Monday, April 11, 2011

Crime Fiction Alphabet - Letter N = Nero Wolfe

The Crime Fiction Alphabet is a weekly meme hosted by Kerrie Smith at her blog, MYSTERIES IN PARADISE. This week's letter is the natty Letter N. For links to all the participants and their alphabet posts, please check out this link to Kerrie's blog.
I was going to wait for W to post about Nero Wolfe, but decided N for Nero was quite good enough. I can't remember when I didn't know about Nero Wolfe, it seems he's been a part of my imagination since forever. He and Archie Goodwin still live in that brownstone on thirty-something street with the orchid greenhouse on the roof, and always will. My only complaint is that I'm not as fond of yellow as Wolfe is, so if I had a chance to decorate the place I'd do away with the color and bring in some green - other than that, the place is perfection. The ideal New York establishment especially with Fritz Brenner, the live-in chef cooking up gourmet meals and Theodore Horstmann the orchid man coming in every day to fuss about the flowers on the roof.

Over the years, I've read and re-read all the Wolfe books, most especially my favorites, and for whatever reason, I never get tired of doing so. It's become a lifelong habit of mine. I am very fond of reading about genius and its eccentric ways especially when written about with such style and panache by prolific author Rex Stout. (1886 - 1975)

Nero Wolfe was born in Montenegro but became an American citizen. There is some shadowy mystery connected with his early beginnings and I've always assumed he was involved in political skullduggery and espionage of some sort. His world view is from a jaundiced international eye. Whatever happened in his younger years, it has driven him to a nearly stationary and rather regimented existence in NYC where he uses his genius to earn the kind of living necessary to maintain his eccentric lifestyle. There's just something about the corpulent, cranky, misogynist thinking machine, a man who by his own admission, uses his weight to insulate himself from the vagaries of human emotion. He is someone hard to like, but once you fall under his spell, you are his for life. Archie Goodwin - who narrates all the books - was more of an acquired taste for me. In the beginning I didn't like his smart-mouth attitude but once I realized that he would give his life for Wolfe without batting an eye, he was okay with me as well.

If you enjoy books set mostly in the NYC you remember from all those black and white RKO films, if you like an intriguing, tightly woven private-eye mystery with a whodunit puzzle and a grand denouement at the end (usually in Wolfe's office with all the suspects and a bunch of cops in attendance), then these are the books for you. Rex Stout brought a certain strata of New York and its wary citizens to life beginning in 1934 with FER-DE-LANCE (one of the best titled books ever, in my opinion) and ending in the year of his death, 1975, with A FAMILY AFFAIR - a book which ends with as memorable a shock as any mystery author has ever created. (In 1985 the posthumous DEATH TIMES THREE was also published.)

Some of my favorite Nero Wolfe books: (In no particular order.)















I can't bring myself to re-read only one of the books, A FAMILY AFFAIR. I still haven't gotten over the shock.

Of course, with my Old Lady Memory, I tend to forget the plots and so re-reading becomes almost like reading for the first time. One of the few advantages, I suppose, of old age. Ha!


  1. As you know, Yvette, I love the Wolfe books. I agree with just about everything you say - except one point: I think the real reason why the books work so well is...Archie Goodwin. Wolfe alone might be a genius, but his misogyny, his gluttony, his inactivity, his rudeness, would work against him. Archie, however, offsets Wolfe and doesn't let him get away with his bad behavior - and that humanizing effect, I think, makes all the difference. And, yes, I love Archie's wisecracking. My favorite, still, is "The Doorbell Rang." I also agree with you - "A Family Affair" is VERY tough to reread!

  2. Les: I agree with you about Archie 'humanizing' Wolfe. I should have mentioned it. All I'm saying is that it took me awhile to warm up to him. :-)

    Yes, the 'humanizing' of Wolfe make a big difference.

    Oh, I can't re-read that last book. It's TOO hard.

  3. Yvette - A great choice for "N." Wolfe is one of the unique characters of crime fiction and the mysteries he solves are quite intriguing. But I have to agree with Les that the Nero Wolfe stories are all that much better because of Archie Goodwin. I couldn't really imagine enjoying a Stout novel without Goodwin...

