In keeping with yesterday’s “old persons” post, let’s take a look back at the 20th century through the lens of Rex Stout’s stories about Nero Wolfe.
At first glance Stout’s stories and novels seem out of date, especially since they have never translated well into the visual medium we use now for most of our storytelling.
Still, they’re based on characters who never age and who are so well centered in their own base of operations (a New York brownstone) that the world passes them by.
They’re not so much hard-boiled as they are 2-minute eggs, but Nero Wolfe (56 years old) and his assistant Archie Goodwin (in his late 20s to early 30s) are forever fresh and relevant.
If you’ve read the Nero Wolfe chronicles, ask yourself this: Could Wolfe and Archie exist in the modern world just as they were presented by Stout in the early to mid 20th century?
Certainly, and the stories would be just as interesting, though the plots and some details would need adjustment to fit the times.
In fact, Stout trimmed his stories to fit popular culture so well, during the many changes in America from the 1930s to the 1970s, that a social sciences or history doctoral candidate could probably use his works as “Exhibit A” in a thesis.
But the Wolfe stories are really about entertainment. Rex Stout knew how to deliver that in spades.
A Math Prodigy Who Could Write
Rex Stout, was his real name, not a pseudonym and he was born in Indiana, the sixth of nine children, 21 years after the Civil War ended. He was really good at math, but left college to join the navy and ended up as a warrant officer on President Teddy Roosevelt’s yacht for two years.
After that, he drifted for a while, always working, and also writing and selling stories and poems. In 1916, he and his brother invented a banking system that tracked money school children saved. It was so popular, Stout could live off the royalties, travel extensively in Europe, and write full-time.
Marriage and children, as well as building a new home, were expensive, and since it was the Golden Age of detective fiction, Stout came up with a book about a reclusive genius private investigator and his assistant Archie Goodwin.
Income never was a problem again for Stout after that.
A good character in a story is worth thousands of words – in Archie Goodwin’s case, you get both. Indeed, some argue that he, rather than Wolfe, is the main character.
I don’t know about that – like Watson and Holmes or Nick and Nora, the two are inseparable.
No wonder Wolfe (the still life) finds Goodwin, who is usually the first cause of a story’s action, annoying and yet vitally necessary!
And when an archetype is giving you a first-person narrative, the results are powerful.
For example, here is how the first Wolfe novel Fer-De-Lance (1934) opens:
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. But it was Fritz who was sent for the beer.
Without knowing anything about Archie or his world, those first two sentences tell you a lot about him, his business and the relationship between him and his employer.
They raise questions, too: What was the bank case? Why is the beer so important? Who’s Fritz?
And we’re off. Archie continues in that style for 33 novels and 39 short stories, although Wolfe closes the series – in the rather traumatic A Family Affair (1975) – with a very bittersweet touch:
When the sound came of the front door closing, 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.”
Rex Stout died, age 88, soon after A Family Affair was published.
The 20th Century
In Fer-De-Lance, as it turns out, Prohibition has just ended and Wolfe has decided to exchange his bootleg barrel of beer for something legal. Fritz has been sent to buy as many different brands as possible so Wolfe can choose his favorite.
Stout indirectly mentions some other specific real-world things as the years go by, for instance, the Lindbergh kidnapping, the great depression, World War II (multiple stories – Archie even enlists) and the shortages it causes on the home front, Korea, the atomic age, etc.
However, I’m more impressed by the general sense of 20th century American society from the 40s to the 70s that he conveys throughout his work.
For some of it, like the inflammatory issue of using “contact” as a verb (this was a real thing), the important ritual of dining well, and all the details of fashion (thanks to Stout’s second wife), I guess you had to be there or learn about it as you grew up.
Otherwise, Stout (through Archie) clearly describes the daily world in which a story is happening. Since Archie tends to interpret everything personally, you get a real feel for the America that existed, at least in New York, during that particular period.
Nero Wolfe – Mover as Well as Thinker
This author’s manipulation of the audience’s perception is phenomenal.
