In order to trick Wolfe into looking at a crime scene, Archie supplies a letter asking for Wolfe’s help signed by several eminent orchid growers.
So the next morning I had Nero Wolfe braving the elements — the chief element for that day being bright warm March sunshine. I say I had him, because I had conceived the persuasion which was making him bust all precedents. What pulled him out of his front door, enraged and grim, with overcoat, scarf, gloves, stick, something he called gaiters, and a black felt pirate’s hat size 8 pulled down to his ears, was the name of Winold Glueckner heading the signatures on that letter — Glueckner, who had recently received from an agent in Sarawak four bulbs of a pink Coelogyne pandurata, never seen before, and had scorned Wolfe’s offer of three thousand bucks for two of them. Knowing what a tough old heinie Glueckner was, I had my doubts whether he would turn loose any of the bulbs no matter how many murders Wolfe solved at his request, but anyhow I had lit the fuse.
Overall, The Red Box still feels fresher than most genre books from 1937, although the scene where a suspect is tortured by the police with Cramer’s approval is surprisingly anachronistic. Such rough behavior feels like it is borrowed wholesale from Carroll John Daly or another early pulp writer.
To make sense of a fresh murder, Wolfe must unearth an old family secret, a conceit hinted at in Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse (1929) and later explored in several postwar mysteries by Ross MacDonald.
5) Too Many Cooks (1938)
Stout seemed to be fond of places where people ride horses. In Too Many Cooks, Wolfe and Archie travel to the Kanawha Spa resort in West Virginia, where there is a gathering of top chefs.
Fancy descriptions of fancy food are a staple of the series, and there are more dinners than usual during three days at the Kanawha Spa. When The Nero Wolfe Cookbook was published in 1973, the recipes from Too Many Cooks got star billing.
The mystery is satisfying, real “how did they get that alibi to work?” Golden Age of Detection stuff.
As with The Hand in the Glove, Stout makes a play for social justice, this time confronting segregation. Unsurprisingly, the scenes with the black waiters at the Spa haven’t aged well. However, even after all these years, one point of tension still has bite: the narrator (Archie) is considerably more backward than the hero (Wolfe). I don’t want to give Stout too much credit, but this casual positioning of disparate ethics within the framework of the family unit suggests the long crawl to equality, and therefore grates less than other older books that try to fix structural racism with a single teachable moment.
6) Some Buried Caesar (1939)
For two books in a row, Wolfe leaves the brownstone, this time to display orchids at an exposition in small-town New York state.
Some Buried Caesar is a fan favorite and Stout himself thought it was one of his best. A large and feisty bull is a main character, and this grand animal lends a noble gravitas to many pages of breezy comedy concerning rustic matters.
By this point Stout is in full control of the great detective’s voice. During one key interrogation, Wolfe says:
“It’s my one form of prowess. I do talk.”
And a little later:
“I may be passably slick, but my favorite weapon is candor.”
Lily Rowan makes her first appearance as a rather goofy and aggressive man-eater. This kind of personality was a favorite of Raymond Chandler, although the first Philip Marlowe novel, The Big Sleep, was also published in 1939, so there is probably not a direct influence.
In the post-war years, Lily settles down into a cool customer who casually dates Archie and occasionally helps out on a case. It’s easy to see why Stout would eventually promote her to recurring character. After Archie gets thrown in jail as material witness, Lily visits and says,
“You know, I was wondering last night what would be the best thing to do with you, but it never occurred to me to lock you up. When you get out of here I’ll try it.”
Wolfe’s final confrontation with the murderer is exceptionally dramatic, an expressive scene unparalleled in the corpus.
7) Over My Dead Body (1940)
8) Where There’s a Will (1940)
1a) Black Orchids — contains “Black Orchids” and “Cordially Invited to Meet Death” (1942)
2a) Not Quite Dead Enough — contains “Not Quite Dead Enough” and “Booby Trap” (1944)
The first six Wolfe novels all deal honestly and respectably with complex plots. The puzzle solution in Some Buried Caesar can hold its own with Agatha Christie or anybody else.
There will still be good puzzles to come, but that first wave of intellectual inspiration runs out after Some Buried Caesar. Also, Stout is understandably distracted by current events. During World War II, Stout became a public figure, working for the propaganda outfit the Writer’s War Board and hosting the radio program Speaking of Liberty.
In an interview just before Pearl Harbor, Stout said that writing the Wolfe series was, “…Pure pleasure — a game. Then Munich gave me my first belly-ache…Nero Wolfe keeps getting smaller, I can’t keep my mind on him.”
The four Wolfe books published during the early ’40s have a slightly bitter taste. They stand in an uncomfortable spot, a no-man’s land between the sophisticated plots of the early years and the settled ritual to come. Plus, of course, there was a war on…
Over My Dead Body offers the kind of international intrigue best left to Eric Ambler. Perhaps I’m being more dismissive than I should be, for Over My Dead Body was the very first Wolfe I ever read when I was 12 or 13, getting me hooked for life. The title works perfectly with the final twist.
Where There’s a Will has traditionally been my least favorite novel of the whole series. Everything lumbers along in a rather unmusical fashion, recalling a non-Wolfe mystery with Alphabet Hicks, Tecumseh Fox, or Dol Bonner. (Indeed, certain aspects of the plot suggest The Hand in the Glove.) As always, there are still worthy moments. After Wolfe secretly runs home after discovering a dead body, Archie is left by himself to deal with the cops for the rest of the day, night, and into the next morning.
An hour later, at the customary time, eleven o’clock, his elevator descended and he entered the office. I waited until he was holding his chair down and then stated to him:
“I see you intend to brazen it out. I admit nothing is to be gained by a prolonged controversy. All I say is, that was the most preposterous goddam performance in the entire history of the investigation of crime. That’s all. Now for my report —”
“There was nothing preposterous about it. It was the only sensible —”
“You couldn’t sell me that in a thousand years. Do you want my report?”
He sighed, leaned back, and half closed his eyes. He looked as fresh as a daisy, and about as shamefaced as a fan dancer. “Go ahead.”
At this time, the magazine market was notably lucrative and important. All the novels began as serializations, and now Stout began producing short stories or novelettes as well. If need be, these stories were revised and expanded for subsequent hardcover publication. Black Orchids and Not Quite Dead Enough offer two stories each; the rest will collect three, or in one case, four.
The way Wolfe serves his own self-interest when contracting to solve a crime in “Black Orchids” is amusing. “Cordially Invited to Meet Death” also has some good moments: After a murderer suddenly manages leap up and wound someone else sitting in the office, Wolfe asks Archie if he is, “done with his nap.”
“Not Quite Dead Enough” finds Archie in uniform navigating a near-disintegration of brownstone etiquette. “Booby Trap” is slightly more conventional, but it still jars to have Wolfe subservient to the U.S. Army.
Novelettes are not that common. Taken as a set, the Wolfe novelettes must be among the most popular examples of the form from the whole of 20th-century literature.
For those that love the corpus, the novelettes remain essential reading. However, as good as they are, most fans seem to agree that the shorter stories ultimately lack the panache of the novels. The dimensions are not quite as natural. Without additional word count given to “unimportant” aspects such as orchids, food, and banter, details can overwhelm atmosphere.
9) The Silent Speaker (1946)
Stout celebrates the end of WWII by producing one of his best.
A famous Sherlock Holmes quote is a guiding precept to many mysteries from the Golden Age of Detection: “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”
This precept begets complex and unique plots, including the plots of the pre-war Nero Wolfe novels. A chain of false trails, fake alibis, and surprising twists lead the story inexorably to a final unmasking. (Even years after reading the book, it is easy to remember who committed the murder.)
