Saturday, August 19, 2006

Nero Wolfe...Merely a Genius

From childhood I have always enjoyed mystery novels and movies. Among the best mystery novels and novellas were those written by Rex Stout featuring the deductive genius Nero Wolfe. The novels and novellas are written in a breezy, friendly, and easy to read tone (told from the point of view of Wolfe's aide Archie Goodwin). They also feature some of the most complex and original mysteries ever to see print.

Nero Wolfe was created by Stout in the Thirties and first appeared in the novel Fer-de-Lance in 1934. Wolfe was unlike any detective ever seen in print. Perhaps the most noticeable thing about him was his sheer size. Wolfe stood 5 foot 11 inches tall and weighed 278 pounds (that's nearly 20 stone, for those of you in the Commonwealth). And while many fictional detectives were known for their eccentricies, Wolfe is arguably more eccentric than most. Although hardly agorophobic, Wolfe rarely left his brownstone and had a general rule (sometimes broken, but not often) of not doing business outside it. He kept a rigid schedule from which he almost never departed (what's more, Wolfe would become very upset if forced to depart from it). He was an absolute lover of luxury. Wolfe was a gourmand who employed his own personal cook (Fritz Brenner, who prepared all of his meals) and sometimes even cooked himself. He drank only the best beer (Remmers) and copious amounts of it. Atop his brownstone Wolfe kept 10,000 orchids, cared for by Theodore Horstmann. Wolfe also despised exercise of any sort (a walk around the block would be considered strenuous by him). Of course, above all else, Wolfe was a deductive genius and knew he was such (in Fer-de-Lance Wolfe tells his aide Archie Goodwin, "I am merely a genius, not a god."). Given his enormous ego, Wolfe could be tempermental and given to fits of pique over the smallest things (such as his strict schedule being violated, someone questioning his ability as a detective, and so on). Of course, it must be pointed out that Wolfe was not always overweight and fearful of exercise. When young he was apparently a man of action.

Given Wolfe's dislike of leaving his brownstone and his many eccentricies, it is a wonder he ever became a detective. After all, common sense dictates that a detective would have to visit crime scenes, interview witnesses, and look for clues. In Wolfe's case, all of this is accomplished by his employee Archie Goodwin. Goodwin is often described as Wolfe's legman, although he is a bit more than that. Goodwin is also Wolfe's personal assistant, bookkeeper, and driver. Goodwin is a licensed private investigator and has enough talent as such that he could run his own agency (in fact, he does just that in the novel In the Best Families). Indeed, in many respects Goodwin is a much more traditional private eye than Wolfe is. Like many hard boiled detectives, Goodwin was a snazzy dresser with an eye for the ladies and a keen disrespect for authority. He was intimately familiar with the streets of New York City, and was skilled with both is fists and a gun (he kept a .32 in his suit). He was also gifted wtih an eidetic memory, so that he could recall nearly everything he had seen or heard, and could type faster than most stenographers. In some respects, Archie Goodwin could be considered the protagonist of the Nero Wolfe series moreso than Wolfe himself. The novels and novellas are narrated from his point of view and he appears in nearly every scene.

In creating Nero Wolfe, Rex Stout had a stroke of genius in that he blended three different subgenres of the detective novel. As someone who dislikes leaving his brownstone, Wolfe is almost literally an armchair detective. This links him to other such armchair detectives as Dr. Priestley and Hercule Poirot. At the same time, however, the Wolfe books have strong links to the genre of the hard boiled detective (such as Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe). Like many of the hard boiled detectives, Wolfe (and to a lesser degree Goodwin as well) is a cynic who generally takes cases only for exorbitant fees. And while Wolfe almost never engages in physical confrontations (one gets the feeling he would think such beneath him), Goodwin sometimes gets into more than enough fights for both of them. Finally, it must be pointed out that Wolfe also fits the archetype of the deductive genius, of which Sherlock Holmes is the best known example. Like Holmes, Wolfe could solve a case with what might seem to others a few diverse clues.

Naturally, the series featured several continuing characters besides Wolfe and his household. In fact, Wolfe sometimes employed other operatives besides Archie. Most often this was Saul Panzer, often considered the best private detective in New York. Wolfe would ocassionally make use of Orrie Cather, a bright man who though he could replace Goodwin as Wolfe's assistant. And while Wolfe was often impatient with women, he did employ female detectives Dol Bonner and Sally Colt. Bonner actually appeared in a short story of her own, as well as a Tecumseh Fox (another Stout private detective) novel.

Naturally given Wolfe's profession, he occasionally crossed paths with the police. Most often this was in the form of Inspector Cramer, the head of Homicide in Manhattan. Cramer is a relatively intelligent, hard working, and honest cop who is often annoyed by Wolfe's eccentricities. Despite this fact, Cramer and Wolfe respect each other and, though both would probably be loath to admit it, probably even like each other. Cramer is assisted by Sgt. Purley Stebbins. Stebbins can be gruff, but he was also honest, brave, and hard working. While he and Archie occasionally get into it (Stebbins does not care for private eyes), it ultimately seems that they like each other. This is not the case with another police officer appearing in the series, Lieutenant George Rowcliffe. It is not that Rowcliffe is dishonest, but he is not particularly bright and his methods often leave a lot to be desired (he has no problem badgering witnesses). Wolfe and Rowcliffe had been at odds ever since Rowcliffe executed a search warrant on Wolfe's brownstone.

