A Social Commentary on the U.S.
All genre fiction provides a glimpse of life for
the period in which the works are written. Science fiction shows
the reader what the future may hold. Romance can, and does,
give the reader insight into social customs and dress for the
period covered, usually for a specific group, or class, of the
population. Westerns, restricted by definition, deal with the
customs and attitudes of the Old West of the US.
Mysteries, especially series, are limited only
by the skill, and desire, of the writer to comment on society
and societal changes. Social position, financial wealth, ethnicity,
nor education provide a barrier to the talented mystery writer.
Series authors have the opportunity to record history and social
change for the duration of the series. If the author is fortunate
enough for the series to continue a decade or more, the author's
legacy becomes a unique, and personal, view of history.
Rex Stout is one such fortunate author with his
legendary armchair detective, Nero
Wolfe. Wolfe first appeared in 1934, ably assisted by
the energetic, smooth-talking Archie Goodwin, his confidential
assistant. Wolfe and Goodwin appear in over 80 novels and short
stories from 1934 through 1985 -- five decades of American history
as seen by a mystery writer and his ensemble cast. Through Wolfe
and Archie, we see the effects of the Depression, World War II,
the Civil Rights movement, Women's Liberation and Watergate.
Wolfe is the epitome of the American dream. Stout
does not provide all of Wolfe's background, but he drops tantalizing
hints throughout the series. The reader learns that Wolfe immigrated
to America from his native Montenegro (part of the Balkans) and
became a naturalized citizen, which adds to Wolfe's overall view
of the world. When Archie joins Wolfe in 1930, Wolfe is already
established in the brownstone on West 35th Street, implying that
Wolfe has achieved some success, as measured by American standards,
and security, two things for which immigrants strive.
According to Wolfe, "I was born in Montenegro
and spent my boyhood there. At the age of sixteen, I decided
to move around, and in fourteen years, I became acquainted with
most of Europe, a little of Africa, and much of Asia, in a variety
of roles and activities. Coming to this country in 1930, not
penniless, I bought this house and entered into practice as a
private detective. I am a naturalized citizen" ("Fourth
of July Picnic").
Wolfe is sophisticated, cosmopolitan, eccentric
and a misogynist. By contrast, Archie Goodwin is the all-American
male. Brash, arrogant, charming, wise-cracking, intelligent
and energetic, a pure corn-fed Midwesterner from Chillicothe,
Ohio, Archie never doubts himself, or his place in life, by virtue
of having been born an American.
One interesting thing to note is that although
the series spans fifty years, Wolfe remains 50-something while
Archie remains in his 30s. They change -- attitudes, styles,
language -- but the two men do not age.
While some changes are superficial, others show
the passage of time, or a history of the period. For example,
Wolfe owns, and Archie operates, a Heron sedan, which later becomes
a Cadillac. Why? Because Heron has gone out of business. Phone
calls increase from a nickel to a dime much to Archie's consternation.
A radio is introduced into Wolfe's office, and is replaced with
a television, which Wolfe loves to hate. According to Archie,
"I have seen him turn it on as many as eight times in one
evening, glare at it from one to three minutes, turn it off,
and go back to his book" (The Golden Spiders). Wolfe
gives his own opinion on television in Please Pass The Guilt,
"I turn on the television rarely, only to confirm my opinion
Archie's viewpoint is more superficial than Wolfe's.
When the reader first meets the confidential assistant, Archie
can tell mink from sable. As time marches on, Archie is forced
to admit "it's gotten to the point where I can't tell cony
from coonskin," in A Family Affair. His apparent
disgust with the advances in fabric is clear in "Murder
is No Joke" when he observes "a couple of yards
of plain black fabric, silk or rayon or nylon or orlon or Dacron
on cottonon or linenon, draped on a little rack."
As a trained detective, Archie never misses a dimple,
the curve of a neck, or a lovely pair of legs. Wolfe only notices
what he needs to notice. In The Father Hunt, Archie doubts
"whether [Wolfe] noticed that the skirt of Amy Denovo's
brown striped summer skirt wasn't really a mini; it was only
about two inches above her knees." Without a doubt, Archie
enjoyed, and appreciated, this particular fashion change much
more than Wolfe.
As much as Archie enjoys observing the ladies,
he is still an acutely observant detective. He is, however,
a step behind Wolfe, at times, in putting a hypotheses together
and, on occasion, may miss something completely. In A Right
To Die, Paul Whipple gives Archie his name, but it doesn't
tickle Archie's fabulous memory. Wolfe remembers. At least,
the implication is that Wolfe recognizes the name.
A Right To Die shows the enormity of the Wolfe's naiveté. Archie allows Whipple in, because "So far as I know, in their hot campaign for Civil Rights, the Negroes hadn't mention the right to consult a private detective, but why not?"
When it is learned that Paul Whipple's son, Dunbar, is being questioned in relation to the murder of a white girl, Wolfe's naiveté is overwhelming.