In postwar Stout, the plots are less important. Finding one specific clue frequently unlocks the solution. In the case of The Silent Speaker, everyone hunts for a dictation cylinder: when the cylinder is found, the silent speaker is heard, and the culprit is revealed.
This lack of puzzle doesn’t harm the books. Indeed, the series now grows into its final and most timeless form, where Wolfe and Archie spend their days working to maintain a basic equilibrium no matter the case at hand. (Years after reading the book, it is much harder to remember who committed the murder — but since the books are built for re-readability, this impermanence is not exactly a fatal flaw.)
Now that the form is set, Stout gets to ring the changes in subtle ways. The books were always ironic and detached, with a gentle underlay of humor present in many scenes, and this comic atmosphere deepens in the great post-war run.
At the beginning of The Silent Speaker, Wolfe needs money, so he directs Archie to ask innocuous questions of parties concerned in sensational murder. Of course, the concerned parties are worried about Wolfe’s participation, and he ends up getting hired by a wealthy corporation. This may be the most unprincipled (and hilarious) start to a conventional murder mystery found in any book of its era.
One of the few suspects to get the upper hand over Wolfe and Archie is Phoebe Gunther. Gunther is to Wolfe as Irene Adler is to Sherlock Holmes.
“That same evening, Friday, Mr. Goodwin went after her and brought her to my office. She had made a profound impression on him, and she struck me as being of uncommon quality. Evidently her opinion of us was less flattering. She formed the idea that we were more vulnerable to guile than the police; and the next day, Saturday, after she had mailed the parcel room check to Mr. O’Neill and made the phone call to him, giving the name of Dorothy Unger, she sent me a telegram, signing Mr. Breslow’s name to it, conveying the notion that observation of Mr. O’Neill’s movements might be profitable. We validated her appraisal of us. Mr. Goodwin was at Mr. O’Neill’s address bright and early Sunday morning, as Miss Gunther intended him to be. When Mr. O’Neill emerged he was followed, and you know what happened.”
(Trivia: Rex Stout’s ludicrous paper for the Baker Street Irregulars, “Watson Was a Woman,” is a treasured bit of Sherlockiana.)
In The Silent Speaker, Wolfe pretends to be crazy, and Cramer gives Wolfe an orchid. All is well in the end.
10) Too Many Women (1947)
Hot on the heels of The Silent Speaker is Too Many Women, another essentially perfect expression of the post-war form.
While Wolfe has insulated himself from sexual behavior, Archie is interested in women. Women are also interested in Archie. However, up until this point, Archie isn’t seen dating. Flirting, yes, but actually dating, no. His silly skirmishes with Lily Rowan are the qualified exception, although so far she is mostly pursuing him rather than the other way around.
Rex Stout is now 60 years old, and it could be that significant milestone is a factor in how Archie’s sexuality comes more to the forefront from now on: Perhaps Stout is trying to stay young. However, the treatment of sex in the mainstream publishing industry was also changing. What one could write in 1947 might have been different than in 1935.
At any rate, Stout has fun with the topic in Too Many Women. To sniff out a possible murder, Archie takes employment in the offices of Naylor-Kerr.
One good glance and I liked the job. The girls. All right there, all being paid to stay right there, and me being paid to move freely about and converse with anyone whomever, which was down in black and white. Probably after I had been there a couple of years I would find that close-ups revealed inferior individual specimens, Grade B or lower in age, contours, skin quality, voice or level of intellect, but from where I stood at nine-fifty-two Wednesday morning it was enough to take your breath away. At least half a thousand of them, and the general and overwhelming impression was of — clean, young, healthy, friendly, spirited, beautiful and ready. I stood and filled my eyes, trying to look detached. It was an ocean of opportunity.
As the book progresses, Archie escorts several Naylor-Kerr employees to dinners and dances, but, as far as we know, no romance is consummated. After the murder is solved, three of the most beautiful Naylor-Kerr girls call Archie for date. Archie suggests the same time and place (dinner at Rusterman’s) for all three. None of the girls know that two others will also be present. Wolfe growls to Archie, “What the devil are you going to do with all of them?” but that question is never answered.
As noted already, Stout relaxes concerns about plot in the post-war years. For the first but not the last time, an entire chapter of Too Many Women is taken up with Archie bemoaning the lack of forward momentum in a case.
That’s fine, this kind of thing will become an enjoyable part of the ritual. A more aggravating plotting shortcut concerns Wolfe’s larger staff of detectives. From the beginning to the end of the corpus, Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin, Orrie Cather, and a few others are also hired for surveillance and clue-gathering. Saul is particularly important, there is a tight bond between Saul, Wolfe, and Archie.
Frequently Wolfe and Saul collaborate without explaining the circumstances to Archie. Stout first uses this shortcut in The Red Box; during the postwar novels it becomes a regular occurrence. In contemporary TV parlance, Archie’s comment in Too Many Women is called Lampshade Hanging:
It was nothing new for Wolfe to take steps, either on his own or with one or more of the operatives we used, without burdening my mind with it. His stated reason was that I worked better if I thought it all depended on me. His actual reason was that he loved to have a curtain go up revealing him balancing a live seal on his nose.
Obviously, that “actual reason” isn’t a sincere, either. If Archie (and therefore the reader) isn’t in the know, the author gets to sustain dramatic tension. Again, this is a shortcut, and reveals a certain laziness about Rex Stout, who might have relied on this conceit a bit less over the course of 33 novels. It works well enough in The Red Box and is required for The Silent Speaker, but “Saul Panzer bringing home the vital clue Archie didn’t know about” tires after a time.
Fans of the Golden Age of Detection indignantly declare this way of hiding clues isn’t “fair play” for the reader. Personally, the “fair play” aspect bothers me less than the way it impairs my perspective of the family unit. It’s the one aspect of brownstone routine that still jars after all these years of reading and re-reading. Does Wolfe really keep case-relevant secrets from Archie? It just doesn’t make sense! (Except as a lazy ploy by the author.)
Ah, well. Wolfe might say I’m quibbling. In the end, the plot of Too Many Women is good. No secrets are required. Indeed, the outrageous con successfully run by the whole team to coax the truth from a witness is a series high point.
11) And Be a Villain (1948)
12) The Second Confession (1949)
13) In the Best Families (1950)
A master criminal who infiltrates the soul of a city: Sherlock Holmes had Professor Moriarty, Nero Wolfe had Arnold Zeck.
To some extent, the stand-alone stories mysteries from the Zeck trilogy are similar to the rest of the postwar stories. Zeck is barely present in the the first two books, and even the first part of In the Best Families is conventional before a dramatic shift in milieu.
And Be a Villain is notably excellent, with comedy and drama supported by wonderful details about circa–1948 radio. As with The Silent Speaker, Wolfe unscrupulously inserts himself into an ongoing high-profile murder investigation. After Wolfe is hired, he invites the suspects to the brownstone, but before the detective gets very far, the phone rings.
“Mr Bluff,” I told Wolfe, using one of my fifteen aliases for the caller. Wolfe got his receiver to his ear, giving me a signal to stay on.
“Yes, Mr. Cramer?”
Cramer’s sarcastic voice sounded as if he had a cigar stuck in his mouth, as he probably had. “How are you coming up there?”
“Slowly. Not nearly started yet.”
“That’s too bad, since no one’s paying you on the Orchard case. So you told me yesterday.”
“This is today. Tomorrow’s paper will tell you all about it. I’m sorry, Mr Cramer, but I’m busy.”
“You certainly are, from the reports I’ve got here. Which one is your client?”
“You’ll see it in the paper.”
“Then there’s no reason –”
“Yes. There is. That I’m extremely busy and exactly a week behind you. Good-bye, sir.”
Wolfe’s tone and his manner of hanging up got a reaction from the gate-crashers.
