I whiled away several quiet hours this holiday (in Canada) weekend reading three of Rex Stout's “Nero Wolfe” novels that I ran across in a used bookstore that leapt in front of me during a routine shopping trip. For the huge number of people too young to know about Archie and Nero, an introduction. For the aficionados, if any, a scholarly investigation of The Office Layout Issue, and a pointer to a real DVD bargain.

Rex Stout

The Essentials · Rex Stout (pictured right) wrote dozens of novels and stories in this series between 1938 and 1975. Nero Wolfe is a detective whose home office is on West 35th street in New York. He employs another detective, Archie Goodwin (who narrates the novels), a cook, and an orchid wrangler. Wolfe is of Montenegrin origin and extremely eccentric.

These books are awfully damn good. The plots are perhaps unnecessarily convoluted, and some of the repeating motifs (especially the grand denouement in Wolfe's office) start to wear after a couple of dozen books.

But the characters are all really interesting people, sparkling conversationalists, and the great thing about the novels is that you get to spend a few hundred pages with these smart, aggressive, sharp-talking, fascinating people.

Archie et al · In particular, Archie Goodwin is my hero; he's who I want to be when I grow up. He's smart, graceful, eloquent, and very competent. He's also capable of sudden extreme violence, but Mr. Stout only lets this happen once every few books, so the effect when Archie tosses someone out of Nero's office is way more dramatic than when Scharzenegger wastes victims number 17 through 21 in the eleventh minute of one of his flicks.

Archie is also an accomplished but very honorable womanizer, and we can all relate to that.

I'm not going to take a tour through the rest of the regular players, but most people will have developed a personal relationship with several of the characters (Inspector Cramer, gumshoe-for-hire Saul Panzer) after reading a few of these books.

Nero himself, despite the fact that the series is named after him, looms less large than Archie, but that's still pretty large. Fictional detectives are by definition eccentric, but Nero has to rank among the most fascinatingly eccentric ever.

You may have noticed a distinct absence of women's names in the narrative, and indeed, the only woman who appears regularly is Archie's occasional flame Lily Rowan, a bit part indeed. Were these being written now I'm sure they would do better on this front, but the women who float through the successive novels—some of whom are murderesses—are pretty strong characters.

I'll stop the fannish raving, except to note that for those of us who travel a lot, the Wolfe books are right at the top of the heap for long-flight entertainment.

Timothy Hutton as Archie Goodwin

Archie and Nero, the Movie · In recent years, the Arts & Entertainment channel has been bringing the stories to the screen, starring Timothy Hutton as Archie. While I've only seen bits and pieces in hotel rooms (we don't get TV at home), those bits and pieces were very good indeed. The promo picture at right captures Archie's sharp-dressing ethos, but looks kind of California, which is no good because this narrative—and the pieces of video I saw—are totally 100% New York.

Here's how good it is: I was channel-scannning one night in a hotel room and ran across film of a sharp-dressed guy sparring verbally with a hard-boiled cop, and I within two seconds I told myself “That's Archie and Cramer.” (The only other time this happened was when I channeled-scanned into a BBC production and within two seconds said “That's Mr. Slope and Septimus Harding!” and indeed it was their version of Trollope's Barchester Towers; Trollope being right up there with Rex Stout as a purveyor of airplane goodies. But I digress.)

I'd been trying to buy these on DVD for a while without success, but when I was poking around for pictures for this piece, I discovered that A&E is selling the whole first season on DVD for $59.95, which I'd call a real bargain. I ordered 'em and will report if there are surprises, pro or con.

The Problem of the Office · The rest of this is for those who've read a few, although the rest of you are welcome along on the ride. For the newcomers, I will remark that a lot of the stories' narrative takes place in Wolfe's office, which is a memorable place lovingly described by Stout in virtually every novel.

OK, here's the problem: what's the floorplan? Despite all the verbiage, Stout never really comes across. He did once provide a sketch, reproduced below:

Stout

Anyone can see that this has to be wrong. First of all, where's the picture of the waterfall with the peephole? Secondly, the position of Archie's desk is a problem. Since he frequently interacts with others in the room while at his desk, the notion that his desk is against the wall with his back to everyone seems really questionable. On the other hand, he can't possibly be stuck behind a desk as Wolfe is, as he occasionally has to leap to the restraint of a just-unmasked murderer. Finally, placing Wolfe between two windows is ludicrous; on at least one occasion the establishment has come under machine-gun fire from mobsters, and everyone who has been in the office knows where he sits.

For more on this knotty problem, see here. This requires more thought...


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May 19, 2003
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