This fellow is the best of them all.
May 15, 2023 8:35 AM   Subscribe

Comfort Food (Rex Stout, Nero Wolfe, Archie Goodwin) and Rex Stout: Logomachizing The first link contains reviews of all the Nero Wolfe books in chronological order, and is an enjoyable read. The second link is more academic, but still entertaining.

Lots of people (including me) consider Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe stories the best detective fiction ever written. And they have to be among the most re-readable stories in any genre.

The Wikipedia entry about the stories is also good.
posted by OneGearIsEnough (39 comments total)

This post was deleted for the following reason: Poster's Request -- travelingthyme

Also great food, with many recipes available in The Nero Wolfe Cookbook.
posted by ALeaflikeStructure at 8:44 AM on May 15 [3 favorites]

True story! In March, I took a cruise to Mexico and back. Bored one day, I stopped in the ship's "library" to find a book. I picked up "Plot It Yourself" by Rex Stout. I read it in one sitting on the sun deck. It was an utter joy. Everything about it was delightful. Stout is low key a great writer.

My first day home, I drove to all of the local used bookstores to pick up their Nero Wolfe books. Each of the five stores I visited had only one book, which I thought was strange. "Well, we can't keep them in stock," one bookseller told me. "People like you come in and buy them all at once." Fair enough.

So, I went to ABE Books and ordered a bunch of original Nero Wolfes from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. I've been reading them in order. I finished "The Rubber Band" yesterday (book #3) and started "The Red Box". These books are so much fun! They're like Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew for adults. I look forward to reading them all.

Like many, I've been trying to re-learn the joy of reading. I used to read 40-50 books a year. In recent years, I'm lucky to read four or five. Rex Stout and Nero Wolfe are helping me rediscover how to read for pleasure. I'm not just reading these mysteries, but I've begun to read other stuff again as well. Yay!
posted by jdroth at 8:47 AM on May 15 [25 favorites]

Here's a fun way to read them, assume that Wolfe and Theodore are a couple, and that Stout simply could not even hint about it. A lot of things click into shape, don't they.
posted by seanmpuckett at 9:03 AM on May 15 [7 favorites]

I absolutely adore the Nero Wolfe novels. I got into them via the underrated Maury Chaykin/Timothy Hutton "repertory theater" adaptation of many of the stories. And they're not available for streaming anywhere legally that I can see and I'm flummoxed! (Ok, not entirely flummoxed, but it would be nice to have them on a service for streaming in high quality)

Aside from the things like the food, I just love the mood and the whole mix of Sherlock Holmes meets Philip Marlowe by way of Agatha Christie vibe from the stories. There's murder, but never any real danger and there's puzzles galore and fan theories that Nero is the love child of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler.
posted by drewbage1847 at 9:39 AM on May 15 [5 favorites]

My favorite fan theory is Lawrence Block's faux fan theory, put in the mouth of his character Leo Haig, that Archie does write all the stories and publishes them under a pseudonym that refers to his employer. "REX TODHUNTER STOUT" How can that be a real name? It obviously stands for "fat king who hunts death" which is a perfect description of Nero Wolfe. (Haig is unable to explain Robert Goldsborough.)
posted by dannyboybell at 9:55 AM on May 15 [4 favorites]

My attachment to this series, for all its occasional flaws (*), is nearly infinite. As a kid growing up in an oppressive household atmosphere, the dream of being able to gain your autonomy by being smart enough shone bright indeed. I liked Stout better than ACD because even as a little kid reading the ACD canon, I could tell that Watson was supposed to be fairly dim and I always got embarrassed for him. Goodwin, on the other hand, has his own, vital areas of expertise and is no slowpoke mentally, either.

(*) Stout was a liberal of his day, but his day was the first half of the twentieth century. Too Many Cooks, in which some one of the all-black waitstaff of a Virginia resort has important information Wolfe needs to get, is such a mix of forward thinking and retrograde attitudes on race it confounds me every time. Wolfe's imperturbable assurance that Dunbar is an unquestioned part of the literary canon is pretty advanced for 1938, though.
posted by praemunire at 10:10 AM on May 15 [6 favorites]

When I was young one of my boyfriends gave me a sweatshirt with a quote from a Nero Wolfe novel. It said:
Go to hell, I'm reading.
- Archie Goodwin
I loved that thing.
posted by BoscosMom at 10:12 AM on May 15 [8 favorites]

This is one of a few series I casually collect. Like jdroth says above, they're the perfect* book to check out in a used bookstore because they almost always have a few in stock, but (at this point) not the ones I'm still missing. I could always buy the remainder directly from amazon or whatever, but why miss out on the thrill of serendipity? (*The only flaw is a lot of the titles are pretty similar to each other, making it occasionally difficult to remember if I have a particular book or not. But then again, if I get a second copy I can always hand it off to someone else ...)