Mr Walter B. Anderson, the Starlite president, demanded to know if the caller had been Police Inspector Cramer, and, told that it was, got critical. His position was that Wolfe should not have been rude to the Inspector. It was bad tactics and bad manners. Wolfe, not bothering to draw his sword, brushed him aside with a couple of words, but Anderson leaped for his throat. He had not yet, he said, signed any agreement, and if that was going to be Wolfe’s attitude maybe he wouldn’t.
“Indeed.” Wolfe’s brows went up a sixteenth of an inch. “Then you’d better notify the Press immediately. Do you want to use the phone?”
“By God, I wish I could. I have a right to –”
“You have no right whatever, Mr. Anderson, except to pay your share of my fee if I earn it. You are here in my office on sufferance. Confound it, I am undertaking to solve a problem that has Mr. Cramer so nonplused that he desperately wants a hint from me before I’ve even begun. He doesn’t mind my rudeness; he’s so accustomed to it that if I were affable he’d haul me in as a material witness.”
The Second Confession is weaker. The use of Communism as a deadly force feels terribly dated, and the whole conceit of why Wolfe is hired in the first place doesn’t make much sense. However, the book boasts one of Stout’s best post-war puzzle solutions.
In the Best Families sees the return of Lily Rowan as a fairly serious girlfriend of Archie, a position she will hold with casual elegance until the end of the series. The wide-ranging Zeck plot outside the brownstone is something out of a comic book, and while it appealed to me as a teenager, I now find it tiresome. A coda where a more humble murderer gets their comeuppance is better than the florid showdown with Zeck.
In general the concept of a master criminal doesn’t hold much water, and there’s nothing particularly memorable about Arnold Zeck. Indeed, there’s an argument that Moriarty is the most banal part of Conan Doyle’s legacy, at least in terms of a trope being imitated over and over again to little fresh effect.
3a) Trouble in Triplicate — contains “Before I Die,” “Help Wanted, Male” and “Instead of Evidence” (1949)
4a) Three Doors to Death — contains “Man Alive,” “Omit Flowers” and “Door to Death” (1950)
5a) Curtains for Three — contains “The Gun with Wings,” “Bullet for One” and “Disguise for Murder” (1951)
6a) Triple Jeopardy — contains “Home to Roost,” “The Cop-Killer” and “The Squirt and the Monkey” (1952)
The best story in Trouble in Triplicate is “Instead of Evidence,” featuring an enjoyably inane novelty store mogul and an eerie final “chase” with Archie and the murderer.
Early on, Wolfe puffs out his chest when a client offers to pay in cash (thus offering a chance to subvert the IRS).
Wolfe’s look stopped him. “Pfui,” Wolfe said. He hadn’t had as good a chance to show off for a month. “I am not a common cheat. Not that I am a saint. Given adequate provocation, I might conceivably cheat a man – or a woman or even a child. But you are suggesting that I cheat, not a man or woman or child, but a hundred and forty million of my fellow citizens. Bah.”
Three Doors to Death includes the excellent “Omit Flowers.” Nobody sweats a witness quite like the orchid grower at 35th street:
She was doing her best and I admired her for it. But the trouble was that she had to decide on her line right there facing us, and having to make up your mind with Nero Wolfe’s eyes, open an eighth of an inch, on you, is no situation for an amateur.
Not all of the occasions where Wolfe and Archie interact with gangsters and underworld types are convincing. However, the conceit of “Disguise for Murder” from Curtains for Three is intriguing enough, and in this case running the gamut from a flower show to B-movie heavies works well.
Triple Jeopardy is perhaps the weakest of the postwar collections overall, with dubious plots concerning communism and immigration. The diverting milieu of “The Squirt and the Monkey” concerns the production of a comic strip in a high-pressure working environment, an amusing situation reminiscent of the radio setting of And Be a Villain.
14) Murder by the Book (1951)
If a crime novelist stays in the game long enough, eventually they will set a murder in the world of book publishing. Stout exploited his insider’s knowledge on three occasions; all three rank with his best.
Murder by the Book begins with what is now a cliché, although in 1951 it wouldn’t have been quite so familiar: A young woman is dead, and justice must be served. (Hillary Waugh’s Last Seen Wearing…, another landmark in “dead girl” tales, would come out the following year.) Wolfe and Archie are hired by the father, John Wellman, to make sense of his daughter’s death in a hit-and-run.
In more recent years, murder mysteries have highlighted emotional trauma. (William McIlvanney’s bestselling Laidlaw from 1977 helped usher in a new era of grieving families and mournful detectives who just can’t let go of a case.) However, during the Golden Age of Detection and the early hardboiled years, everything was much more matter of fact. It is well established Nero Wolfe rarely turns on his brain for any reason other than money (although in Too Many Cooks he solves a murder for a sausage recipe and in Black Orchids he drives a hard bargain for the flowers described in the title).
The opening discussion of Murder by the Book, which shows the meeting of the emotional “dead girl” idiom with mercenary Great Detective, still manages to surprise and impress:
Wolfe grunted. “You want me to prove it was murder and find the murderer, with evidence?”
“Yes.” Wellman hesitated, opening his mouth and closing it again. He glanced at me and returned to Wolfe. “I tell you, Mr. Wolfe, I am willing to admit that what I am doing is vindictive and wicked. My wife thinks it is, and so does the pastor of my church. I was home one day last week, and they both said so. It is sinful to be vindictive, but here I am, and I’m going through with it. Even if it was just a hit-and-run accident I don’t think the police are going to find him, and whatever it was I’m not going back to Peoria and sell groceries until he’s found and made to pay for it. I’ve got a good paying business, and I own some property, and I never figured on dying a pauper, but I will if I have to, to get the murderous criminal that killed my daughter. Maybe I shouldn’t say that. I don’t know you too well, I only know you by reputation, and maybe you won’t want to work for a man who can say an unchristian thing like that, so maybe it’s a mistake to say it, but I want to be honest about it.”
Wellman took his glasses off and started wiping them with a handkerchief. That showed his better side. He didn’t want to embarrass Wolfe by keeping his eyes on him while Wolfe was deciding whether to take on a job for such an implacable bastard as John R. Wellman of Peoria, Illinois.
“I’ll be honest too,” Wolfe said dryly. “The morality of vengeance is not a factor in my acceptance or refusal of a case. But it was a mistake for you to say it, because I would have asked for a retainer of two thousand dollars and now I’ll make it five thousand. Not merely to gouge you, though. Since the police have turned up nothing in seventeen days, it will probably take a lot of work and money. With a few more facts I’ll have enough to start on.”
“I wanted to be honest about it,” Wellman insisted.
Wolfe and Archie’s spare and unsentimental approach to a case pays off, leaving room for a stunning final scene where Wellman asks the probable murderer to shake his hand. The murderer cannot, and the case is closed.
Peggy Potter of Glendale, California gives Archie what might be his best flirtation of the whole series.
15) Prisoner’s Base (1952)
Stout must have been intrigued with the slightly emotional and sentimental qualities of Murder by the Book, for he doubles down on that side of things for the next three novels, Prisoner’s Base, The Golden Spiders, and The Black Mountain. The cliche tagline, “This time it’s personal,” could be applied to any of the three.
In Prisoner’s Base, Archie’s feels responsible for the death of a potential client. Wolfe isn’t interested, so Archie is going to try to solve it all himself.
Eventually Wolfe has to step in, of course, whereupon Stout manages to turn the book in a fresh direction. Again, dominance hierarchy is vitally important to the daily routine at the brownstone, and that hierarchy is expressed through written and unwritten contracts. In Prisoner’s Base, Archie himself becomes Wolfe’s client, so — for example — Archie sits in the chair for clients (not behind his usual desk). At the book’s close, their unexpected discussion of the expense account could only exist in this particular universe.
