[The Cunning Tower by Kim Davis: January 22, 2014]
A little late in coming, but here are some thoughts on reading through the complete cycle of Nero Wolfe novels last year. I finished the last, posthumous volume just around New Year.
Here they are, thirty-two of the thirty-three full-length Nero Wolfe novels written by Rex Stout. For no reason I can fathom, the missing novel proved hard to find at a reasonable price (I read a library copy--I do see there's a cheap edition available online now). There are also fourteen collections of novellas (some of which I own), as well as the Nero Wolfe Cookbook. For real trainspotters, the Triple Zeck omnibus pictured contains The Second Confession; I don't have an individual copy of that novel, although I have the other books contained in the omnibus, and they're in the picture.
The creation of Archie Goodwin gave Rex Stout the solution to a pair of technical and aesthetic dilemmas which had dogged attempts to write detective fiction at novel length. Edgar Allan Poe avoided the problems by writing only short stories about his detective, Dupin, and only three of them. Arthur Conan Doyle, and his French master Émile Gaboriau, came up with makeshift solutions which--more or less--sufficed for years.
The aesthetic dilemma is embedded in the tradition for which Poe (along with some "true" crime writers like Vidocq) was responsible: the expectation that the detective will be a kind of super-hero. Incredibly brilliant, encyclopedically well-informed, capable of superhuman feats of reasoning, the detective of tradition is also wracked with eccentricities of appearance, manner, or habit. No matter how spectacular, the detective's ratiocinative interventions, he (or she) is often also the last man (or woman) the average reader really wants to spend two hundred pages with.
The technical dilemma is the need to screen the detective's thought processes from the reader. Novelists can usually--if they choose--describe the perceptions, emotions, intentions, and idle daydreams of the novel's hero. Almost impossible to do this in a detective novel, without revealing what must be concealed as long as possible: whodunnit, and how the detective knows.
Gaboriau and Conan Doyle, both hardened romancers, simply banished their famous creations--Lecoq and Holmes--for hundreds of pages. There are only four Holmes novels: in three of them, the reader is treated to detection-free historical flashbacks taking up large parts of the narrative; in the fourth, The Hound of the Baskervilles, subterfuge keeps Holmes off-stage for most of the novel. And the reader is left with Watson.
That, of course, was Conan Doyle's solution to the technical problem. Everything about a case might become clear to Holmes in a flash, but the reader sees through Watson's eyes, and a dim spectacle it often is. Watson, let's face it, may be brave, loyal, and dependable, but an interesting fictional character he is not.
Yet the Watson solution was taken up and used again and again in the invention of dullard sidekicks.
The genius of the Wolfe series is simply that Archie Goodwin is not boring. He may not be a genius, but he is always good company. In fact, his alert, curious, wise-cracking, first-person stream of consciousness becomes the very fabric of the narrative. For all the fuss about orchids, and gastronomy, and yellow silk pyjamas, entering a Wolfe novel means entering Archie's world. Stout's singular achievement in the genre lies not in plotting (far from it), or even in the creation of a great eccentric detective to rival Holmes.
It lies in the fact that, over some five or six thousand pages, we don't get bored with Archie.
What's more, we don't get bored with the three-handed dialogue between Wolfe, Inspector Cramer, and Goodwin, which is one of the main structural threads of the cycle (more so, for example, than the orchid fascination, which seems contingent addition to Wolfe's character). Although Cramer fades in the final few volumes, those crackerjack disputes about evidence and suspects are infinitely re-readable.
There are other narrative threads which recur across the panorama of cases. Wolfe's roots in Montenegro, his interest in politics, the character of Orrie Cather. As for the politics, Stout was a staunch liberal and committed anti-fascist. Nevertheless, Wolfe's commentary--on civil rights, for example, in A Right To Die--can be heavy-handed.
Similarly, the excitement prompted by Wolfe's occasional ventures beyond his front door is often misplaced. The Black Mountain, in which he scampers around a rugged Balkan terrain like an overweight Richard Hannay, is implausible; the reader's patience further strained by the necessity of explaining how Archie can recount conversations in languages he can't understand.
Even Too Many Cooks, featuring a meeting between fifteen major chefs at a country resort, is a disappointment compared with the stories which remain within the confines of the brownstone on West 35th Street, and the surrounding city streets.
The famous critic Edmund Wilson never understood detective ficti0n (he wrote two essays excoriating it). He looks, quite mistakenly, for fascinating solutions to intricate mysteries ("...in Nero Wolfe—though The League of Frightened Men does make use of rather a clever psychological idea—the solution of the mystery was not usually either fanciful or unexpected"); and failing that, for literary qualities.
Disappointment is inevitable. The solution to the "impossible" murder in Gambit is very clever (a touch of the Roger Ackroyds), but by and large the mysteries Wolfe solves are repetitive, and the process of detection takes place largely between his ears. Nor is Rex Stout, even at his best, a fine novelist.
The appeal of detective fiction (and doubtless of other narrow genres) lies in attractive characters following predictable patterns of behavi0r in a satisfying--indeed cathartic--way. I am not sure that anybody has ever achieved so many bright, cheering catharses in detective literature, as Rex Stout managed with Nero Wolfe and Archie.
I envy anyone who has yet to read deeply in this oeuvre. As for myself, I still have the fourteen collections of novellas to spin out at my leisure.