Nero and Archie

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!

Except real-life Rex Stout (1886–1975) is the author, and fictional Nero Wolfe is the puzzle solver. Sidekick Archie Goodwin is to Wolfe what Dr. Watson is to Holmes.

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.

§

The first story, Fer-de-Lance, came out in 1934. The last published while Stout was alive, A Family Affair, came out in 1975. It was the 44th Nero Wolfe novel.

(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.]

Anyway, in addition to Sci-Fi Saturday, I’m going to try finally getting around to some Mystery Monday posts. I’ve been meaning to since I began this blog.

Stay puzzled, my friends!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

21 responses to “Nero and Archie

  • Wyrd Smythe

    (17 posts to go this month in order to post #900 on New Year’s Day!)

  • Wyrd Smythe

    BTW: If you’re in the Apple ecology, Apple iBooks has a lot of the Nero Wolfe books for $4.99. Others are $8.99 — I have no idea why the price difference, but I’ll probably end up getting most of the $5 dollar ones.

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    Every time I see the name Archie Goodwin, I think about the comic book author, and also the (unrelated) comic book character named Archie.

    The Nero and Archie books sound interesting. Just read the open pages of Fer-de-Lance and I’m impressed with Stout’s ability to quickly get the reader into the lives of the characters. Something else to add to my reading backlog.

    On mystery and science fiction, I noticed a few years ago that many of the most compelling Star Trek: The Next Gen episodes involve mysteries. It’s amazing just how much the mystery itself can keep an audience glued.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Stout was a very good writer, and it’s hard not to like Archie Goodwin. The books are usually referred to as “Nero Wolfe” books, but just about everyone loves Archie most. (Wolfe isn’t as personally engaging as Archie is.)

      What impresses me is that Stout took the Sherlock Holmes structure (“odd couple” of private investigators, a brainy leader plus sidekick) and completely reinvented it while remaining true to its essence. Plus, in Archie Goodwin, he made it very American and connected British murder mystery tradition with American private eyes. The series is as good as anything out there. Definitely worth adding to your reading list!

      I’ve never thought about mysteries in the context of Star Trek, but now that you say that, I’d agree. (Except for Sub Rosa! [shudder])

      I’m tempted to consider Mystery more as a mode than a genre. (I absolutely consider Science Fiction a mode.) Just as there are many SF genres, there seem a lot of Mystery genres (including some science fiction).

      For that matter, between The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon — both by Dashiell Hammett — there’s also a comedy-drama divide.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Can’t say that Sub Rosa is one of my favorites either, although based on your reaction and what I just read about fan disdain for it, it must be even worse than I remember.

        On genres, definitely, stories are often combinations of multiple genres, with the publishing genre being more about marketplace positioning than anything else. The Expanse authors actually try to make each of their space opera books be a story in a different plot genre (detective story, political thriller, ghost story, western, disaster, etc–all modified as necessary for SF norms).

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Right, and that’s just it. Science fiction, after all, is fiction with that special sauce of a bit of fantasy. It’s a framing context or writing mode or whatever. Calling it a genre is too restrictive. (But, yeah, ya gotta have library and bookstore sections. Or webpage sections, these days.)

        The thing is, Sub Rose is an attempt to tell a ghost story on a hard SF TV show, which I think is an iffy proposition outta the gate. Trying to fit it into a hard SF format like Star Trek was kind of a throwback to the TOS energy monsters (“if we laugh at it, it will go away” although I suppose it had more in common with Scotty becoming Jack the Ripper’s “spirit”).

        They say that when a hard SF series starts doing Westerns, that’s a death knell. Might be a similar deal with ghost stories. Scrapping the barrel bottom — that was a seventh season episode.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I think calling Star Trek hard SF is a bit generous, although I’d agree that unlike Star Wars, it actually is science fiction. But yeah, I’d forgotten about the western episode in TOS. There was also a third season TOS episode where the crew had to fight an evil ghost summoned by children (the word “evil” is used explicitly). I can’t recall if they bothered to label it as an alien, but everyone knew it was ghost.

        I do think a ghost story can work in science fiction, provided you alter it to actually be science fiction. I’m thinking of Miller in The Expanse. But if you’re not careful, it’s definitely easy to slip into just garden variety fantasy.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        When I say Star Trek is hard SF, I just mean its universe is intended to be explained by its physics. Granted, that physics can be sloppy or handwaving (or sloppy handwaving 🙂 ), and sometimes they really lose their way, as in Sub Rosa or And the Children Shall Lead or Wolf in the Fold, but their heart is generally in the hard (or at least hard-ish) SF world.

