Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Mystery Corner: Nero Wolfe

Being a "man of the heft," I've always been a big fan of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe, the brilliant detective who weighs "a seventh of a ton," cultivates orchids, and solves crimes by passively taking in data acquired by his leg man Archie Goodwin. You might notice that "Nero Wolfe" contains the same vowels in the same order as "Sherlock Holmes." Rex Stout created Wolfe after making a fortune with a school bookkeeping system he invented. About 50 million books sold later, one might imagine the Nero Wolfe fortune was a bit larger.

I'm moved to bring him up because I just read my first disappointing Wolfe mystery. The standard formula is that Wolfe stays at home, Archie digs, and then Wolfe gathers everyone to his office for an entertaining explanation of whodunit. Impossible mysteries are thus solved. In The Black Mountain, Wolfe is forced to go out adventuring and it doesn't work. He solves the crime by overhearing someone confess to it. There's an exception to every rule and there is apparently such a thing as a bad Nero Wolfe.

12 comments:

S. T. Karnick said...

Hunter, I haven't read this one yet, but have read Death of a Dude, which has Wolfe traveling to a ranch in Montana, of all places, to solve a crime. I rather liked that one. And don't forget that the fourth and fifth of the numerous Wolfe novels also involved Wolfe leaving the house for an extended period—so this motif was in fact established fairly early on. I think these excursions provide some nice variety to the series and helped keep it from going stale.

It may be that the real problem with the book is not so much that Wolfe leaves home but instead the emphasis on action and the puacity of the sort of delightful dialogue exchanges that are at the heart of the appeal of the seris. Here is the comment from the excellent Nero Wolfe website "Merely a Genius..." (http://www.geocities.com/Athens/8907/nero.html): "First published in October 1954, by Viking Press. A very unusual Nero Wolfe mystery; features the death of two important characters, and a long journey over sea and mountain, to Montenegro, for both Wolfe and Archie. One of the few Wolfe stories to emphasise action and drama over character and dialogue; for that reason, not one of my favourites."

The fourth and fifth NW novels, mentioned above, are The Red Box (1937, aka The Case of the Red Box) and Too Many Cooks (1938).

Now I'll have to read The Black Mountain, and you wouldn't believe how much is already on the To Read stack. Thanks loads, partner.

Jay D. Homnick said...

Naturally, I read all the Nero Wolfe books as a teenager, since I was in an all-boys high school and diversions were scarce.

If Hunter still thinks that Wolfe leaving the house is so rare, then clearly he has not yet read the Zeck trilogy (Arnold Zeck is the Professor Moriarty of the Wolfe series) culminating In The Best Families.

And there are quite a few in which the detection is negligible, relying on either action or dialogue to fill the void.

The most famous story of a reader who quit the series in disgust was John Wayne, who personally communicated to Stout that he would no longer read the books. This came after The Doorbell Rang, a novel in which Wolfe behaved disparagingly toward J. Edgar Hoover (who appears as an unnamed character).

Jay D. Homnick said...

Oh, one more note. Another big fan of the series is Rush Limbaugh. During the period that he was significantly overweight, he once blurted that sometimes he feels like he IS Nero Wolfe.

You can usually tell when he has recently been reading the books; he begins telling callers that he is using his "intelligence guided by experience".

Anonymous said...

he begins telling callers that he is using his "intelligence guided by experience".

He has neither.

Hunter Baker said...

Oh, that wasn't nice, Anonymous. Especially when speaking of a guy who was a loser his entire life and found out how to make a few hundred million with his mouth. Stupid isn't the word I'd use to describe him.

Anonymous said...

He's a showman. I don't think that takes intelligence, just skill and practice.

S. T. Karnick said...

Oh, well, then if he succeeded solely through skill and practice, the heck with him!

Anonymous said...

Well, to heck (or elsewhere) with him, yes, but for different reasons.

P.A. Breault said...

I don't consider Black Mountain disappointing. Like John D. MacDonald's The Green Ripper, it's a deviation from the formula. It is weak in that Archie's reduced to a relatively mute tourist, but it does fill in some of Wolfe's background.

Hunter Baker said...

It's also weak because Wolfe's magnificent mind doesn't come too much into play.

Jay D. Homnick said...

Incidentally, that "seventh of a ton" is contradicted in other books. In at least one place he weighs a sixth of a ton. Then there are some other amounts.

If you plan to cover the whole series right now, you might want to take notes and compile a comprehensive list of all the versions.

David Patty said...

Wolfe left the Brownstone 35 times in the 74 storys and novels. He didn't leave the house in 38 of them. For more info there is an article written by one of the Nero Wolfe mailing list members on my site if anyone is interested. http://nero-wolfe.us/wp/?p=141

Hunter, I rather disagree with with you about TBM not being a good Stout. I didn't like it that much on the first read through but on the second reading I got a better feel for the situation he found himself in. One problem is that if you have read other Wolfe stories, you've gotten comfortable with the surroundings and all that is missing. In TBM the rhythm or cadence of the story is totally different. And as you point out he solves it in a manner totally unlike his usual lip exerces. Give it some time and try it again I think you might be surprised.

I put together a set of maps of the area of the trip and marked them up according to April Carlucci's excellent post on the subject that you might find interesting at http://nero-wolfe.us/wp/?p=44