Realizing that my crime fiction was all from modern writers, one recent day I took a fancy to try out something a bit older. The name Nero Wolfe must have popped into my consciousness somehow, setting me off on a hunt to see what was available. This title, originally published in 1934, is the first novel featuring the character, although the text refers to past cases as if the reader should know about them. I don’t remember seeing any of the televised versions of Nero Wolfe in his various incarnations, so I was able to approach this book with an open mind. What do we have here, I wondered.
Wolfe is a sort of immobile Sherlock Holmes. He sits in his large brownstone and lets others do the work, primarily Archie Goodwin, his assistant. Goodwin, from whose perspective the story is told, does the leg work. He brings back his reports, and witnesses, to Wolfe. From that, and whatever other work Wolfe does in the house, pronouncements are made, and genius exhibited. Oh, and his beloved flowers are attended to.
The crime in this book is about the missing brother of a Park Avenue housekeeper. That simple situation develops into something more complex involving murder most foul, and a twisting, ever turning plot.
Goodwin’s narrative is sharp, fresh, and keeps the momentum going. It was jarring to come across one or two less than politically correct statements, but they reflect the state of play in the 1930s. To balance that, I was impressed by some aspects of the characterization of Wolfe and Goodwin, which infused each of them with a bit more rounded personality than I had expected. Stout handles the complexity of the plot well, only occasionally coming close to losing the reader by overdoing things.
On the whole, I enjoyed it. I found the writing to be well crafted, lean, and nuanced. At times I had to pay careful attention to what was going on. I didn’t read it and think, oh this is so much better than modern crime fiction. On the other hand, I didn’t think that it was inferior. However, I wasn’t so impressed that I feel the need to read every Nero Wolfe story. I may go back and revisit the author, but for now my to-be-read (fiction) pile remains a mass of modern authors.