        “I do think a ghost story can work in science fiction, provided you alter it to actually be science fiction.”

        But is it still a ghost story or a story that seems to be a ghost story?

        I’ve always seen “supernatural” story elements as falling into one of three groups:

        1. It seems supernatural, but has a mundane explanation.
        2. It seems supernatural, and it is.
        3. It seems supernatural. The author refuses to clarify the matter.

        The stories in Scooby Doo (or Star Trek for that matter) fall into #1 — there’s always a physical explanation. It’s never actually the supernatural.

        Most ghost stories fall into #2. Ghostbusters is a perfect example. So is the only movie that ever terrified me as a kid, the original 13 Ghosts.

        The TV show Night Court started in category #3, but later in the show’s run they switched to #2. (My noticing that was the origin of the list above.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I think it’s possible to have a ghost story with a scientific (or scientifically sounding) explanation, but still have it feel like a ghost story. Miller in The Expanse seems like a ghost, although we know within the story he’s an emulation of the original Miller with modifications using a technology so advanced that it puts us in Clarke’s third law.

        A lot of the stuff in the old Babylon 5 series also had a haunted ghostly quality to it, the return of an ancient evil, aliens who felt a lot like demons. Other aliens who felt like angels. (Until we find out they’re all demons.) Of course, it all had a science-like explanation, but at a visceral level, it felt much more supernatural.

        Of course, in many cases the science-like explanation may be so brief and fleeting that it’s still de-facto 2 or 3. The midichlorians come to mind, an explanation many fans were very unhappy with and aggressively worked to forget about.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        The midichlorians, ha! Yeah, don’t you dare bring any science into my fantasy fairy tale! 😉

        I think maybe it’s ultimately dealer’s choice as to whether one focuses on tone or content. Are stories from category #1 (of my little list above), or stories with just an evil feel, ghost stories? I suspect most would agree with you they are. Scooby Doo stories are ghost stories.

        If you know me well enough, it probably won’t surprise you that I lean towards a more restrictive definition. I’d, at the least, put an asterisk next to Scooby Doo or Star Trek “ghost” stories. (Or, hey, maybe just putting “ghost” in quotes is enough. 🙂 )

        Bab5 is a good example here. I know what you mean about the feel of the Shadows, but remember from previous conversations, I’m one who, as JMS predicted some would, sided with the Shadows once the story was clear. (More accurately, I saw both the Vorlons and Shadows as just as bad. I was delighted that Sheridan kicked them both out!)

        So, yeah, ghost story or “ghost” story. Dealer’s choice. 😀

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Christopher Pike : Is the parking brake on?
        Hikaru Sulu : Uh, no. I’ll figure it out. I’m just…
        Spock : Have you disengaged the external inertial dampener?

        🙂

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I… don’t get it. 😦

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Parking brake…external inertial dampener? Two names for similar, if not identical things.

        It’s from the first Star Trek reboot movie. I probably cropped it too tightly:

        Hikaru Sulu : The fleet has cleared spacedock, Captain. All ships ready for warp.

        Christopher Pike : Set a course for Vulcan.

        Hikaru Sulu : Aye-Aye, Captain. Course laid in.

        Christopher Pike : Maximum warp. Punch it.

        [One by one, the rest of the star fleet jumps into warp drive, leaving the Enterprise behind. Sulu frowns at the console, puzzled]

        Christopher Pike : Lieutenant, where is Helmsman McKenna?

        Hikaru Sulu : He has lungworms, sir. He couldn’t report to his post. I’m Hikaru Sulu.

        Christopher Pike : And you are a pilot, right?

        Hikaru Sulu : Very much so, sir.

        [he trails off, hitting buttons]

        Hikaru Sulu : I’m, uh, I’m not sure what’s wrong here.

        Christopher Pike : Is the parking brake on?

        Hikaru Sulu : Uh, no. I’ll figure it out. I’m just…

        Spock : Have you disengaged the external inertial dampener?

        Hikaru Sulu : [Embarrassed. Without looking at anyone, he punches in the correct sequence] Ready for warp, sir.