16) The Golden Spiders (1953)
The Golden Spiders pairs exactly with the previous Prisoner’s Base, with both Wolfe and Archie feeling guilty for the death of a little boy who neither took seriously. A tough scene where Archie, Saul, and the rest interact with some hoodlums feels a bit out of place; maybe Stout had read some of the new kid on the block, Mickey Spillane. Still an excellent entry overall, with several scenes of Wolfe at his best, especially when getting the upper hand of an ethically-challenged lawyer.
17) The Black Mountain (1954)
The theme of, “This time it’s personal,” climaxes with Wolfe investigating the deaths of friends and family. To bring their killer(s) to justice, Wolfe and Archie travel to Lovćen, the mountain in Montenegro where Wolfe spent his boyhood.
A superficial exploration of Balkan politics bookends The Black Mountain with Over My Dead Body, while the extended campaign waged by Wolfe outside of the brownstone recalls In the Best Families.
In 1954, international travel was still fairly exotic, and there are moments of the travelogue that recall the fresh series of James Bond books by Ian Fleming. Stout writing travelogue is good Stout! Although perhaps one would wish for just a bit of a closer look at the house Wolfe was born in…
Coincidences are part of the detective story genre, even among very best practitioners, but Stout hides his more outrageous coincidences better when Wolfe is home than when he is abroad. The last third of The Black Mountain is impossible to swallow, but, as always, there is some enjoyable banter between Wolfe and Archie.
Speaking of James Bond: Ian Fleming was influenced by Rex Stout when creating the 007 series. There’s at least a bit of Archie Goodwin in the original literary Bond, while Bond’s boss M took some lessons from Nero Wolfe. Fleming makes the connection surprisingly explicit in On His Majesty’s Secret Service:
M himself went behind his desk and sat down. He was about to come on duty. Bond automatically took his traditional place across the desk from his Chief.
M began to fill a pipe. “What the devil’s the name of that fat American detective who’s always fiddling about with orchids, those obscene hybrids from Venezuela and so forth? Then he comes sweating out of his orchid house, eats a gigantic meal of some foreign muck and solves the murder. What’s he called?”
“Nero Wolfe, sir. They’re written by a chap called Rex Stout. I like them.”
“They’re readable,” condescended M. “But I was thinking of the orchid stuff in them. How in hell can a man like those disgusting flowers? Why, they’re damned near animals, and their colours, all those pinks and mauves and the blotchy yellow tongues, are positively hideous! Now that’ – M waved at the meagre little bloom in the tooth-glass -‘that’s the real thing. That’s an Autumn Lady’s Tresses – spiranthes spiralis, not that I care particularly. Flowers in England as late as October and should be under the ground by now. But I got this forced-late specimen from a man I know – assistant to a chap called Summerhayes who’s the orchid king at Kew. My friend’s experimenting with cultures of a fungus which oddly enough is a parasite on a lot of orchids, but, at the same time, gets eaten by the orchid and acts as its staple diet. Mycorhiza it’s called.”
M gave another of his rare smiles. “But you needn’t write it down. Just wanted to take a leaf out of this fellow Nero Wolfe’s book.”
7a) Three Men Out — contains “Invitation to Murder,” “The Zero Clue” and “This Won’t Kill You” (1954)
It’s hard to be objective about this set, for I had it early and read it over and over. My favorite then and now is “The Zero Clue,” which has Wolfe temporarily misunderstanding a puzzle piece. When the penny finally drops and he realizes his mistake, Wolfe immediately cues a final dramatic showdown.
18) Before Midnight (1955)
Wolfe is at his outrageous best in this timeless frolic concerning a high-end advertising agency on Madison Avenue. It’s so silly and so good.
At the close, there is a lovely nod to a famous book from Golden Age of Detection: Archie’s interrogation of Wolfe recalls the final monologue of Dr. James Sheppard in Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
Chapter 2 is a good example of how Stout uses brownstone routine and business contracts to sophisticated comic effect.
Since I got home late that night and there was nothing urgent on, it was after nine Wednesday morning before I got down to the kitchen for my snack of grapefruit, oatmeal, griddle cakes, bacon, blackberry jam, and coffee. Wolfe had of course breakfasted in his room as usual and gone up to the plant rooms on the roof for his morning session with the orchids.
“It is a good thing, Archie,” Fritz remarked, spooning batter, his own batter, onto the griddle for my fourth cake, “to see you break your fast with proper leisure. Disturbed by no interruptions.”
I finished a paragraph in the Times on the rack before me, swallowed, sipped some coffee, and spoke. “Fritz, I’ll be honest with you. There’s no one else on earth I could stand in the same room while I’m eating breakfast and reading the morning paper. When you speak you leave it entirely up to me whether I reply, or even whether I listen. However, you should know that I understand you. Take what you just said. What you meant was that no interruptions means no clients and no cases, and you’re wondering if the bank account is getting too low for comfort. Right?”
“Yes.” He flipped the thick golden-brown disc onto my plate. “But if you think I am worried, no. It is never a question of worry here. With Mr. Wolfe and you—”
The phone rang. I took it there on the kitchen extension, and a deep baritone voice told me it was Rudolph Hansen and wanted to speak to Nero Wolfe. I said Mr. Wolfe wouldn’t be available until eleven o’clock but I would take a message. He said he had to see him immediately and would be there in fifteen minutes. I said nothing doing before eleven unless he told me why it was so urgent. He said he would arrive in fifteen minutes and hung up.
Meanwhile Fritz had ditched the cake because it had been off the griddle too long, and started another one.
Ordinarily when a stranger has made an appointment I do a little research on him in advance, but I wouldn’t have got very far in a quarter of an hour, and anyway I had another cake and cup of coffee coming. I had just finished and gone to the office with the Times to put it on my desk when the doorbell rang. When I went to the hall I saw out on the stoop, through the one-way glass panel in the door, not one stranger but four—three middle-aged men and one who had been, all well dressed and two with homburgs.
I opened the door the two inches that the chain bolt allowed and spoke through the crack. “Your names, please?”
“I’m Rudolph Hansen. I telephoned.”
“And the others?”
“This is ridiculous! Open the doorl”
“It only seems ridiculous, Mr. Hansen. There are at least a hundred people within a hundred miles, which takes in Sing Sing, who would like to tell Mr. Wolfe what they think of him and maybe prove it. I admit you’re not hoods, but with four of you—names, please?”
“I’m an attorney-at-law. These are clients of mine. Mr. Oliver Buff. Mr. Patrick O’Garro. Mr. Vernon Assa.”
The names were certainly no help, but I had had time to size them up, and if I knew anything at all about faces they had come not to make trouble but to get out from under some. So I opened the door, helped them put their hats and coats on the big old walnut rack, ushered them into the office, and onto chairs, sat at my desk, and told them:
“I’m sorry, gentlemen, but that’s the way it is. Mr. Wolfe never comes to the, office until eleven. The rule has been broken, but it takes a lot of breaking. The only way would be for you to tell me all about it and persuade me to tackle him, and then for me to go and tell him all about it and try to persuade him. Even if I succeeded, all that would take twenty-five minutes, and it’s now twenty-five to eleven, so you might as well relax.”
“Your name’s Goodwin,” Hansen stated. His baritone didn’t sound as deep as it had on the phone. I had awarded him the red leather chair near the end of Woffe’s desk, but, with his long thin neck and gray skin and big ears, he clashed with it. A straight-backed painted job with no upholstery would have suited him better.
“Mr. Goodwin,” he said, “this is a confidential matter of imperative urgency. I insist that you tell Mr. Wolfe we must see him at once.”
“We all do,” one of the clients said in an executive tone. Another had popped up from his chair as soon as he sat down and was pacing the floor. The third was trying to keep a match steady enough to light a cigarette. Seeing that I was in for a pointless wrangle, I said politely, “Okay, I’ll see what I can do,” and got up and left the room.
In the kitchen, Fritz, who was cleaning up after breakfast and who would never have presumed to ask in words if it looked like business, asked it with a glance as I entered and went to the table where the phones were. I lifted my brows at him, took the house phone, and buzzed the plant rooms.
In a minute Wolfe growled in my ear. “Well?”
“I’m calling from the kitchen. In the office are four men with Sulka shirts and Firman shoes in a panic. They say they must we you at once.”
“Yes, sir. I’m merely notifying you that we have company. I told them I’d see what I can do, and that’s what I can do.” I hung up before he could, took the other phone, and dialed a number.
Nathaniel Parker, the lawyer Wolfe always calls on when he is driven to that extremity, wasn’t in, but his clerk, Sol Ehrlich, was, and he had heard of Rudolph Hansen. All he knew was that Hansen was a senior partner in one of the big midtown firms with a fat practice, and that he had quite a reputation as a smooth operator. When I hung up I told Fritz that there was a pretty good prospect of snaring a fee that would pay our wages for several months, provided he would finish waking me up by supplying another cup of coffee.
When the sound came, at eleven o’clock on the dot, of Wolfe’s elevator starting down, I went to the hall, met him as he emerged, reported on Hansen, and followed him into the office. As usual, I waited to pronounce names until he had reached his chair behind his desk, because he doesn’t like to shake hands with strangers, and then Hansen beat me to it. He arose to put a card on Wolfe’s desk and sat down again.
“My card,” he said. “I’m Rudolph Hansen, attorney-at-law. These gentlemen are clients of mine—that is, their firm is. Mr. Oliver Buff. Mr. Patrick O’Garro. Mr. Vernon Assa. We’ve lost some valuable time waiting for you. We must see you privately.”
Wolfe was frowning. The first few minutes with prospective clients are always tough for him. Possibly there will be no decent excuse for turning them down, and if not he’ll have to go to work. He shook his head. “This is private. You glance at Mr. Goodwin. He may not be indispensable, but he is irremovable.”
“We prefer to see you alone.”
“Then I’m sorry, sir. You have indeed lost time.”
He looked at his clients, and so did I. Oliver Buff, the one who had finished with middle age, had a round red face that made his hair look whiter, and his hair made his face look redder. He and Hansen wore the homburgs. Patrick O’Garro was brown all over—eyes, hair, suit, tie, shoes, and socks. Of course his shirt was white. The eyes were bright, quick, and clever. Vernon Assa was short and a little plump, with fat shoulders, and either he had just got back from a month in Florida or he hadn’t needed to go. The brown getup would have gone fine with his skin, but he was in gray with black shoes.
“What the hell,” he muttered.
“Go ahead,” Buff told Hansen.
The lawyer returned to Wolfe. “Mr. Goodwin is your employee, of course?”
“He is present at this conversation in his capacity as your agent?”
“Agent? Very well. Yes.”
“Then that’s understood. First I would like to suggest that you engage me as your counsel and hand me one dollar as a retaining fee.”
I opened my eyes at him. The guy must be cuckoo, for fee shipments that office was strictly a one-way street.
“Not an appealing suggestion,” Wolfe said drily. “You have a brief for it?”
“Certainly. As you know, a conversation between a lawyer and his client is a privileged communication and its disclosure may not be compelled. I wish to establish that confidential relationship with you, lawyer and client, and then tell you of certain circumstances which have led these gentlemen to seek your help. Obviously that will be no protection against voluntary disclosure by you, since you may end the relationship at any moment, but you will be able to refuse a disclosure at the demand of any authority without incurring any penalty. They and I will be at your mercy, but your record and reputation give us complete confidence in your integrity and discretion. I suggest that you retain me for a specific function: to advise you on the desirability of taking a case about to be offered to you by the firm of Lippert, Buff and Assa.”
“What is that firm?”
“You must have heard of it. The advertising agency.”
Wolfe’s lips were going left to right and back again. It was his kind of smile. “Very ingenious. I congratulate you. But as you say, you will be at my mercy. I may end the relationship at any moment, with no commitment whatever.”
“Just a minute,” O’Garro put in, his clever bright brown eyes darting from Wolfe to Hansen. “Must it be like that?”
“It’s the only way, Pat,” the lawyer told him. “If you hire him, you either trust him or you don’t.”
“I don’t like it… but if it’s the only way …”
“It is. Oliver?”
Buff said yes.
“Then you retain me, Mr. Wolfe? As specified?
“Yes. — Archie, give Mr. Hansen a dollar.”
I got one from my wallet, suppressing a pointed comment which the transaction certainly deserved, crossed to the attorney-at-law, and handed it over.
“I give you this,” I told him formally, “as the agent for Mr. Nero Wolfe.”
On the topic of lawyers: Erle Stanley Gardner was born three years after Rex Stout and published the first Perry Mason novel the year before the appearance of Nero Wolfe. Both authors were wildly prolific, both were wildly successful. Early on, both appeared serialized in The American Magazine. Both Perry Mason and Nero Wolfe have a fraught relationship with the cops, both have the same cast of supporting characters over the course of 40+ years worth of books.
As far as I know, neither commented publicly on the other, but some kind of rivalry and/or respect must have existed between Stout and Gardner.
Gardner invented a fresh character, a detective in disguise as a defense attorney. The Perry Mason books have workmanlike prose at best, but the character took hold on the popular imagination. At this point, Mason has joined a truly elite cadre of literary investigators that command general recognition: not quite Sherlock Holmes or James Bond, but perhaps more than Sam Spade or Hercule Poirot. At any rate, Perry Mason’s name is certainly better known than Nero Wolfe’s.
Mason’s fame is in great part due to the television franchise, which existed not just once but twice with Raymond Burr as the lead. In 2020 a new iteration (notably “dark” as befits an era that prizes “dark” Superman and “dark” Batman) has landed on HBO.
The Mason franchise is successful partly because the books are functional. They are straight up. They are putty in the hands of those wishing to adapt Gardner to the stage or screen.
A Nero Wolfe Mystery with Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton gave Stout’s work a proper chance at extending the name of Nero Wolfe to a larger audience over the course of twenty episodes in 2001/2002. The program is nice to look at, although surely the specificity of the Wolfe world felt like a straight jacket to the production team. While watching the screen, I keep thinking of the set designer frantically turning the pages of the books, struggling to decide what to emulate, what to change, what to leave out.
The matter of character portrayal is similarly tricky. Consider the lengthly excerpt of Before Midnight just above. It’s a knowing, sardonic, smart, and unforced. The texture is full of implication and suggestion. The mind of the reader fills in many blanks.
Putting those characters on screen inevitably streamlines and simplifies the tone. Maury Chaykin is a major artist and he does as well as he can as Wolfe — especially since he looks the part — but his portrayal inevitably remains cartoonish. Since Perry Mason was two-dimensional to begin with, Raymond Burr simply did not need to tackle the same kind of problem. (I admit Timothy Hutton as Archie Goodwin is essentially perfect.)
My criticism of A Nero Wolfe Mystery is not shared by many fans, who love the TV series. As of this writing, each of the episodes available on YouTube has at least 500,000 views. The Wolfe Pack was consulted by the production team when A&E green-lighted the project, and, perhaps in return, the Pack seems to regard A Nero Wolfe Mystery as canon, or at least nearly canon, an act of largesse they also extend to the fifteen novels featuring Wolfe and Archie written by Robert Goldsborough since the death of Rex Stout.
(Terry Teachout, another long-time reader of the corpus, makes a positive case for the A&E series in this detailed 2002 review.)
8a) Three Witnesses — contains “The Next Witness,” “When a Man Murders” and “Die Like a Dog” (1956)
“The Next Witness” is one of the very best novelettes, with a conceit that suits Wolfe down to the ground.
19) Might as Well Be Dead (1956)
Another strong entry. As in Murder by the Book, a client from the middle of America appears at 35th street for help with an offspring, in this case finding a missing son. While John Wellman was a sympathetic character, James Herold is not, and at one point Wolfe has to strategize ways to handle Herold the same way he usually does with Inspector Cramer. There is interesting complexity in the temporary near-alignment between Archie and Selma Molloy.
Sherlock Holmes could be surprisingly ignorant about a commonplace facts. Stout occasionally plays that riff to fresh effect, as in this favorite passage from Might as Well be Dead:
“What time does the morgue close?”
That’s one way I know he’s a genius. Only a genius would dare to ask such a question after functioning as a private detective for more than twenty years right there in Manhattan, and specializing in murder. The hell of it was, he really didn’t know.
“It doesn’t close,” Saul said.
“Then we can proceed. Archie. Call Mrs. Molloy and ask her to meet you there.”
9a) Three for the Chair — contains “A Window for Death,” “Immune to Murder” and “Too Many Detectives” (1957)
It’s hard to believe “A Window for Death” is from 1957, it feels like a throwback to the pre-war years when Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr produced many short stories with “impossible” plots involving unlikely gear such as dry ice. Wolfe’s easy dominance in “Too Many Detectives” makes it a fun entry for fans.
20) If Death Ever Slept (1957)
If Death Ever Slept suggests one of the lesser novelettes, where the mana isn’t flowing quite so freely and the characters are a bit over-the-top. However, as with an earlier second-class entry, The Second Confession, the eventual reveal of the murderer is a worthy surprise.
10a) And Four to Go — contains “Christmas Party,” “Easter Parade,” “Fourth of July Picnic” and “Murder Is No Joke” (1958)
The first time I read And Four to Go I was momentarily tiring of the series and formed a snap judgement these four short stories were noticeably weak. To my surprise, when I finally looked again upon the occasion of this overview, they were breezy and enjoyable. Perhaps Stout should have trimmed out a few thousand words of plot from previous selected novelettes and packaged them four to a bunch.
Admittedly, the settings are perhaps even more ridiculous than usual, but in every case Wolfe manages to pull off a neat trick when snaring the guilty. The best of the set is “Murder Is No Joke,” where Wolfe and Archie move in unusually smooth tandem.
21) Champagne for One (1958)
Champagne for One is another particular favorite, each beat drops at just the right time.
Sexual jealously is a familiar enough motive in murder mysteries, but Stout’s casual voice somehow makes these kinds of passionate scenarios more plausible than the heavier affect of many other authors.
In the 1990s, the whole Wolfe series was repackaged in mass market paperback by Bantam with introductions by various notables. (These are the editions available on Kindle today at a moderate price.) While many of the introductions are forgettable, usually by fellow mystery authors plainly a loss at how to introduce a champion, Champagne for One was graced by the presence of one of the most important American musicians, Lena Horne. After explaining that she eventually got to know Stout personally and loved him not just as a writer but as a man, Horne continues:
In a peripatetic “showbiz” life on the road — particularly in the 1950s, wen I went from country to country, not just city to city — Nero Wolfe was a sort of solace. I was a fanatic reader traveling from hotel to hotel and dressing room to dressing room. I read between shows and I read in the wee hours of the morning, when showbiz kept me too keyed up to sleep. I loved mysteries. Mysteries satisfied every level of excitement and enjoyment. Nero Wolfe, however, was special. I read Nero Wolfe whenever I was homesick — buying the books at Harrods in London, and in English-language bookshops all over Europe.
Thank you, Lena Horne! Much of my adult life I have also been on tour, taking exactly the same kind of mystery medicine you proscribe.
In my case, I read all of Nero Wolfe while still a teen. Eventually, I started collecting vintage hardback editions — just reader’s copies, usually the book club edition — and would always read one or two when I got off the road from a Bad Plus tour and decompressing at home. At this point, there’s no doubt about it: Of all written literature, these are the books I know best.
22) Plot It Yourself (1959)
The second of the novels set in the world of publishing is just as good as Murder By the Book. Particularly enjoyable are the occasions where Stout lifts the hood and explains a few things about prose.
Wolfe takes on the task of stopping repeat cases of false plagiarism suits in part because he likes an author, Philip Harvey. Wolfe being Wolfe, he doesn’t tell Harvey that he knows and respects the author’s work until a curt aside:
“So that’s the situation,” Harvey told Wolfe. “And now Alice Porter is repeating. Something has to be done. It has to be stopped. About a dozen lawyers have been consulted, authors’ and publishers’ lawyers, and none of them has an idea that is worth a damn. Except one maybe-the one who suggested that we put it up to you. Can you stop it?”
Wolfe shook his head. “You don’t mean that, Mr Harvey.”
“I don’t mean what?”
“That question. If you expect me to say no, you wouldn’t have come. If you expect me to say yes, you must think me a swaggerer, and again you wouldn’t have come. I certainly wouldn’t undertake to make it impossible for anyone ever again to extort money from an author by the stratagem you have described.”
“We wouldn’t expect you to.”
“Then what would you expect?”
“We would expect you to do something about this situation that would make us pay your bill not only because we had to but also because we felt that you had earned it and we had got our money’s worth.”
Wolfe nodded. “That’s more like it. That was phrased as might be expected from the author of Why the Gods Laugh, which I have just read. I had been thinking that you write better than you talk, but you put that well because you had been challenged. Do you want to hire me on those terms?”
One of the more esoteric clues is worthy of Sherlock Holmes. Wolfe concludes that three manuscripts where written by the same person because of where the author chooses to break and start a new paragraph. He explains:
“A clever man might successfully disguise every element of his style but one — the paragraphing. Diction and syntax may be determined and controlled by rational processes in full consciousness, but paragraphing-the decision whether to take short hops or long ones, whether to hop in the middle of a thought or action or finish it first — that comes from instinct, from the depths of personality.”
Later, Archie suggests we join in the fun:
I saw what Wolfe meant. I put the stories in the safe and then considered the problem of the table-load of paper. The statuses and functions of the inhabitants of that old brownstone on West 35th Street are clearly understood. Wolfe is the owner and the commandant. Fritz Brenner is the chef and housekeeper and is responsible for the condition of the castle with the exception of the plant rooms, the office, and my bedroom. Theodore Horstmann is the orchid-tender, with no responsibilities or business on the lower floors. He eats in the kitchen with Fritz. I eat in the dining room with Wolfe, except when we are not speaking; then I join Fritz and Theodore in the kitchen, or get invited somewhere, or take a friend to a restaurant, or go to Bert’s diner around the corner on Tenth Avenue and eat beans. My status and function are whatever a given situation calls for, and the question who decides what it calls for is what occasionally creates an atmosphere in which Wolfe and I are not speaking. The next sentence is to be, “But the table-load of paper, being in the office, was clearly up to me,” and I have to decide whether to put it here or start a new paragraph with it. You see how subtle it is. Paragraph it yourself.
As with Murder by the Book, the final confrontation in Plot it Yourself packs genuine impact.
23) Too Many Clients (1960)
At the start of the new decade, Rex Stout is 74. With Too Many Clients we have the sexiest Wolfe entry: One could almost call Stout a dirty old man.
Before his murder, a modern day satyr kept a love nest replete with vast collection of lingerie, nude photos as wallpaper, and a revolving door of willing partners. In its way, it is quite strong stuff.
