A quarter century ago while I was getting edified in college in Houston, I picked up a Nero Wolfe novel, on the recommendation of some journalist. Being rather methodical in such things, I found out that Mr. Stout had written quite a few novels, that the first Wolfe one was "Fer de Lance," and so I bought it. Start at the beginning; I was studying math after all. I liked the book, which I had gotten at The Book Den on Rice Boulevard, an establishment long gone in the yuppification of the Village and the John, the owner, no doubt gone too of age, had taken a shine to me and had ordered for all of the Wolfe novels, which I went through like a bureaucrat through your paycheck. Not a week goes by that I don't have a warm thought about this dead man. Some of my teachers and professors should be so lucky. Mrs. Schmidt, are you listening?
Wolfe is a hugely fat private detective in New York. He is Montenegrin, which features in the series, and which has given some piquancy to the (ever-constant) Balkan fighting exploding in the last few years. His amanuensis-and I think that I learned that word in this book-is Archie Goodwin, a controlled rakehell from Ohio. Wolfe is a genius and Archie is his legman. The other full-time occupant of the New York brownstone house is Fritz Brenner, the Swiss chef and house keeper. Wolfe grows 10,000 or 20,000 or 40,000 orchids-one of the few slight inconsistencies in Stout's own Wolfiana-on the roof of his brownstone in New York. He fights the police, hates to work, loves to eat, and is generally difficult.
But my God can he talk. Roll in the vocabulary; pluck out the recondite verbs and carpe dem nouns. I damned near wore out Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary-I have found a better dictionary since-looking up such as "demirep" and enjoying the words it's made of. (A denizen of the demimonde, or half-world +a reprobate.) Wolfe is a godsend if you're playing the dictionary game.
A word of warning. Wolfe is what I can best describe as High Tory, and Archie follows, not that I myself mind. Archie is much like a very proud tom cat: perfectly mannered, but on his terms. Utterly trustworthy, like my best friend Ron, but mannered like a good tom cat. Measure up to standards which he sets for everyone, including himself, and he is your ally. Miss Manners would like him, I think.
Had this book come out now, about 2/3 of a century later, people would no doubt have sniggered about "homoeroticism," which in this case means that three men live together in a house and that the emotional relationships are amazingly intense. But very well controlled.
Every Wolfe novel or short novel ends in a confrontation in the office, with Archie setting the stage, arranging seating, providing a bar, and mostly steering people to the chairs that he wanted. He was a control freak before the term was invented. As I said, a cat. Wolfe makes a dramatic entrance, the tableau set, and using nothing but the power of his brain, solves the case, often with so little to go on that it is a true cliffhanger, if you really care. Me, I like the atmosphere.
The series was continued by his daughters' permission by a Mr. Robert Goldsmith, who is pretty good with the details of that particular brownstone universe, but whose essential meanness has revealed his politics. Archie never once said something to wound unless he felt that propriety was lacking. And then he snubbed; he did not want to injure. Mr. Goldsmith's Archie does.
I hope that you enjoy the Wolfe as much as I have. They sit decomposing on the shelf behind me, just as I sit decomposing in front of you.
But I warn you: the gastronomy is seductive. The cooking is of French standards of a hundred years ago but it is intriguing, and set me off. Time to cook a French garlic sausage I made over the weekend. Thank you Mr. Wolfe.