In addition to the police, Wolfe also dealt with other professionals. His lawyer was Nathaniel Parker. Parker is actually one of Wolfe's few friends, the two having known each other for years. Another of Wolfe's friends is Dr. Vollmer, who lives down the street from the brownstone. Vollmer is often called upon to examine the dead bodies that have a habit of turning up in Wolfe's cases.

Nero Wolfe was a success almost from the beginning. Stout wrote nearly one Nero Wolfe novel a year until his death. He also wrote several novellas featuring Wolfe and Goodwin. The first two novels (Fer-De-lance and The League of Frightened Men) were made into movies (Meet Nero Wolfe from 1936 and The League of Frightened Men from 1937). Sadly, Stout was disappointed in how the movies turned out and forbade any more film or television adaptations of the Nero Wolfe stories. There were several radio shows based on the series (one in 1943, one from 1945-1946, one from 1950 to 1951, and finally one that aired on the CBC in 1982). Despite Stout's wishes, Nero Wolfe would finally make it to television following his death. In 1977 Paramount made a failed pilot starring Thayer David as Wolfe and Tom Mason as Goodwin. In 1981 there was a short lived series that aired on NBC. While William Conrad (best known as Cannon of the series of the same name) was perfectly cast as Wolfe, I always thought Lee Horsley was hardly suited to play Archie Goodwin (he is a bit too stout--I always thought of Goodwin as being lankier). Worse yet, they decided to update the series to the Eighties. By far the best adaptation of Nero Wolfe in any medium was one that aired on A&E from 2001 to 2002. The series was set in a time period that appeared to be the Forties or Fifties. What is more, Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton were perfect as Wolfe and Goodwin respectively. It is a shame that A&E decided the series was too expensive to produce (apparently Dog the Bounty Hunter is cheaper....) and cancelled it.

Of course, given the success of Nero Wolfe it is not surprising that there has been some speculation given the character. Some of this has involved Wolfe's activities as a young man, but perhaps there is no more controversial subject than that of Wolfe's lineage. In a 1956 issue of The Baker Street Journal John D. Clark put forth the theory that Wolfe was the illegitimate son of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler (as Holmes called her, THE woman, featured in the Homes story A Scandal in Bohemia). In his fictional biography of Wolfe, Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-fifth Street: The Life and Times of America's Largest Private Detective, William S. Baring-Gould seconded this theory. And while Rex Stout wrote the introduction to this biography, he never confirmed nor denied the theory that Wolfe was indeed Holmes' son. That having been said, there are a few clues that could point in that direction. Wolfe resembles Sherlock Holmes's older brother Mycroft to a large degree. Both are deductive geniuses (in fact, Mycroft's talent at deduction was supposed to be greater than Sherlock's). Both are overweight. And both tend to avoid exercise. In fact, some have suggested that Mycroft would be a more likely candidate as Wolfe's father than Sherlock. Another possible clue is what may or may not be a coincidence in the vowels occuring in the same order in the names ShErlOck HOlmEs and NErO WOlfE. It must be also be pointed out that Wolfe's birthplace is Montenegro. It is concievable that a woman of the world such as Adler could have gone there after a tryst with Holmes. Of course, the most blantant clue is the portrait which hangs in Nero Wolfe's office. Although I can't recall that Stout ever came out and said that it was indeed a picture of Sherlock Holmes, he gave enough clues that nearly everyone has read very much of the series knows that it is indeed the famous detective. It is possible that Wolfe had the portrait in his office simply as a source of inspiration. But, then again, it is also possible that Wolfe kept the picture in his office for some far more important reason--namely, the man in the portrait was his father. Even though the evidence is nearly non-existent, I have always liked the idea that Nero Wolfe was the son of Holmes. It would seem to me fitting that the two greatest detectives in the English langauge should somehow be related.

As to the idea that it was Mycroft Holmes and not Sherlock Holmes who was Nero Wolfe's father, I have never liked that idea for two basic reasons. For one thing, I am one of those people who actually believes Sherlock was in love with Irene Adler (call me a romantic, but only a man smitten would speak of a woman the way Holmes does her....). It seems entirely realistic to me that at some point the two could have had a romantic relationship and even had a son together. For another, I honestly don't think Mycroft would exert himself enough to even ask a woman to dinner, much less anything else.... After all, we are talking about the one fictional character (well, maybe besides Maynard G. Krebs) who hates exercise and work more than Nero Wolfe himself!

Rex Stout died in 1975, but his most famous creation has outlived him. Robert Goldsborough wrote seven further adventues of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. John Lescroart wrote two books about a son of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Alder named Auguste Lupa, who is strongly hinted to be none other than Nero Wolfe as a young man. A fan club dedicated to Nero Wolfe, the Wolfe Pack, has been around since 1977. They meet every year in New York City. Like possible father, Sherlock Holmes, I rather suspect Nero Wolfe's popularity will continue unabated. No doubt the rotund detective will still be popular in 2076, a full century after Stout's death.

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