There’s also the matter of the beating a wife receives from a cuckolded husband. Archie approves of this action, which is terrible, although the wife herself seems to have welcomed the beating…again, quite strong stuff, right next door to the lurid 50’s masochism of Jim Thompson or David Goodis.
It’s important for a detective to have contacts at a newspaper, and Lon Cohen of the New York Gazette plays a helpful role in many Wolfe and Archie cases.
If Lon Cohen had a title, I didn’t know what it was and I doubt if he did. Just his name was on the door of the little room on the twentieth floor, two doors down from the corner office of the publisher, and in that situation you would think he would be out of the dust stirred up by the daily whirlwind of a newspaper, but he always seemed to be up, not only on what had just happened but on what was just going to happen. We kept no account of how we stood on give and take over the years, but it pretty well evened up…
When I entered the little room that Monday evening he was on the phone, and I took the chair at the end of his desk and sat and listened. It went on for minutes, and all he said was “No,” nine times. When he hung up I said, “Just a yes man.”
24) The Final Deduction (1961)
A tale of kidnapping, and slightly more somber in tone than many of the postwar novels, with the client’s family unit disintegrating over the course of the book. The clues are good, and the “final deduction” satisfies.
25) Gambit (1962)
Another superb entry, with a puzzle plot worthy of the Golden Age of Detection.
The book begins with a famous scene, Wolfe burning a dictionary: “He considers it subversive because it threatens the integrity of the English language.”
Wolfe casually comments on non-essential topics all the time, but only occasionally are we treated to a sustained oration on anything but the case at hand. In Gambit we get a proper peek at his dinner conversation:
As we entered the office Wolfe was frowning at a corner of his desk, rubbing his nose with a finger tip, and we got no attention from him. Sally went to the red leather chair and, after sitting in silence for a full minutes, said, “Good morning.”
He moved the frown to her, blinked, and demanded, “Why did you take a volume of Voltaire?”
Her eyes widened. “Archie said I could take any book except the one you’re reading.”
“But why Voltaire?”
“No special reason. Just that I’ve never read him…”
“Unh,” Wolfe said. “We’ll discuss it at lunch. There has been a development. Did Archie tell –” He stopped short. He had thoughtlessly allowed himself to speak familiarly to a woman. He corrected it. “Did Mr. Goodwin tell you that a policeman has been here? Inspector Cramer?”
At the dinner table, and with coffee in the office afterwards, Wolfe resumed on the subject he had started at lunch—Voltaire. The big question was, could a man be called great on account of the way he used words, even though he was a toady, a trimmer, a forger, and an intellectual fop. That had been dealt with at lunch, and Voltaire had come out fairly well except on the toady count. How could you call a man great who sought the company and favors of dukes and duchesses, of Richelieu, of Frederick of Prussia? But it was at dinner and in the office that Voltaire really got it. What finally ruled him out was something that hadn’t been mentioned at lunch at all: he had no palate and not much appetite. He was indifferent to food; he might even eat only once a day; and he drank next to nothing. All his life he was extremely skinny, and in his later years he was merely a skeleton. To call him a great man was absurd; strictly speaking, he wasn’t a man at all since he had no palate and a dried-up stomach. He was a remarkable word-assembly plant, but he wasn’t a man, let alone a great one.
I suppose I shouldn’t do this. I should either report Wolfe’s table talk verbatim, and you could either enjoy it or skip it, or I shouldn’t mention it. Usually I leave it out, but that evening I had a suspicion that I want to put in. Reporting to him on my visit to the Blount apartment, I had of course included a description of Kalmus: mostly bones and skin. I suspected that was why Wolfe picked on Voltaire for both lunch and dinner, leading up to the climax.
All those unheard dinner conversations give breadth to our hero. Conan Doyle also used endless study as building block for a character, but nobody wants to go to dinner with Sherlock Holmes and be lectured about intellectual minutiae. (The recent BBC adaptation with Benedict Cumberbatch plays up the hectoring and socially awkward side of Sherlock.)
Wolfe reads all the time, he reads everything imaginable, and then he offers his own amused and amusing take on it all for his close circle. Wolfeans drool at the thought of attending just one of those meals in the brownstone — not for the food, but for the talk.
26) The Mother Hunt (1963)
Like Murder by the Book and Plot it Yourself, The Mother Hunt is set in the world of publishing. In substance it recalls Before Midnight: a romp with amusing side characters (Nicholas Losseff, the only button fiend in America, is one of the best) and Wolfe leaving the brownstone and going across town to catch the killer in the last act.
I’ve read both Before Midnight and The Mother Hunt about twenty times each. At this point I can remember who the killer is when I begin the journey, but during my first dozen perusals I couldn’t recall the perpetrator until he was randomly picked out of a line-up in the final pages thanks to a new clue. Again, the transient qualities of the killer’s personality has no detrimental effect on the book.
Archie has a proper affair with the client, and at the book’s close, Wolfe and Fritz worry that Archie and the client might get married. It would have been one way to end the series, and end it on a high note besides. After The Mother Hunt the Wolfe and Archie books lose some effervescence. The seven novels yet to come are still worthy, but the world is changing and Stout is getting older…
My own picks as the best?
The following ten Nero Wolfe novels define the idiom. They are a ritualized blend of comic and tragic: middlebrow entertainment aspiring to something greater. This era of the corpus is powered by the author’s naive post-war American optimism, and ends just as the stormiest currents of the ’60s begin. Each volume is a flawless blast of escapism, a welcome dish of comfort food when one feels battered by the elements.
The Silent Speaker (1946)
Too Many Women (1947)
And Be A Villain (1948)
Murder by the Book (1951)
Before Midnight (1955)
Might As Well Be Dead (1956)
Champagne for One (1958)
Plot It Yourself (1959)
The Mother Hunt (1963)
11a) Three at Wolfe’s Door — contains “Poison à la Carte,” “Method Three for Murder” and “The Rodeo Murder” (1960)
12a) Homicide Trinity — contains “Eeny Meeny Murder Mo,” “Death of a Demon” and “Counterfeit for Murder” (1962)
13a) Trio for Blunt Instruments — contains “Kill Now—Pay Later,” “Murder Is Corny” and “Blood Will Tell” (1964)
The final nine novelettes from the early ’60s rank with Stout’s finest shorter stories. The magazine market was receding as Stout finally figured out the correct smaller-scale proportions of set-up, humor, tragedy, and plot.
Two of my favorites are “Method Three for Murder” from Three at Wolfe’s Door and “Counterfeit for Murder” from Homicide Trinity. Both stories also have unusually good female characters, especially the cranky but lovable firebrand Hattie Annis in “Counterfeit for Murder.”
Trio for Blunt Instruments boasts the most euphonious title of the anthologies, and it arguably offers the best content as well. “Kill Now — Pay Later” gets off to a foggy start, but our vision clears when Wolfe has his client sue the members of a corporation and Inspector Cramer. “Murder is Corny” has Wolfe rhapsodizing about a favorite vegetable while tracking down a truly distinctive killer. “Blood Will Tell” is unusually intense and gritty, with certain aspects concerning the motive returning from thirty years earlier and The League of Frightened Men. Overall, a superb finish to the run of 38 shorter Wolfe and Archie tales.
27) A Right to Die (1964)
For the next two novels, the series takes a determined turn towards the political.
Many years ago, Paul Whipple supplied a vital clue in Too Many Cooks. In A Right to Die, Whipple returns to ask for help stopping the marriage of his son, the same sort of ludicrous request that starts The Second Confession.
