Saturday, October 9, 2010

Wolfe at the Door

It isn't often that I revisit books I didn't like. Most of the time if I try to read a book and find it doesn't capture my interest I get rid of it and move on.

On rare occasions, though, I will go back and give a book a second chance. Most of the time I find my initial reaction was correct. Sometimes though... sometimes I discover that my attitude has changed.

One of those rare occasions was with Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe books.

A few years back I borrowed the first of Stout's Nero Wolfe books from the library. I had thoroughly enjoyed the A & E TV series that had been broadcast in the early 2000's and so naturally I thought I would enjoy the books.

I did not.

In point of fact I found the plot slow to get started and all of the characters -- from Wolfe to his aide-de-camp Archie Goodwin to all of the supporting cast -- were dull. I returned the book to the library and went on to other things.

Several months ago, however, I felt compelled to give it another chance. Again, I checked the first book in the series out of the library. To my surprise something had changed and this time I honestly enjoyed the story!

So fast forwarding to now... I had been checking books out of the library, participating in a contest sponsored by said library. Among those I checked out I decided to grab the second book in the Nero Wolfe series since it had been so long since I had read the first. I was again captivated... in fact, even more so. And this has sent me on a quest to read all of the books in the Nero Wolfe corpus (NOT corpse, corpus -- as in "body of work"). I also thought I might share some of my thoughts on the books with my readers. And so... we begin.

The Plot:Nero Wolfe is hired by Maria Maffei to find her missing brother, Carlo. The trail leads to the death of university president Peter Oliver Barstow of an apparent heart attack. Wolfe, however, believes it was murder. When he is proven correct the race is on to find the murderer and more bodies show up as Wolfe starts to pull skeletons out of suspects' closets. As Wolfe begins unravelling the truth he puts himself in the path of a man who will not hesitate to kill again.

My Take: Written in 1934, some of the cultural references the characters (particularly Archie) make will likely fly over the heads of many if not most modern readers. There is also some ethnic stereotyping which was common for the era but modern readers may be anywhere from uncomfortable with it to expressing distaste for it.

With that out of the way, Rex Stout's main characters carry the day. The plot is a bit convoluted and the murderer seems to be going about things in a ridiculously complex manner but the reader is willing to overlook this because Wolfe and Archie make the story spark.

It is true that there are still some rough edges which Stout would file down over the years -- both in his writing style and in his characters. Archie is often blunt and outright rude but this is balanced by a witty sarcasm and the ability to go from zero to charming in about two seconds. Likewise, despite the fact that Wolfe's ego is as large as he is (a seventh of a ton according to Archie) he manages to come across as charming and eccentric rather than annoying and grating.

Someone once wrote that Stout achieved the near-impossible -- he married the British mannerly style of mystery stories with the American hard boiled style. This is not only true it is obvious even here in the first book. Wolfe, with his insistence on logic and rational thinking, his attention to detail and his genius is very much in the style of Sherlock Holmes. Archie, on the other hand, with his sarcasm, his eye for the ladies, and his streak of old-fashioned Knight Errant in him is firmly from the Raymond Chandler school of characters. And this odd mix works -- just as the odd friendship, partnership and employment relationship works for Wolfe and Archie. We also see that, while Archie may not be up to Wolfe's level of genius, he is a keen student of human nature and Wolfe relies on him, trusts him, and has confidence in his abilities. In short, Archie is no Watson, forever trailing in Holmes' wake.

It is true that the book is a slow burn. It does take a while for the plot to get started and some of the 'talking heads' scenes do go on a bit and get boring but if you persevere you will be rewarded with being introduced to two of the most unique characters in American mystery.

Quote of the Book:He (Wolfe) cursed. I hated to hear him curse. It got on my nerves. The reason for that, he told me once, was that whereas in most cases cursing was merely a vocal explosion, with him is was a considered expression of a profound desire.


  1. Thank you for an interesting summary of the Wolfe corpus. I will put a link to it on the web site if that's ok with you.

    They are an enthralling team to read (over & over).

    I see you are interested in comic books. Archie Goodwin, the prolific comic book series producer, writer, etc. appears to actually be MORE famous than Wolfe's assistant.

  2. You're welcome to cross post.

    I'm hoping to do a regular series of quasi-reviews (all opinions are my own, I make no claims to literary criticism) for each book in the series as I finish them.