Wolfe: "The delay was ill-advised,
but explicable. You have come to grief, certainly, but a murder
charge? What will they do for motive?"
Dunbar: "You don't mean that. A Negro
and a white girl?"
Wolfe: "Nonsense. New York isn't
Utopia, but it isn't Dixie."
In the same conversation Wolfe assures Paul Whipple,
the father, that "your assumption that your son will be
charged with murder is probably illusory. You're distraught."
Wolfe may "know what [he] needs to know.
[He] makes sure to know that [he] wants to know" (Please
Pass The Guilt), but somehow he missed the intensity and bitterness
of the Civil Rights movement, believing 'the ideal human agreement
is one in which distinctions of race and color and religion are
totally disregarded" (Too Many Cooks). Please note
Wolfe does not include "sex" in his list.
When Wolfe learns of Dunbar's arrest, Wolfe offers his services to Paul Whipple at no charge. While not earning a fee is not uncommon, the apology is.
Wolfe: "I owe you an apology. You
were right, and I was wrong I am convinced the charge is unfounded.
If you want my services on your son's behalf, I offer them without
Wolfe doesn't consider race. For him, it is a
non-issue, as shown when addressing Harold Oster, Dunbar Whipple's
attorney. " You actually believe that your skin color and
mine are factors in my treatment of you."
Wolfe is probably the least prejudiced person of
his era, disliking everyone equally, with special animus for
women. "[Nathaniel Parker] was one of eight men, not counting
[Archie] that Wolfe shook hands with" (Death of a Demon).
But, on women, Wolfe goes past neurotic, even though
he will not "tolerate the locution 'women's libber',"
(A Family Affair). In Please Pass The Guilt when the cleaning service arrives with a black woman, Wolfe asks Archie, "Are there female Black Panthers?" This could be another example of Wolfe's naiveté, or it could indicate that the violence of the 60s finally made an impression on him.
It is obvious that Wolfe judges people on a person-by-person
basis, and finds most people lacking. Although, he does acquiesce
when help is needed, even if it's female. Lily Rowan is enlisted
to add veracity to Wolfe's disguise when Wolfe goes undercover
to apprehend the infamous "X", Arnold Zeck, in In
The Best Families.
And Wolfe appears to revise his opinion of females
when he is forced by circumstances to request the assistance
of Theodolinda Bonner and Sally Colt in "Too Many Detectives."
Later, he goes so far as to call Dol Bonner in with Saul Panzer,
Fred Durkin, and Orrie Cather in If Death Ever Slept,
despite of his opinion of female private detectives, which, according
to Archie, is "Add his opinion of women to his opinion of
other detective, and you get his opinion of female detectives."
While Wolfe's opinion of women is reiterated in
almost every short story or novel, Archie is always the White
Knight. He may not want to take every female dancing after the
first impression, but he never passes up meeting a new prospect,
which makes Archie's actions in Too Many Clients surprising, when, after he learns that Arthur Hough has beaten his wife, Archie sends Mr. Hough a bottle of Dom Perignon, with his compliments and paid for by him personally tacit approval of the beating.
Before the advent of Women's Liberation, the red peril raised it's ugly head. Wolfe's personal views on communism are never explicitly stated, although he demonstrates he loves freedom. "I make my contributions to the cause of freedom they are mostly financial - through those channels and agencies that seem to me most efficient" (The Black
Mountain). Wolfe does attempt to get Mr. Sperling to define
what Sperling believes a communist to be in The Second Confession
by asking, "Whom do you call a Communist? A liberal?
A pink intellectual? A member of the party? How far left do
Wolfe has contributed to the Loyalists in Spain
and the League of Yugoslavian Youth (Over My Dead Body),
as he tells the FBI before he reaches the point "where even
a grateful American might tell you to go to the devil."
Wolfe is given the opportunity to "push [J. Edgar Hoover's]
nose in" (The Doorbell Rang). Wolfe appears to relish
the opportunity and maneuvers two agents into illegally entering
his home in one of his most flagrant displays of brilliance.
To add insult to injury, when 'the big fish', allegedly J. Edgar
himself, comes to call, Archie and Wolfe look out the one-way
glass, but let the doorbell ring.
The FBI is not the only government agency for which
Wolfe has little regard, based on the not infrequent remarks
concerning the IRS and income tax that Archie makes and Wolfe
concurs. At least, Wolfe doesn't dissent. But, when Archie
is in the Army, Wolfe refuses to work for the Army on 'a certain
matter of great importance', according to an unnamed US Army
Intelligence officer forcing the Army to sic Archie on Wolfe.