  4. Margot: Hi, thanks for dropping by. Yes, I agree with you and with Les, I really do. Archie is necessary. Without him, Wolfe wouldn't work and he'd be out of the brownstone on his ear. HA! Archie grew on me as the series progressed. ;-)

  5. Oh, duh! I was looking at your list of favorite mysteries the other day thinking I had never heard of Rex Stout but of course I've heard of Nero Wolfe. I've never read any of the books but used to really like the series that was on t.v., I think on A&E.

  6. I had already put the last three of the favorites listed here on my library TBR list. I'll have to buy some used copies of some of these.

    I read Nero Wolfe books when I was a teen-ager, and liked them. Then I moved on to other writers and out of mysteries, which I came back to in recent years, but hadn't yet cracked open a Wolfe mystery.

    However, I will. My library takes older books out of circulation, with only a few left, so it is to Abe Books I must go for used books.

    Thanks for the excellent post. I am imagining Wolfe right now in his greenhouse with the orchids, barking orders at Archie Goodwin.

  7. I forgot to say but want to mention that these covers are too much! I'm now paying more attention to covers due to the critiquing here, and the Nero Wolfe covers are quite something: delicate orchids with an ominous huge man in the background, and other colorful, interesting designs.

    Really, these retro covers beat a lot of today's boring or unrelated covers (meaning not relevant to the plot; I see these all the time).

  8. Kathy: I LOVE these retro covers too! They are so graphic and bright and mostly relevant to the stories within - but not always. Still I love their exuberance. These Nero Wolfe ones are especially wonderful. In my view, by the way, it's never too late to go back and re-read Wolfe. Glad you're going to pick up a few. They are addictive.

  9. Lisa: I'm glad you're familiar with Wolfe in any form. Why don't you give one of the books a try? As I told Kathy, they are definitely addictive. :)

  10. Yes, addictive! I'll be found in the gutter at 6 a.m. holding armfuls of Nero Wolfe books, totally incoherent, muttering about orchids and fine dining, giving orders to Archie Goodwin, Fred Durkin and Saul Panzer (is that the third guy's name? I thought I remembered it correctly from 40 years ago.)
    Since my last name is the same as one of the three go-fer detectives, I was even more interested as a youth in the books; gee, someone with our name, had never known anyone before with the name except family members. So fun all the way around.

  11. I gotta check those out!

    Here is my N post!

  12. Gautami: Yes, you should. If you like vintage mysteries, especially. :)

  13. Great choice Yvette - Nero is true classic Golden Age mystery all wrapped up in a ginormous bundle! And some truly fabulous covers too!

  14. cavershamragu: Thanks. I wish I owned those old dustjackets wrapped around the old copies of these books. Why didn't I collect these things in the 60's?!! Oh well, I can admire them now from afar. :-)

  15. Gotta love Nero Wolfe! And I absolutely agree with Les that Archie Goodwin makes the books. They just wouldn't be the same without his narration and his goading of Wolfe.

  16. Yes, I agree. I also think they are two halves of a whole. But as a kid I fell in love with Wolfe, not Archie. Just sayin'... :-)

  17. I love the covers Yvette. I must admit I haven't read much Nero Wolfe. Thanks for contributing to this week's CFA

  18. Kerrie: Arent't they wonderful? I love them, too!
    Well, there's nothing for it, Kerrie, you have to get on the Nero Wolfe bandwagon! :-)

  19. Yvette, if I buy one for my Kindle - there are lots available - which would be good to start on?

  20. Well, you could begin at the beginning with FER-DE-LANCE which is a bit dated, but still good. Or BEFORE MIDNIGHT which is excellent or LEAGUE OF FRIGHTENED MEN or WHERE THERE'S A WILL or MURDER BY THE BOOK or PLOT IT YOURSELF or THE MOTHER HUNT or THE FATHER HUNT. What a great list they have. I'm so glad you've decided to give Wolfe a try, Kerrie. :-)

  21. Thanks Yvette. I've started with BEFORE MIDNIGHT


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