Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe Series

The gang met again last night to discuss the classic Nero Wolfe series by Rex Stout, writes Jeannine. We squeezed ourselves into the Library Board Room (Friends of the Library Book sale in the Ford Room through Saturday!! Get them now, get them cheap!) and enjoyed a startling combination of gourmet delights from corned beef hash to chocolate walnut pie, lemon bars, cheese and crackers, gourmet jelly beans (individually wrapped!) and more. And once again several members brought sacks of bounty from their gardens to share with everyone. We had books on orchids, gourmet cooking, New York, and beer scattered around the room, as well as a few pictures of 454 W. 35th Street, which Wolfe aficionados have decided is the location of Wolfe’s residence/office.

Stout wrote novels and short stories about the character for 40 years, from the 1930s to the 1960s. As some of our members noted, the times changed, but the characters never aged. As Thrilling Detective describes him, Nero Wolfe was “massively overweight, a cranky, agoraphobic and sedentary gourmet who virtually never leaves his Manhattan brownstone (with 10,000 orchids on the roof and a personal elevator).” Archie Goodwin, an outstanding detective in his own right and the narrator of the stories, acts as Wolfe’s eyes, ears and legs, (not to mention his own smart mouth) tracking down leads and asking all the right questions of the right people. Also integral to Wolfe’s life and household, and occasionally to an investigation are the “orchid nurse” Theodore Horstmann, and master chef Fritz Brenner (and wouldn’t we all kill to have our own Fritz Brenner).

Several people who have seen the A&E Wolfe series (2001-2002, starring Timothy Hutton as Goodwin, and Maury Chaykin (left) as Wolfe) recommended it. But those few who remembered the USA TV network's show (1981) with William Conrad (who succeeded Thayer David, 1979) were considerably less impressed. (An excerpt from the 1977 pilot episode starring David can be viewed on YouTube.) “William Conrad was not a good fit” and “boring” were the main comments. According to Wikipedia, Rex Stout thought Charles Laughton to be the best fit for Wolfe. The first movie depicting Nero Wolfe came out in 1936, while TV series were produced in Italy (1960s), Russia (2001, with Donatatis Banionis), and the USA (1979, 1981, 2001). There was also a one-off German production of Too Many Cooks (Zu veile Koche, 1961). The Italian Thriller Magazine argues that Rai's series featuring Tino Buazelli was "the best television series on Nero Wolfe." The Wolfe Pack thinks that the San Marino stamp (below) may have been based on Buazelli's portrayal of the sleuth. Radio shows were produced by ABC (1943-44), MBS (1946), NBC (1950-51), and CBC (1982), based on the Wolfe character. Eighteen of NBC's The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe, starring Sydney Greenstreet as Wolfe, can be listened to here).

Many of our members thought of Wolfe as a stout Perry Mason, always waiting until the last moment for the grand denouement. Most did, however, enjoy the books (with a handful of exceptions).

Wolfe’s idiosyncrasies were what made him most fascinating – every day on a regular time schedule, no interruptions when he was with his orchids, no talking about a case during a meal, drinking beer to improve thought, distrust of technology (anything “more complex than a wheelbarrow”) – except his elevator, evidently…derision of women, egotistical and cantankerous.

We had quite a discussion about Wolfe’s apparent sexism. On the one hand he seemed to think women were incapable of thought, yet several readers noted that intelligent women occasionally took part in a story, including a female investigator. Was it that he hated them? Despised them? He certainly condescended to them, but then, he condescended to everyone. Perhaps his attitude was merely a product of the age of his origins, the 1930s. Or perhaps just a character quirk. No consensus was reached, so the reader will have to decide for himself. Archie certainly liked and appreciated women, though perhaps not primarily for their intellect. And the nasty specter of racism raised itself in Too Many Cooks (1938) when Archie was especially condescending to African-American characters, and Wolfe, though more polite, never disagreed.

Another discussion compared Nero Wolfe to other cerebral detectives. Because of his size and inactivity, he was deemed to be more like Hercule Poirot than the more hands-on (remember the disguises?) Sherlock Holmes. And Watson was certainly no Archie. One of the members happened to track down an article Stout wrote related to this and the previous discussion, “Watson was a woman”, in which he proved by deductive logic that Watson’s words and actions proved “he” was a “she.” This brought us back to a discussion of how much Wolfe’s ideas and quirks matched those of Stout’s, and how many were merely part of the character. Wolfe and Stout’s origins were certainly different. Wolfe was raised in Montenegro and references were made to action in the Resistance, whereas Stout was raised by Quaker parents in Illinois.

On to Archie and the other regulars. While Wolfe plots exposes in his residence, Archie is pounding the pavement looking for clues. Several people really enjoyed how Archie would constantly contest his ideas against Wolfe and lose every time. He also enjoyed needling Wolfe, always knowing the right buttons to push to get Wolfe to take a particular case. He was no Watson following behind Sherlock, but out in front where the action was, asking the hard questions, tailing the tails, and always with a remark and look for the ladies. The two other main reoccurring characters, Fritz the chef, and Theodore the orchid specialist did occasionally play larger roles in some plots. In Family Affair (1975), Fritz is very involved in the action, and even “holds down the house” when Archie and Wolfe have to make a run for it (or should that be away from it). Theodore steps up in Black Orchids (1942). There are also a handful of other detectives that are routinely called in for backup. Kramer, a police inspector, has a recurring role, sometimes as friend, and sometimes as foe. Perhaps it was rivalry or one-upmanship, but one member said “he’s just a stinker” most of the time.

The villains could also be as unusual and interesting as Archie and Wolfe. Several readers said what they liked about the plotting was that anyone could be the murderer. Stout was good with the set-up and disbursal of red herrings, with all being revealed in the last pages. There was some unhappiness with the tendency for talk over action, especially in some of the earlier titles. Some Buried Caesar (1939) was mentioned as being quite talky, and quite dated with “society-speak”).

The final discussion was on Wolfe’s motives – was he interested only in justice being served, or was it something else? And in Wolfe’s case, all agreed that yes, it was all about the money. Wolfe would work out how much money he needed to keep his lifestyle running, and the safe full of cash, and after he made that much that year, he quit until the next year. Justice was always served in the end, but was not of primary importance. Being right was more so. Occasionally it got down to pride or revenge. But he always “won” – happy ending. And was Wolfe happy? We had disagreement depending on what we meant by happy. All agreed that he was indeed “content.” Food made him the happiest. Occasionally he would sacrifice his orchids for a good cause, but never, ever his food.

2 Comments:

Blogger gs said...

==Justice was always served in the end, but was not of primary importance. Being right was more so.==

I think this is a very insightful remark.

6:43 AM  
Anonymous Dawid said...

On rereading Stout after many years, I was struck by the idea that Archie Goodwin is not merely the narrator, but actually the main character in the stories, not Wolfe.

12:15 PM  

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