Joel Rosenberg (the sf author, not the thriller author) apparently wanted for a long time to write some spinoffs on the theme of "Archie always says Saul could do his job better but actually that's not the case, let's see why" but couldn't get permission from the estate. It's interesting to me that both Saul and Lon are pretty core characters but (as far as I can remember) them being Jewish never comes up explicitly.

A couple of other observations I've seen that are fun to hold in your head when reading these books (these aren't original, they're from essays or the pre-book commentary or whatever):
* One of the design things is Archie pointing at Wolfe and saying "see look, he's a genius!", and this being used as a distraction from how ubercompetent *Archie* is, letting him being the relatable main character but also charming, handsome, knowledgeable, tough, etc. (The bit with Saul works the same way.)
* Stout must have been on the small size himself: if you look at how tall people are who he describes as tall, they're not actually that tall. (For that matter, Wolfe isn't that large.)
posted by inkyz at 11:30 AM on May 15

Stout was born in the 1880s. I don't have directly applicable stats to hand, but the average enlisted British soldier in WWI was like 5'2" (officers were, IIRC, around 5'6"). People in the Western world got significantly taller over the course of the twentieth century.
posted by praemunire at 11:38 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]

I love Wolfe and Archie (and Saul and Fred and Stebbins and Cramer and Fritz) so very much. I hate Rowcliff and I never liked Orrie Cather. I can take Theodore or leave him--but Archie doesn't like him so I lean towards dislike.

I own all the books in paperback. And now that my eyes are bad, I also have them all in ebook. I re-read them over and over. I have been a part of the Wolfe Pack for a long time. I even have a canon nom from when we used to use them on the old Yahoo discussion board. The older books are iffy sometimes--Archie has definitely grown a LOT since then. He was sexist and casually racist and ableist and very rough around the edges. But then Stout hits his stride and Archie becomes as great as he was always meant to be. And since we always see Wolfe through Archie, being a great amanuensis is important.

There's always a split among Wolfe fans about people who love the novel The Black Mountain and people who hate it. I love it. It's one of my favorites. Wolfe, back home in Montenegro, having to constantly translate for Archie who, even out of his element is 100% Wolfe's man, ready to shoot anyone he might have to, even when he's not sure what the hell anyone is saying.

As much as I love Holmes and Watson, Wolfe and Archie are a million times better because Archie is great on his own--a detective in his own right, who can clearly live on his wits--while Watson merely lives to shine a light on Holmes. Did I mention how much I love them?
posted by ceejaytee at 11:59 AM on May 15 [6 favorites]

I was just mentioning Wolfe on the blue the other day.
posted by doctornemo at 12:18 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]

Stout was born in the 1880s. I don't have directly applicable stats to hand, but the average enlisted British soldier in WWI was like 5'2" (officers were, IIRC, around 5'6"). People in the Western world got significantly taller over the course of the twentieth century.

You're not wrong about height shooting up, but I'm pretty sure 5'2" is too small.
posted by Carillon at 12:25 PM on May 15

The average is almost exactly five feet six inches (168cm) (for reasons that are unclear the mode is at five feet seven). Although there was a minimum height requirement of five feet three inches, this was breached early on in the war with the establishment of the so-called bantam regiments (later merged into conventional regiments). Indeed, nearly 10% of our sample measured up at less than five feet three.
Hatton, 2014
posted by clew at 12:36 PM on May 15 [2 favorites]

I have never read a Nero Wolfe book but the first link makes me want to try them. Essays like this are the very best kind of thing about the World Wide Web, something that I feel like there's a lot less of these days, and I hope that page remains up and findable for literal centuries to come. What a terrific post this is.
posted by JHarris at 1:15 PM on May 15 [4 favorites]