The book is a way for Stout to publicly update his stance towards racism in light of the Civil Rights era. As a Nero Wolfe tale, the book is pretty good, but it inevitably fails as a social justice missive, at least when looked at through a contemporary lens. While it isn’t as dated as Too Many Cooks, A Right to Die still has problematic aspects like the expected white savior trope and the N-word used for a joke. (It’s a pretty good joke, concerning the word “unquote,” but, still.)
That said, I’m not at all sure that the book didn’t do some social justice good at the time. I wonder what Lena Horne would have said about it.
Wolfe’s memorable comment on prejudice:
‘The mind or soul or psyche – take the term you prefer – of any man below the level of consciousness is a preposterous mishmash of cesspool and garden.”
28) The Doorbell Rang (1965)
Wolfe takes on J. Edgar Hoover…and wins.
A famous book, a bestseller, one that was a topic of conversation even among those who didn’t usually read mysteries. The FBI paid attention; one hundred pages in Stout’s FOIA file are dedicated to The Doorbell Rang.
For some, The Doorbell Rang is a cornerstone of the saga. However, when I was very young, one of the reference works on my mother’s bookshelf was Murder Ink: The Mystery Reader’s Companion by Dilys Winn. Winn’s terse comment on The Doorbell Rang was, “Most Overrated Wolfe.”
In time I have come to agree with Winn. Once the charismatic boldness of the central conceit wears off, one realizes that the book barely hangs together. However, there are still plenty of great scenes.
29) Death of a Doxy (1966)
Politics are now left behind until the last book, A Family Affair.
Death of a Doxy is my favorite of the novels written during Stout’s last decade. The use of long-time associate Orrie Cather as motivating lever is superbly handled. Nightclub singer Julie Jaquette makes up a song about Wolfe. (“Go, go, big man!”) The breakthrough clue satisfies, and Archie’s concluding action — deciding whether the final death was murder or suicide by coin toss — is perfect.
In Murder Ink: The Mystery Reader’s Companion, Dilys Winn’s top five, “Wolfe at his Best,” includes Too Many Cooks, Some Buried Caesar, And Be a Villain, Champagne for One, and Death of Doxy — a slim and wide-ranging list that is easy to approve of.
Another good selection is by Terry Teachout, who in a speech for the Wolfe Pack nominated The League of Frightened Men, Some Buried Caesar, The Silent Speaker, Too Many Women, Murder by the Book, Before Midnight, Plot It Yourself, Too Many Clients, The Doorbell Rang, and Death of a Doxy.
If I had to stretch my own list of ten best (given above) to an even dozen, I’d add one from the early years and one from the late years. It’s an obvious choice: Some Buried Caesar and Death of a Doxy, unanimous with Winn and Teachout.
30) The Father Hunt (1968)
Naturally, Stout was an influence on younger writers. When Donald E. Westlake was in a comic mood, the basic atmosphere of his prose (detailed, underdone, lots of know-how but wearing that learning lightly) could feel vaguely Stoutian.
Westlake was blurbed by Rex Stout at least twice. For The Busy Body (1966), Stout offered, “Donald Westlake keeps showing me people I would like to meet.” When Westlake debuted his recurring character Dortmunder with The Hot Rock (1970), Stout sent along, “A wonderful book!” Since there are those of us that regard the Dortmunder series as the second most re-readable comic mystery franchise — after Wolfe and Archie, of course — this second blurb can be seen as a lovely hand off, almost a changing of the guard.
In time, Westlake wrote an intro to The Father Hunt for the Bantam edition. Westlake contributes conventional praise, but he also points out a rather astonishing mistake in the plot: The client spends a whole weekend with her father (the missing father of the title) at Lily Rowan’s upstate getaway — yet somehow, Archie later tells her that she wouldn’t recognize her father’s name. Archie isn’t playing a trick, this is simply a gaffe.
A gaffe this size is a sure sign that Stout is losing a step. While both The Father Hunt and Death of a Dude to follow have good moments — Westlake says of The Father Hunt, “It all works,” which is fair — they are also two of the most forgettable in the series.
31) Death of a Dude (1969)
Lily Rowan gets more and more space in the late years. Death of Dude takes place on Rowan’s ranch in Montana, recalling her first appearance in the rustic setting of Some Buried Caesar. The way Wolfe plays two sides of local law enforcement against each other recalls Some Buried Caesar as well.
Woody Stepanian runs the Hall of Culture in podunk, where a slogan by the ancient Armenian poet and scholar Stephen Orbelian is displayed.
“…It says simply, ‘I love my country because it is mine.’ But of course it is not simple at all. It is very subtle. It means more different things than you would think possible for only eight words. With all respect, may I ask if you agree?”
Wolfe grunted. “I agree that it’s subtle. Extraordinary. Let’s sit and discuss it.”
Sadly, Archie leaves on an errand and we miss that conversation.
Patriotism was on Rex Stout’s mind. “I love my country because it is mine.”
A modern day meme goes, “You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”
If Stout had hung it up not three years earlier, he would have been known as the man who wrote a pretty good Civil Rights mystery (A Right to Die) before taking the fight to J. Edgar Hoover himself (The Doorbell Rang).
Instead, Stout stayed in public view and sided with those who believed the Vietnam war was an essential action in the fight against Communism.
Vietnam isn’t discussed in the Wolfe books, but Stout contributed hawkish think pieces to various publications in the manner of his propaganda work against the Nazis. The topic became a fierce bone of contention in Stout’s close circle.
Since WWII, a new Nero Wolfe novel was almost an annual occurrence. After Death of a Dude — and, perhaps not coincidentally, also after the My Lai massacre — there was a pause in production.
32) Please Pass the Guilt (1973)
As the American forces pulled out of Vietnam, the elderly Stout produced the first of two last Wolfe novels. Together, Please Pass the Guilt and A Family Affair are an excellent, wise and rather noir coda.
Please Pass the Guilt begins on a strikingly sour note, as Wolfe and Archie acquire private information by underhanded means. (For years, the series had favored of Golden Age of Detection, but this opening is pretty damn hardboiled.) Later, an office bombing has potential terrorism connections, and the final unmasking is also rather brutal in tone.
In its way, Please Pass the Guilt is a masterpiece, but these environs are rather desolate. It would be pleasant to go back to an earlier era, to the more freewheeling years at the brownstone…
33) A Family Affair (1975)
….but, of course, there’s no turning back, history marches in one direction. Apparently Stout wasn’t satisfied with the amount of rubble on view in Please Pass the Guilt, for explosive devices find their way inside the brownstone and amongst the family unit in A Family Affair. It’s hard to end a series well, but Stout pulls it off in high style.
Many Americans gamely supported the tough policies of Richard Nixon before being blindsided by the Watergate scandal. Stout was one of them. For a few exciting pages in A Family Affair it seems as if Stout will re-stage his coup against J. Edgar Hoover, this time against the Watergate conspirators.
That’s not to be. Instead, a reasonably conventional saga concerning sexual jealousy ensues, with one notable exception: the murderer has been known to Wolfe and Archie a very long time. The first time I read the conclusion as a teenager it took my breath away.
Stout’s body was failing, he knew that this would be the last book. He died at 88, six months after A Family Affair was published. The final lines:
Wolfe said, “Will you bring brandy, Archie? And two glasses. If Fritz is up, bring him and three glasses. We’ll try to get some sleep.”
Thanks to Lawrence Block, Terry Teachout, Sarah Weinman, Levi Stahl, and Vince Keenan for encouragement and helpful suggestions.
Update: Just a day or two after posting, another substantial appreciation (longer and more detailed than mine) of the corpus landed online by David Bordwell: Rex Stout: Logomachizing. Many of Bordwell’s observations are fresh (I would have pilfered a few things had I seen it in advance) and the magazine art situates the work in its original context.