Why taunt me? Why upbraid me? I am merely a genius, not a god.
July 25, 2014 4:55 AM   Subscribe

In the pantheon of fictional detectives, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe is among the best. If you haven't met the fat, cranky, sedentary, orchid-loving gourmand of a detective, and his street-smart, wise-cracking, witty right-hand of an assistant, Archie Goodwin, this introduction to the pair may be of use. Between 1935 to 1974, Wolfe and Goodwin solved mysteries, captured criminals of all ilks, and on one notable occasion, got the upper hand on J. Edgar Hoover. The books are very much of their time.

David Langford looks critically at the Nero Wolfe Mysteries.

For fans, The Wolfe Pack is rich with Wolfeiana and an active community of fans. It's deceptively deep. This is just a sampling of the research/documentation within: Wolfe's Beer. The case list (published and unpublished). Archie's eating habits. Rex Stout's activism. Nero Wolfe's reading list.

Other bits and pieces on the web: John Clayton has put together floor plans of the brownstone | Archie Goodwin on why Nero Wolfe likes Orchids | The 1950s radio shows some starring Sydney Greenstreet (some liberties are taken) | examples of the comic strips and more examples (even more liberties are taken!) | pre 1950s French book covers | There are more covers in the WolfePack's flickr group | Archie and Wolfe and more in cookie form | Robert Hughes on Rex Stout | PG Wodehouse on Rex Stout | Rex Stout addressing the 1966 Books and Authors Luncheon as if they were his "Committee on Grievances."
posted by julen (32 comments total) 59 users marked this as a favorite
I tore through all the Nero Wolfe novels a few years back. Worth another pass if only because it's in some ways an archetype of the pure reasoning detective at the center of a web.
posted by BrotherCaine at 5:02 AM on July 25, 2014 [5 favorites]

Two Columbo posts and now a Nero Wolfe? Metafilter is doing all my favorite under-appreciated detectives this week.
posted by The Man from Lardfork at 5:15 AM on July 25, 2014 [5 favorites]

I bought a Kindle so I could reread the Wolfe books. That's probably 3/4 of what's on it.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:28 AM on July 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

William Conrad was born to play him on TV.
posted by tommasz at 5:38 AM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

I never saw the William Conrad one -- my introduction was Maury Chaykin/Timothy Hutton on A&E. A fun part of this latter one is the re-use of guest stars in different roles (one I loved was Kari Matchette playing two roles in the same episode).
posted by Mogur at 5:53 AM on July 25, 2014 [7 favorites]

Great post!

In the (very enjoyable) Langford piece, there's a phrase that's defeated me - in the criticism of the Wolfe books by Edmund Wilson:
I finally got to feel that I had to unpack large crates by swallowing the excelsior in order to find at the bottom a few bent and rusty nails
Does anyone know what "to swallow the excelsior" means? I mean, excelsior is the name of the fibrous, curly wood-shaving packing material, which would make sense, but why would he be swallowing it?
posted by running order squabble fest at 6:01 AM on July 25, 2014

Here are the opening credits for the William Conrad series.

There was an earlier attempt at Nero Wolfe on TV in 1959: with William Shatner as Archie. Someone please tell me the other man in the picture is not supposed to be Nero.
posted by julen at 6:02 AM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

running order squabble fest: "Does anyone know what "to swallow the excelsior" means? I mean, excelsior is the name of the fibrous, curly wood-shaving packing material, which would make sense, but why would he be swallowing it?"

Excelsior as in King Arthur's sword. "Swallow an enormous sharp thing to find a couple of small unimpressive less sharp things".
posted by zamboni at 6:03 AM on July 25, 2014

Or maybe not - if excelsior is the packing material, he's just talking about choking down (reading) a bunch of filler to get to something unimpressive.
posted by zamboni at 6:05 AM on July 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

King Arthur's sword is Excalibur - so, yeah, it's probably the packing material. It's just such a weird formulation - because you're expecting it to mean "to swallow back a rallying cry of 'Excelsior!' (higher)", and then it seems to mean "to eat wood wool".
posted by running order squabble fest at 6:19 AM on July 25, 2014

There are a few books in the Julius Katz mystery series on Kindle. Julius Katz is very much a Nero Wolfe type, and his "assistant" is a very smart electronic chip named Archie. They're pretty light, but fun to read, especially if you're familiar with the Nero Wolfe books.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 6:26 AM on July 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

Neato! Great post!

Interesting fact: Rex Stout's friendship with the Slovene-American writer Louis Adamic inspired him to make Rex Stout a Montenegrin. Adamic's possibly-suspicious death inspired him to write Black Mountain, in which Mr. Stout takes an uncharacteristically adventurous journey to Montenegro, to investigate the death of a friend.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:45 AM on July 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

Er, Nero Wolfe is the detective. Not Stout.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:56 AM on July 25, 2014

Yes, excelsior is, in fact, the packing material. Wood or paper shavings. Also the motto of New York State. And they claim it's coincidence.
posted by tyllwin at 7:02 AM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

I was a member of The Wolfe Pack for years. Been through the canon at least 3 times. I don't have anything to add, but to thank you for this post.
posted by John Kennedy Toole Box at 7:11 AM on July 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think I've only ever read a couple of Nero Wolfe's books, but I do remember descriptions of the food.

