Science fiction has been a deep part of my life since I was a child. I discovered it early and have been reading it ever since I started picking my own reading material. As a consequence, I’ve written a lot of posts on various SF topics, but somehow I’ve never gotten around to writing much about my other favorite genre: detective stories.
As with the SF, I discovered Sherlock Holmes early, along with the Agatha Christie detectives, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot. I fell in love with the idea of the puzzle-solving detective. (I also had a crush on Nancy Drew, but that was a whole other kind of interest.)
Then my dad, who also loved mysteries, introduced me to Rex Stout…
Which sounds like the name of a detective hero, right? Rex Stout and the Case of the Missing Dog!
As with Watson, Goodwin is the storyteller. Stout writes from Archie’s snarky, snappy first person point of view. (Wolfe sometimes doesn’t tell Archie things, so we readers don’t learn them until Archie does.) However, Watson was writing formal narratives, whereas Archie tells us a story about what happened.
But, other than Wolfe as the brilliant puzzle-solver, and Goodwin as the storyteller, the pair are quite different from Holmes and Watson.
Wolfe is, to say the least, corpulent. Archie often describes his weight as “a seventh of a ton,” which puts it at 285 pounds or so. (In one of the books I read recently, Archie refers to Wolf’s “4000 ounces,” which is 250 pounds. There is apparently a reference in 1947 that says he “weighs between 310 and 390.”)
In any event, and certainly by the standards of the time, Wolfe has width (he is reported to be 5′-10″ tall). He’s extremely eccentric. He never leaves his house unless forced, he fears all modes of transportation, and only works when the bank account demands it.
Wolfe, forever 56 according to Stout, has expensive tastes. He’s an epicure with an expert live-in chef, named Fritz. He loves beer, consuming quite a bit each day (but never shows the effects of alcohol). He has a passion for orchids; the roof of his New York brownstone is devoted to growing them.
Archie, who rooms in the brownstone, does all the legwork. If Wolfe wants to see someone or needs clues, Archie goes to get them.
In classic murder mystery fashion, Wolfe usually stages the denouement with all the major characters present in his office for the reveal.
(A final Nero Wolfe book, Death Times Three, was published posthumously in 1985. It contains a novella and two short stories.)
In all those 45 books, plus some short stories, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin never age. The setting is always contemporaneous to the writing, so time flows and society changes, but Nero and Archie are eternal.
Stout did this deliberately to place the focus on the stories rather than the evolving lives of his main characters. Unlike the focus on character development and history so common today (no tale is complete without at least one tortured backstory), Stout’s famous pair are timeless.
A wonderful consequence of this is that one can read the books in any order. Stout has Archie or Nero refer to previous events, but never in a way that requires reading any earlier adventure. In fact, some of those references are to cases not in any book.
Despite that, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, as extremely well realized characters, are much beloved among genre fans. Stout was an excellent author, and the books are sheer delight. (I’ve read six of them in the last few months.)
What’s fascinating about these stories is that Stout combines, in Nero Wolfe, the brilliant puzzle-solving British detective with, in Archie Goodwin, the tough wise-guy American detective.
But Archie is a far more wholesome and together guy than most of somewhat self-destructive (or at least somewhat lost in their own idealism) protagonists found in the Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler stories.
The truth is, most fans of Stout’s work read them as much, if not more, for Archie Goodwin and his tale-telling as for Nero Wolfe’s puzzle-solving. It’s Archie’s style, as a person and as a narrator, that makes these books sing.
Combined with Nero Wolfe’s brilliance and unique approach to life, these are some of the most sparkling, fun murder mysteries available. (In second place for sparkle and fun, I’d go with Dorothy L. Sayers and her detective, Lord Peter Wimsey.)
There is, something contrived, almost operatic, about a murder mystery. They are carefully constructed puzzles designed to trick the reader until the final scene.
American authors such as Chandler and Hammett took a new approach, writing more about life’s mean streets and realities. These heroes don’t make brilliant deductions from a few clues; they doggedly follow clue after clue hoping for a break.
But even so, they follow the pattern of the big reveal at the end.
Which is something that science fiction does quite frequently. A common pattern in science fiction, especially with short stories, is to throw the reader into a story without explaining parts of what’s going on until the end.
With some SF short stories, it can amount to being the punchline of a joke, especially when the story is humorous or wry. Other times, it’s just a surprise. For example, it’ll turn out the narrator is the alien and the “aliens” are actually humans.
Science fiction can do this because SF authors are required to invoke new worlds and ideas, so it’s easy to create a mystery — just don’t explain everything. Mundane fiction assumes the known world, so there aren’t as many places to hide a mystery.
But mystery stories, by definition, must supply a mystery. With murder mysteries (the most common kind of mystery story), the question is always: Who done it? (And how? And why?)
This formula works well, because murder is a high crime — in some regards the greatest (and original) crime — so the perpetrator necessarily expends great effort to conceal it.
Those who would solve the case must, likewise, expend great effort. It supplies the story with its primary need: the conflict.
So it’s not surprising I love mysteries almost as much as I love science fiction. Both appeal to my love of puzzle-solving.
Or, since I don’t care for artificial puzzles (I’m too dumb for them), it’s really my love of debugging things. As a coder, debugging has always been one of my favorite parts — find the killer who murdered my application!
[Seriously, I’m trash at “IQ puzzles”… just recently flubbed one: “If a plane crashes on the border of North Dakota and South Dakota, where are the survivors buried?” My first thought: wouldn’t they be buried in their home towns or whatever? No dummy. Survivors aren’t buried at all. That stuff always goes right past me… I’m naive and always assume the question was fairly framed. I’m easy to trick.]
Stay puzzled, my friends!