I don’t know why I find this so charming, but there’s something terrific about how Archie is a ladykiller and general man of action, but what really makes him remarkable is his superhuman secretarial skills. The man is a human tape recorder who can accurately remember a six-hour conversation with multiple parties and produce an accurate, intelligent summary as fast as he can type.
posted by LizardBreath at 1:16 PM on May 15 [9 favorites]

All the best Nero Wolfe stories are the ones where Wolfe breaks his own rules and works from outside his brownstone. Some Buried Ceasar and the Black Mountain being my personal favorites.
posted by nestor_makhno at 1:16 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]

The A&E tv series is probably the overall most stylish adaptation. The CBC radio series is decent if you care for the radio play format. Neither are particularly hard to find.
posted by StarkRoads at 1:56 PM on May 15 [3 favorites]

Great post.
I got into them via the underrated Maury Chaykin/Timothy Hutton "repertory theater

Same here and I just rented season one. I love everything about Wolfe and Co. and was pained that the ex took the Nero Wolfe cookbook. Great cast and acting.
some much to say but alot of folks have expressed how I feel.

Orchid Tidbits—"In life everything must have an aim, except orchids"
OneGearIsEnough, thanks for posting this.
posted by clavdivs at 2:13 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]

I've been reading these since public school or maybe senior public. I can't even remember how old I was when a librarian suggested that I try one.

There is something about the quality of Stout's writing that makes me a better writer. I've noticed it myself but others have remarked on it was well. There have been a few times when I've written something for work and people have commented that there's something just a bit better about it--some kind of nebulous quality that is making it stand out from my normal output. That invariably happens after I've read (well, reread) a Nero Wolfe book. (Mind you, I say Wolfe, but Archie leaves an equally strong, if not stronger impression.)

I thought I had gone through the entire series (plus some of the non-Wolfe stuff including Officer and a Lady, Target Practice, A Prize for Princes, and The Hand in the Glove, but I'm starting to think I might have missed a few. Between books borrowed from the library decades ago and e-copies (that for whatever reason, don't stick in my head as well as actual books--maybe because I've reread the books over and over again), I'd have to say that as I skimmed through the titles written about in the first link there are a few descriptions that aren't ringing any bells. Mind you, I didn't give the website my full attention as I had a pressing deadline, but I just couldn't skip a discussion about Stout.
posted by sardonyx at 2:33 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]

I enjoyed this post! It convinced me to borrow one of the Nero Wolfe books from the library today.
posted by mixedmetaphors at 4:42 PM on May 15

John Goodman as Nero Wolfe
Colin Farrell as Archie Goodwin
Bill Nighy as Fritz
Paul Giamatti as Saul Panzer
Willem Dafoe as Lon Cohen
Jack Black as Fred Durkin
Aaron Paul as Purley Stebbins
Parker Posey as Lily Rowan
Jeremy Irons as Inspector Cramer
posted by clavdivs at 4:54 PM on May 15 [3 favorites]

Jack Black as Nero Wolfe
Chris Pine as Archie Goodwin.

With Orson Welles and William Conrad off stage I think the reigning big man scenery chewer now is Jack Black, so you have to use him. Making him the buffoon is entirely wrong. Jack Black commits to the bit 110% and that's what Nero Wolfe needs of an actor.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:03 PM on May 15 [6 favorites]

Also, if you're going to start the series, begin with a book or two where the situation is the typical one: Nero at home sticking to his schedule and Archie pestering him to work. Then, it's easier to appreciate the stories that disrupt that routine.
posted by sardonyx at 7:30 PM on May 15

Just an FYI, if you haven't read them in awhile you may be surprised by the occasional casual racism and anti-semitism. Stout was a good writer, but definitely a product of his time. My parents introduced me to the books when I was 12 and I devoured them.
posted by drossdragon at 7:49 PM on May 15 [2 favorites]

OMG it's the same Stout as the Ruth Stout no-work gardening method? I am overcome.

(Ruth Stout's mulch doesn't work in slug country, but bless her mulch's heart.)
posted by away for regrooving at 11:43 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]

I really enjoyed these books when I read them as a teen, but feel some reluctance to revisit them. My vague recollection is that they were pretty sexist, and I suspect that will overshadow everything else (for me).
posted by prefpara at 6:59 AM on May 16

My vague recollection is that they were pretty sexist

Yeah, they're not great in that regard.
posted by Galvanic at 8:04 AM on May 16 [1 favorite]

Jack Black as Nero Wolfe
Chris Pine as Archie Goodwin.