Has some suitably obsessed fan compiled recipes? (Also--yeah okay don't judge--all of Delaney's sandwiches in the Lawrence Saunders books.)
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:18 AM on July 25, 2014

But of course there's The Nero Wolfe Cookbook. Also available in paperback.
posted by John Kennedy Toole Box at 7:23 AM on July 25, 2014

Rex Stout released a Nero Wolfe Cookbook based on the recipes and dishes from the books! It's out of print now - I found my (paperback) copy at a yard sale last fall, in one of my greatest yard sale scores of all time.
posted by julen at 7:24 AM on July 25, 2014

Thanks for this post. Satisfactory.
posted by Killick at 7:27 AM on July 25, 2014 [8 favorites]

In addition to the cookbook cited by julen and JKTB, there's this oddity, available in PDF: Too Many Cooks Recipe Box
posted by tyllwin at 7:28 AM on July 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

Fab post. Thanks.
posted by Empty Planet at 7:33 AM on July 25, 2014

Oh yeah, I knew about the cookbook (should have said), but out of print is a bit of a problem.

Ooh, tyllwin. Ta.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:34 AM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Nero Wolfe books are all great. So, also, is the Maury Chaykin & Timothy Hutton television version. You can tell they were fans of the books.
posted by unreason at 7:44 AM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Wodehouse's praise of Stout is exactly right, and the two of them are great writers in similar ways. Besides writing style, Archie and Jeeves are the same character for many purposes, except that we learn more about Archie because he is narrating. The impression I get is that Archie's self-confidence is a complete trust in his own instincts; Jeeves' is more a trust in his brain and a trust that however the experiment works out it will be a good time.
posted by Killick at 7:53 AM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

I absolutely adore the Chaykin/Hutton series--it's why we have a cat named Archie. Really great production values, a recurring cast of actors that made it feel more like a series of plays, and amazing costuming.

Hoped that Chaykin would show up as Nate's estranged father on Leverage. Sadly it was not to be.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 8:06 AM on July 25, 2014 [3 favorites]

Indeed, satisfactory.

English is my second language, and I learned my vocabulary beyond the classroom mostly by reading. I don't often remember where I met a word for the first time; they just get worked into my repertoire by repeated exposure.

But I have actually learned words from the Wolfe books, and two of those, I remember that's where I met them. ("Obstreperous," "casuistry.") I know there's more. I can't say that for any other mystery series I've read, I think.
posted by seyirci at 8:44 AM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Edmund Wilson, bah! He hated Tolkien, too.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:47 AM on July 25, 2014

If you've read the canon and are hungry for more, Lawrence Block has paid homage in his Chip Harrison series, 2 or 3 of which are written in the same style. In those stories, the Nero Wolfe type character believes that Nero Wolfe really exists. How meta!

Actually, I think I came to Rex Stout by way of Lawrence Block - one of Block's characters has a cat named Archie.

Also Timothy Hutton's portrayal of Archie Goodwin made him my favourite fictional character ever.
posted by pianissimo at 9:32 AM on July 25, 2014

Sadly, Chaykin died in 2010, on his 61st birthday.
posted by Sassenach at 9:47 AM on July 25, 2014

Chaykin was pretty great as Wolfe, aside from a fun but not-particularly-Wolfean tendency toward sudden red-faced bellowing. But man, that series had some flaws. There was the bizarre handling of possibly their only guest star. (Remember? They brought in Carrie Fisher to recite a couple of lines of flat exposition and die off-screen?) There was Inspector Cramer as That Guy Who Shows Up to Growl "Nuts". There was the whole ensemble thing, which, granted, was novel - but I feel like it ultimately loses something to have Wolfe and Archie interacting with literally interchangable clients. And, ah geez, there was Fritz. It should not be possible for a loveable tertiary character like Fritz Brenner to ruin a series, but that scenery-chewing, eye-taking, background-business-having hambone did his level best. I am convinced the actor was trying to pad his paycheck by simultaneously shooting Nero Wolfe and a Disney Channel sitcom where he was regularly outwitted by non-threateningly photogenic tweens... possibly accompanied by a "booing!" sound effect and a cuckoo clock noise. God dammit, TV Fritz.
posted by ormondsacker at 11:27 AM on July 25, 2014 [1 favorite]

Odd trivia - Rush Limbaugh is a huge Nero Wolfe fan. I first learned of the books back in my early teens when I was going through a "conservative" phase. Grew out of the phase...kind of forgot about the books until now.
posted by donknotts at 1:51 PM on July 25, 2014

Er, Nero Wolfe is the detective. Not Stout.
In the Leo Haig (and Chip Harrison) books by Lawrence Block, as mentioned above, Haig believes that Archie Goodwin publishes the Nero Wolfe "reports" under a blatantly obvious pseudonym: Rex Stout? Fat King? Rex Todhunter Stout????? A fat king who hunts death?? How else could you possibly describe Nero Wolfe? (Haig does not explain who that guy in the beard is who shows up in all the photos.)
posted by dannyboybell at 5:21 AM on July 26, 2014

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