Thursday, August 29, 2013

Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe

Nero Wolfe Mysteries
By Rex Stout(Bantam)

     One of my fellow bloggers for The Macomb Daily recently wrote a post about book series that have gone on too long, citing several fairly recent series and authors.
        I haven't read any of the books she mentions (except for One for the Money by Janet Evanovich, the first, the last and only Stephanie Plum novel I've read or care to read), but I agree with her that most series overstay their welcome.
      Not always, though. Sometimes the author seems to tire of the character before the readers, and simply stops writing them. More often it seems authors stick with characters long past their interest in them because they like the checks they receive for them. Other series end when the writer dies, sometimes while the stories are still enjoyable and with unresolved plot points. All three could apply to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, which Doyle tried to stop writing at least once, but was persuaded by reader demand and the lure of the money he could earn to continue long past the time he stopped caring about quality. After his death, of course, hundreds if not thousands of writers wrote their own Holmes' pastiches.
     One of the few series that I find enjoyable from beginning to end is Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe mysteries. Between 1934 and his death in 1975, Stout wrote 39 novels and almost as many shorter works about the gourmet orchid fancier armchair sleuth and his legman/biographer Archie Goodwin. The series has its ups and downs, but the last book is better than the first, and there are few that I don't enjoy re-reading from time to time.
     Nero Wolfe is a detective who almost never leaves his home, where he employs a full-time gardener to raise orchids on his roof and a Swiss chef to prepare gourmet meals. The rest of the time he reads, drinks beer and, when unavoidable, solves crimes for exorbitant fees. He is frequently described as overweight or fat, but his exact weight is rarely mentioned (usually Archie says he weighs a seventh of a ton, which comes to about 285 pounds). To do the necessary legwork, he employs another, more active detective, Archie Goodwin, who narrates the stories and whose chief function seems to be to prod Wolfe to take cases.
      A&E aired A Nero Wolfe Mystery for two seasons, there was an earlier NBC show for one season (starring William "Cannon" Conrad and Lee Horsley), and several radio adaptations and series (one starring Sydney Greenstreet), but you can't beat the original books. (There were only two film versions, which Stout despised so much that he forbade any future ones, but The Zero Effect features Bill Pullman and Ben Stiller as detectives with a relationship similar to Wolfe and Goodwin's.)
      The first Wolfe mystery, Fer-de-Lance, is not the best place to start, in my opinion. The characters are not quite formed, the plot doesn't move quite as smoothly, the language isn't completely engaging. Book two,  The League of Frightened Men, is better, but a first-time reader might want to start with some mid-period Wolfe such The Silent Speaker, Plot It Yourself or the Arnold Zeck trilogy: And Be a Villain, The Second Confession and In the Best Families. Some of my favorites are later still, including Too Many Clients, The Doorbell Rang and Death of a Doxy.
     Though the Wolfe books brim with contemporary details (Prohibition is a fact of life for Wolfe in Fer-de-Lance, and Watergate is prominently mentioned in A Family Affair, the last novel), Wolfe and Goodwin are ageless and timeless.
      There are other books about Wolfe and Stout, notably William S. Baring-Gould's Nero Wolfe of 35th Street, plus an authorized series of sequels (and one prequel) by Robert Goldsborough, and a pair of novels about Auguste Lupa (a son of Sherlock Holmes who may later become Nero Wolfe) by John Lescroart.

Nero Wolfe books by Rex Stout:

Fer-de-Lance (1934)
The League of Frightened Men (1935)
The Rubber Band (1936)
The Red Box (1937)
Too Many Cooks (1938)
Some Buried Caesar (1939)
Over My Dead Body (1940)
Where There's a Will (1940)
Black Orchids (1942)
Not Quite Dead Enough (1944)
The Silent Speaker (1946)
Too Many Women (1947)
And Be A Villain (1948)
The Second Confession (1949)
Trouble in Triplicate (1949)
Three Doors to Death (1950)
In the Best Families (1950)   
Curtains for Three (1951)
Murder by the Book (1951)
Prisoner's Base (1952)
Triple Jeopardy (1952)   
The Golden Spiders (1953)
The Black Mountain (1954)
Three Men Out (1954)
Before Midnight (1955)
Might As Well Be Dead (1956)
Three Witnesses (1956)
If Death Ever Slept (1957)
Three for the Chair (1957)
And Four to Go (1958)
Champagne for One (1958)
Plot It Yourself (1959)
Three at Wolfe's Door (1960)
Too Many Clients (1960)
The Final Deduction (1961)
Homicide Trinity (1962)
Gambit (1962)
The Mother Hunt (1963)
A Right To Die (1964)
The Doorbell Rang (1965)
Trio for Blunt Instruments (1965)
Death of a Doxy (1966)
The Father Hunt (1968)
Death of a Dude (1969)
Please Pass the Guilt (1973)
A Family Affair (1975)
Death Times Three (1985)


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