That would be sweet. Sydney Greenstreet would have made a great Wolfe.
posted by clavdivs at 8:59 AM on May 16 [2 favorites]

Ok. Hear me out.

Janelle Monáe as Archie Goodwin
Queen Latifa as Nora Wolfe
posted by seanmpuckett at 9:05 AM on May 16 [8 favorites]

That would be sweet. Sydney Greenstreet would have made a great Wolfe.

He did.
posted by StarkRoads at 9:11 AM on May 16 [3 favorites]

Yeah, they're not great in that regard.

For the most part, they're within period limits, I'd say, and largely in the sense of Archie needing to hype himself up as a ladies' man who only wants the "best" (i.e., no one over 30, though how Lily Rowan can't have gotten over that is beyond me). Wolfe's misogyny is mostly played for comedy. There are a substantial number of competent women, both professionals and in domestic life, throughout the series.

But, yep, if we were casting Latifah and Monae, there would need to be some changes.
posted by praemunire at 9:42 AM on May 16

The setup lampshades misogyny in a way that sometimes works for me and sometimes not.
posted by clew at 9:48 AM on May 16 [1 favorite]

Regarding the Sydney Greenstreet radio version of Nero Wolfe - episodes are available at the Internet Archive and they are fantastic. Greenstreet brings full Gutman energy to the role (less sinster though)

When I used to do long road trips, I used to throw old radio programs on the mp3 player as a way to pass the time and these were my favorite.
posted by drewbage1847 at 10:02 AM on May 16 [5 favorites]

Janelle Monáe as Archie Goodwin
Queen Latifa as Nora Wolfe

Everyone who likes this idea needs to check out Stephen Spotswood's Pentecost-Parker series, which is basically gender-swapped Nero Wolfe, set in post-World War II NYC. So far, he has written three, starting with Fortune Favors the Dead, with a fourth on the way.
posted by ALeaflikeStructure at 10:32 AM on May 16 [7 favorites]

For the most part, they're within period limits, I'd say

Maybe -- while for racial issues, it's clear that Stout is a liberal for the period, for women's issues, the impression is much less so. It gets better as the series progresses but the early stuff is pretty rough.
posted by Galvanic at 11:48 AM on May 16

"Nero Wolfe talks in a way that no human being on the face of the earth has ever spoken, with the possible exception of Rex Stout after he had a gin and tonic,"
posted by clavdivs at 12:20 PM on May 16 [1 favorite]

"With Orson Welles and William Conrad offstage..." -seanmpuckett

I mean, William Conrad did take his shot at it.

"I've loved the novels for 25 years," Conrad said. "And I love his life-style. I don't have to run any more. My poor feet are still aching from all the running I had to do in Cannon."

I only got into the books a couple years later, to where I had only remembered the series because I had the TV Guide Fall Preview that mentioned it. Most of my teen years were spent hunting through used bookstores to fill in this series, Robert B. Parker's Spenser series, and Gregory McDonald's Fletch series. (Helped by those editions where the publisher lists the entire series on the flip side of the title page.) And I was excited in my high school years by the prospect of more via Goldsborough. In my twenties, I giggled at the bits of Effinger's Marid Audran series where Audran used a sim chip of Nero Wolfe to work through problems.

I'm grateful for this post because the linked essays helped me get through some very slow transit times on Monday, and made think I really should dig the Stouts out again. (I know which bookcase their in, I swear.)

"The classic convention of the Least Likely Person is fully operative, but the tone is—to use a word Archie considers poetic—bleak." - David Bordwell, "Logomachizing"
Dammit, that word choice for that book right after the paragraphs showing Stout using word choice/motif refrains. You just couldn't help yourself, Mr. Boardwell?
posted by Mutant Lobsters from Riverhead at 3:09 PM on May 17 [3 favorites]

One of my favorite tiny little bits is when Archie channels P. G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster. I *think* it happens at least twice, but I don’t have an easily-searchable version of the stories. Maybe some more erudite MFer can support my recollection.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 11:42 PM on May 17

Just to say, we've watched a couple of the A&E Network adaptations of Nero Wolfe late on Tuesdays at the "Mysteries" show MST Club is currently doing, and I've enjoyed them!
posted by JHarris at 10:13 PM on May 30

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