Archie returns to the brownstone full of fond remembrances and
nostalgia, only to find it deserted and the office dusty. When
Wolfe returns, he informs Archie, "I am going to kill some
German. I didn't kill enough in 1918" (Not Quite Dead
And Wolfe makes sacrifices during the war, although
Wolfe demands, and gets, gas for his car. According to Archie,
"Not that he was trying to bypass the war. He really was
making sacrifices for victory. As one, most of his accustomed
income from the detective business. Two, his daily sessions
with his orchids in the plant rooms on the roof, whenever Army
work interfered. Three, his fixed rule to avoid the hazards
of unessential movements, especially outdoors. Four, food.
I kept an eye on that, looking for a chance to insert remarks,
and drew a blank. He and Fritz accomplished wonders within the
limitations of coupon fodder, and right there in the middle of
New York, with black markets tipping the wink like floozies out
for a breath of air on a summer evening, Wolfe's kitchen was
as pure as cottage cheese (Not Quite Dead Enough)."
Of course, by 1947, Wolfe is ready to sell his soul to the devil for meat. Enter the devil AKA: Dazy Perrit, whom Wolfe graciously receives.
Wolfe: "Presumably you know where certain
things are and how they may be got. . ."
Perrit: " You want a slice of the meat
Wolfe: "No. I want slices of beef
and pork. I want some meat to eat" (Before I Die).
Wolfe gets his meat without Dazy's assistance when
the meat controls are removed, but not before he has to solve
Dazy's blackmail problem, Dazy's murder and become guardian for
Wolfe may have learned his lesson about getting
involved in with gangsters, but he goes above and beyond when
one of his own is involved, especially Archie. To rescue Archie,
Wolfe has left his house in a rush (Invitation to Murder),
is forced to ride in a cab with a murderess (The League of
Frightened Men), and accept Archie as a client (Prisoner's
Base and Murder is Corny). Wolfe even bestirs himself
to travel to Montana (and consider the travails he endured to
accomplish that without Archie) to assist Archie and Lily Rowan
in Death of A Dude, so Archie can come home. In Death
Of A Doxy, Wolfe takes Orrie on as a client and in Fer-De-Lance,
Wolfe gets involved because Fred Durkin asks Wolfe for a favor
for his wife. Wolfe even takes Lily Rowan on as a client because
he has eaten at her table (The Rodeo Murder). And when
Marko Vukcic is murdered, Wolfe not only goes to the morgue and
the scene of the crime, but crosses the Atlantic and most of
Europe to track down Marko's killer (The Black Mountain).
Wolfe is fiercely loyal and dedicated, not only to Archie, but
to Saul, Fred, and Orrie, his three main 'hired' hands, although
his faith in Orrie proves to be misplaced.
Rex Stout provided insights into many historical
events through the eyes of Wolfe, but the event that Wolfe becomes
most enraged over is the same event that enraged most Americans.
Archie sums of the state-of-the-world for the 70s
in A Family Affair, by giving us a glimpse of the headlines.
"President Ford wanted us to do something about inflation.
Nixon was in shock from the operation. Judge Sirica had told
Ehrlichman's lawyer he talked too much. The Arabs had made Arafat
it." Basically, business as usual.
Wolfe, however, is willing to go to extremes to defend the country and the right to privacy. "[Archie] knew that I would have given all my orchids well, most of them to have an effective hand in the disclosure of the malfeasance of Richard Nixon. I once dictated a letter to him offering my services to Mr. Jaworski, and he typed it, but it wasn't sent. I tore it up" (A Family Affair).
However, he later admits, "I too am attentive to the skullduggery
of Richard Nixon and his crew (A Family Affair). Archie
is more pragmatic in the area of skullduggery; he listens to
a phone conversation, "but got no sign that the line was
tapped, though of course it was. Hooray for technicians. Modern
science was fixing it so that anybody could do anything but nobody
can know what the hell is going on" (The Doorbell Rang).
For fifty-plus years, Rex Stout let us see the
world as Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin saw it. And through their
words, gave us their viewpoint. Some things pleased the two
of them; some pleased one or the other; and some displeased both.
Overall, it would appear that Wolfe deplored the invasion of
privacy and the advance of technology while Archie embraced them.
One has to wonder what Wolfe and Archie would think of the invasive
devices we have today -- PCs, PDAs, cell phones, fax machines,
and the internet. Would they call it progress?
The Nero Wolfe books
and stories by Rex Stout. See the bibliography.
The history of this piece begins when I was on DorothyL and subscribers raved on and on about Nero Wolfe and how he never left home. I picked up a couple of used books and it seemed that he always left home. I was fortunate enough to find all the books in the series, and then break my wrist, so I was able to read the entire series -- in order. And Wolfe really does leave home more than one thinks. In fact, I have another article in progress on that subject.
As I read through the series the first time, things kept catching my attention, so I went back for a second read, then a third. It became apparent to me that the Wolfe series documents social changes and history for the first half of the century. Not only fashions change, prices increase, shortages and coupon rationing during the depression, Wolfe frothing at the mouth during Watergate, renting a dictaphone the size of an armchair were all fascinating details that showed how both society had changed and technology had advanced.
Essay submitted by
Marcia Kiser, February
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