        Christopher Pike : Let’s punch it.

        https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0796366/characters/nm0339304

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Oh, I see. I did get the two names for similar things aspect (toe-may-toe, toe-mah-toe), but the lines themselves coming from a real Star Trek movie is embarrassing — I thought maybe you’d made them up and I wasn’t getting the joke.

        But there is no joke, I find the idea that a trained pilot would make that mistake is absurd, and Pike’s reference to the “parking brake” seems a stretch invented purely for joke purposes. As such the joke seems too forced and inorganic to have a chance of working. It’s the exactly the kind of writing I attribute to, and despise about, J.J. fucking Abrams. All style with shit for content; easy mindless gags. (Sorry, but Trek is too foundational for me. Seeing it, too, turn into the same old modern shit broke my heart. Kids are welcome on that lawn, but I don’t like that they relandscaped my whole yard. I’m totally a hard-ass on this.)

        As I think we’ve talked about before, Star Trek was pretty much dead when he came on board, so one can credit him with reviving the franchise, but to me all he did was desecrate the corpse. I’ve never seen the rebooted Trek as having any real connection with the real Star Trek. I’ve seen that first reboot movie, but it’s pretty much blanked from my mind like Star Wars episodes I, II, and III.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Hmmm. Ok. I’ll try not to bring up the reboots again. 🙂

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Heh, yeah,… I’m probably not entirely rational when it comes to my Star Trek. It played such a huge role in my young life. I can’t even begin to estimate how many times I’ve seen those TOS episodes. (Time was, show me any 30 seconds of any episode, and I could start reeling off dialog.)

        As a dedicated science fiction, and space, geek back in the mid-1960s, Star Trek almost literally was manna from heaven.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        For me, Star Trek:TOS was a fact of life from my earliest memories. (And Lost in Space, although that obviously hasn’t aged nearly as well.) I sometimes wonder if I’d been much of a science fiction fan if I’d only had the pessimistic stuff from the 50s as my initial exposure.

        I can’t say I’m thrilled with the new movies, or Discovery. But then I wasn’t thrilled with most of the old movies either. From Enterprise forward, the franchise has been backward looking, more about rediscovery than discovery.

        I’m going to give Picard a try, but based on the trailers, I suspect it’s just going to be another nostalgia pump.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I’ll look forward to you posting about it. 😉

  • TheChattyIntrovert

    I think I first picked up a nero Wolfe novel in 9th grade, and quickly went on to devour them. Any time I found a copy on the shelf, i’d grab it at the bookseller, or go online and get a used copy if it was in good enough shape. I have nearly all the books on my shelf and because I have so many books to read, I try to read at least three nero wolfe books a year now (my yearly goal is 100 since 2017). They don’t take that long to read and are engaging as hell. I love ’em, and Archie’s voice is the best.

    Some people hated the early 2000s A&E Nero Wolfe series with Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton, but I thought most of the episodes were great. I loved the style and the characters, and it was neat to see the actors again and again in different roles doing the repertoire acting. And just like in the series, when Inspector Cramer shows up on the pages, I gotta smile, because you know somebody’s about to lose their temper (and it’s usually him). Wolfe playing fast and loose with the cops is always interesting to read, because how many times can he possibly get away with it? That’s what I always found fun–who’s going to figure out what first.

    Awesome breakdown of the series. I appreciate Sherlock Holmes and Watson, but as far as accessibility goes with classic detectives, Nero and Archie are who I’d recommend to any young mystery reader today.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I’d agree with that. Holmes comes from both a different era and a different culture. Wolfe and Goodwin are 20th century characters!

      I don’t think I ever saw the A&E series. I have no memory of seeing it, although that doesn’t always mean much with me. (I tend not to retain the details of fiction, which makes it fun to revisit.)

      All the Nero Wolfe I’ve read (and I’m sure it’s not the full series, but a lot of them) were either from the library or from my dad’s collection. I never owned any myself. When I saw them available on Apple, many of them for $4.99, I started buying them. As I mentioned, I’ve read six so far, of the eight I bought. No doubt I’ll buy the other five-dollar ones.

      (A similar thing happened with Dorothy L. Sayers and her Peter Wimsey books. Those were all my dad’s, too, and it’s only now that I can get them off Apple for a few bucks that I’ve gotten into them again.)

    • Wyrd Smythe

      p.s. Welcome to my blog! 🙂

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