Nero Wolfe

A Social Commentary on the U.S.

Essay by Marcia Kiser

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" [1957]).

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 [1953]). Wolfe gives his own opinion on television in Please Pass The Guilt (1973), "I turn on the television rarely, only to confirm my opinion of it."

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 (1975). His apparent disgust with the advances in fabric is clear in "Murder is No Joke" (1958) 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 (1968), 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 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 – 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 fee."

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" [1961]).

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 (1950).

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" (1956). Later, he goes so far as to call Dol Bonner in with Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin, and Orrie Cather in If Death Ever Slept (1957), 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 (1960), 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 [1954].

Wolfe does attempt to get Mr. Sperling to define what Sperling believes a communist to be in The Second Confession (1949) by asking, "Whom do you call a Communist? A liberal? A pink intellectual? A member of the party? How far left do you start?"

Wolfe has contributed to the Loyalists in Spain and the League of Yugoslavian Youth (Over My Dead Body [1940]), 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 [1965]). 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 Enough [1942]).

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 "Before I Die" (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 racket?"

Wolfe: "No. I want slices of beef and pork. I want some meat to eat"

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 Dazy's daughter.

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" [1942]), is forced to ride in a cab with a murderess (The League of Frightened Men [1935]), and accept Archie as a client (Prisoner's Base (1952) and "Murder is Corny" (1962)).

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 (1969) so Archie can come home. In Death Of A Doxy (1966), Wolfe takes Orrie on as a client and in Fer-De-Lance (1934), 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" [1960]). 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 [1954]). 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. Watergate.

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 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.


The Nero Wolfe books and stories by Rex Stout. See the bibliography.

Essay submitted by Marcia Kiser, February 2003.

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