Wednesday, December 30, 2020

The hard boiled side of Nero Wolfe

 I have been reading a lot of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe this year. It has been an insane, stressful year for the entire world. Sometimes, it’s been hard to focus enough to read but Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin have been reliably able to decompress me. Even so, I have focused much more on the novellas than the book-length works. 

Trouble in Triplicate, a collection of the novellas, particularly struck me. Maybe because I’ve read so many this year. However, it was one of the most hard boiled Nero Wolfe pieces I’ve read.

Mind you, Nero Wolfe always has one foot firmly in the hard boiled detective genre. Archie Goodwin serves as a relentlessly snarky narrator who is good with his fists and the ladies. If he wasn’t working for Wolfe, he’d be a one-room, walk-up office, scraping the name Archer off the glass. And they have the traditional, tumultuous relationship with the cops.

However, their comfortable, luxurious lifestyle is definitely at odds with hard-boiled flavor. Archie is a failure at being a raging alcoholic. And they almost always end in a parlor scene because Heaven forbid Nero Wolfe leave his office. Nero Wolfe is an elitist. Really, so is Archie, who is a gourmet and botanical expert by association.

The genteel elements are as much a part of the mysterious chemistry of Nero Wolfe as the hard-boiled elements. But the hard-boiled elements are on particularly strong display in this book. Particularly in the first story, Before I Die which features  a mobster getting blackmailed and folks getting gunned down in the street and Archie stuck dodging bullets.

And it works. It’s still Nero Wolfe. Like I said, it’s not much of a stretch. 

I found myself thinking of The Big Four by Agatha Christie, the one where Hercule Poirot takes on Fu Manchu. It’s pulp fiction and bad enough that I like to pretend the whole thing is a nightmare Hastings is having after eating too much Welsh rarebit. 

It’s not a fair comparison. Trouble in Triplicate sticks it’s pinky toe in slightly different water. The Big Four, thrown together when Christie desperately needed money, hops into a spaceship and takes off into the stratosphere of another genre.

Of course, even in these more action field stories, Nero Wolfe continues to be a arrogant, obstinant genius who desperately needs his snarky assistant to get anything done. Fundamental elements haven’t changed.

(By the way, after a year of constant reading, I’ve come to think of Nero Wolfe as being less misogynistic than chauvinistic, womanizing Archie. Wolfe may not like being around women but seems to respect them more. And there are plenty of men he doesn’t want to be around either)

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