Here’s an example of how Rex Stout steers his readers’ minds toward the impression he wants to make – a very important skill in the 20th century advertising age.
Ask around, even today, and most people will tell you Nero Wolfe seldom left his house/home office.
Indeed Wolfe and Archie constantly reinforce this idea, but Wolfe goes out many times, including but not limited to a picnic; to save Archie’s life (at least twice); an office Christmas party (disguised); out West; the barbershop; to hobnob with a fashion designer; Albany in upstate New York; for a replacement horticulturist; garden shows, fairs and (rarely) to dinners; and on one occasion, to escape certain death.
The corpulent genius even ends up stranded on a rock in the middle of a field, gazing at a bull. The experience ultimately leads to the solution of an incredibly intricate case, of course.
Why did Stout encourage us to think of Wolfe as house-bound? Well, a still life in motion is very dramatic and entertaining. That’s why we go along with the “reclusive Wolfe” meme – so we can be pleasantly surprised every time he travels somewhere.
It also shows us the human side of this mental worker. Trains and cars actually frighten him, though he forces himself to ride them. At other times, he goes out because he wants something (orchids, perhaps, or to keep his PI license) or just because he cares about somebody (usually Archie).
In technical terms, Wolfe’s mobility puts the characters in a different setting that makes us see them both anew, but I think Stout might also have done it to showcase the subtle genius of this detective when, much more frequently, he just rests his seventh of a ton in the specially made chair behind his desk and uses his brain.
I’m re-reading The Rubber Band (1936) right now, and Wolfe’s advanced thought processes are on display. He doesn’t leave the house in this one, but he plays a complicated, subtle game that flummoxes even Archie.
It’s a tale that’s definitely worthy of the chess player (no, this isn’t Gambit) and math whiz who brought Wolfe, AG and their world to life, and Rubber Band is one of my two favorites.
In the other favorite, Wolfe crosses the Atlantic to avenge the deaths of a close friend as well as an adopted daughter. He also fights Commies there – well, Archie does the fighting part, but Wolfe recites the preamble to the U.S. Constitution and the first four articles of the Bill of Rights, so there’s that.
This is in The Black Mountain (1954), a novel that’s so over the top I sometimes suspect Stout wrote it as a reaction to McCarthyism – an ugly fact of 1950s American life that he had already referenced subtly in other books.
Truth to Power
He might also have included some text from the Constitution in Black Mountain as a reflection of his overall interest in civil rights.
Throughout the years when Stout wrote, America was changing rapidly and not always fairly. He was on the original ACLU board, was politically active in other areas, and often mentions police brutality, racial injustice and the rights of citizens when an officer of the law comes calling in the Wolfe stories.
His most famous “rights” story, of course, is The Doorbell Rang (1965): Wolfe versus J. Edgar himself. This wasn’t written in safe times, but during the height of Hoover’s power. Stout had the backbone and a strong enough public image to do it.
The discussion between Wolfe and Archie about fear of power in Doorbell resonates even today.
John Wayne was outraged, but the Washington Post loved it so much, they did a pastiche in which Archie solves the central mystery of Watergate (PDF).
Of course, the sort of extreme polarization shown by this Wayne-WaPo reaction had already been explored by Stout almost 30 years earlier in The Silent Speaker, with the opposing sides called the BPR and the NIA.
How fortunate that such factionalism exists no longer in our society.
Oh, wait … .
Finally, the presidency of Richard Nixon is woven into the complex, sad fabric of A Family Affair.
But I’m running out of room and haven’t even mentioned the orchids yet, or Theodore, Lily Rowan (Archie’s favorite gal, but she once necked with Nero Wolfe!), the ‘teers, Lon Cohen, saucisse minuit and much, much more.
You’ll just have to read the stories for yourself. To get the full effect, start at the very beginning and read them in order, novel and short story alike, all the way to the end.
In the meantime, here is something Nero Wolfe most certainly would be doing if he existed in today’s world: