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Around the Edge of the Plot: The Nero Wolfe Mysteries

Around The Edge Of The Plot: The Nero Wolfe Mysteries

There are many mysteries: most are read and shelved, but a few are reread, and sometimes reread again. Sherlock Holmes comes to mind, another series is that concerning Nero Wolfe, by American author Rex Stout.

Stout (1886-1975)  was a crew-member for Theodore Roosevelt, a cigar store clerk, a financial wizard, a propagandist, a novelist of the psychological school, and a pulp writer.

The Nero Wolfe mysteries, however, are his immortality. The series is long  (1934 to 1975!),  popular, and much admired (The Nero Wolfe novels were nominated Best Mystery Series of the Century at  the world’s largest mystery convention in 2000).

The central character, Nero Wolfe, is a New York Detective, gourmet and orchidist. Think Jabba the Hutt in a brown pinstripe suit. He maintains an office and home on West 35th Street, and he stays there. His assistant, Archie Goodwin, who narrates the stories, is sent out into the din and smoke to do the legwork.

Usually, the plot involves murder among New York’s elite — Wolfe works only for those with money and lots of it.

As straight puzzlers, as whodunits, the series rates only about a B+,  as even fans might admit. Stout claimed he began his plots without knowing where they would end, and sometimes it shows. They are also a little old fashioned.

Why then worth re-reading? After all, you know who dunnit.

There is, to begin, the pleasure of wish fulfillment. Wolfe, who hates to work, spends most of his time reading, tending orchids and chonking down quantities of high rate cooking. Now and then he  pauses to snarl at clients or Archie and demonstrate his genius. The job sounds good to us. In this, Stout beats Christie. Who in their right mind would want to live in St. Mary Mead?

And the stories are great fun. Eccentrics troop in and out, suspects are bullied, and at the heart is an lively dialogue between Wolfe, whose style leans to formal and forceful tirades  and Goodwin, whose dry cynicism flows from the Black Mask tradition.

There is a good deal of psychology, some acute, some amusing. There is besides, now and then, an unsettling sense that more is going on in the story than is narrated. Stout knew how to leave things out.

Most important, however, is the setting.

As the incidentals of the plot fade, the atmosphere becomes more and more what we seek. to revisit. This or that murder becomes less urgent in itself and more important as an excuse to revisit Wolfe’s office, and revisit the city of New York in the thirties, forties and fifties. There is, then, for those who know New York, and for those who only imagine it, an intense and pleasurable evocation.

New York is one of the great cities of imagination, worthy of Calvino, and the Wolfe novels not only take place in New York, they are as specific to that city as Chandler’s work to L.A.  The whole city is there. Wolfe is a mysterious immigrant, who brings with him European culture and European shadows. Goodwin the native son (from Chillicothe, Ohio if you please), is also an outsider. Into their range float the upper classes, often wicked, and in their train they drag the rest of society, for what is lower may stand on its own, but what is higher cannot exist without the lower.

P.F. Howerton put it well in a brief obituary he wrote for Stout (National Review, December 19, 1975):

“. . . There is a corner in our city — I pass it regularly — that somehow traces a familial path through my mind across the infinitesimal distance to the now lugubrious landmarks of the Wolfe stories . . . .”

That is one layer. Beyond this, however is an elusive quality peculiar to strict genre narrative, that is, fiction in which the writer and the reader concentrate on the action, with the society around them as an unspoken assumption.

Art novels reflect this in part, but not so well, for they have their focus on society itself. Mysteries take the city for granted and this allows us a limited sort of special knowledge.

When the series begins, prohibition is still in force, when it ends, Wolfe discusses Watergate. Around the edges of the plot, the reader can see the society of the time revealed in what the narrator does not think worth mentioning.

Note that this is not the same trip-to-the-past as we get in movies or PBS costume dramas. What is present there is our idea of what the past looked like. What we get in these novels is ordinary circumstances now vanished.

As we reread these stories what is on the edge becomes more and more important, until the experience is like watching some old silent film, only middling in quality, in which the characters go bombing down a street. Who cares who they are?  We are seeing empty lanes now paved and built over, shaded by trees long cut, and vanished sunlight.

Max Arnott

Max Arnott is an independent scholar living in Toronto and has been a reader of Voegelin for many years.

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