Instead of featuring a favorite book or story this month, I’m featuring a favorite character to fit in with this month’s theme about characters. In the past few months, I’ve been rereading the Nero Wolfe mystery series by Rex Stout and marveling at his creation of Archie Goodwin, the Watson with an attitude.
The first Nero Wolfe mystery, Fer-de-Lance, was published in 1934 and merged two traditions in crime fiction: the genius detective, like Sherlock Holmes, and the tough guy investigator from the hard-boiled school. Nero Wolfe weighs a seventh of a ton and rarely leaves his New York City brownstone for any reason. He raises orchids and eats gourmet meals, financed by the enormous fees he charges as a private detective. His assistant is Archie Goodwin, who does Wolfe’s leg work, going out to interview suspects, cajoling or conning them to come to the brownstone for meetings with Wolfe, and acting as bodyguard. Another of Archie’s chief duties is nag because Wolfe knows he’s lazy, although he won’t admit it, and needs someone to spur him into taking cases.
For most fans of the series, Archie Goodwin is the reason we return to the books. Nero Wolfe is an interesting character, but it’s Archie who makes the series come alive. Instead of being in awe of his employer, who he admits is a genius, Archie is more exasperated than impressed with Wolfe and his eccentricities, such as his rules never to leave his home on business or to vary his daily schedule for anything but the most catastrophic of circumstances. Archie makes remarks about Wolfe that I imagine Watson thought about Holmes but wouldn’t dream of putting in print. Archie also has a way of telling a story that draws in fans, as if I’ve met him at a diner and he’s relating his latest case to me.
Some of my favorites descriptions are below.
“…the swamp-woman — the kind who can move her eyelids slowly three times and you’re stuck in a marsh and might as well give up”.Too Many Cooks
While waiting for another detective, Saul Panzer, who is Archie’s best friend, to call in during a surveillance of a suspect, Archie gets worried when Saul doesn’t phone on time.
“At 9:15 I was sure that Alice Porter was dead. At 9:20 I was sure that Saul was dead too. When the phone rang at 9:25 I grabbed it and barked at it, “Well?’– which is no way to answer the phone.
“Saul. We’ve got a circus up here.”
I was so relieved that all he had was a circus that I grinned at him. “You don’t say. Did you get bit by a lion?”Plot It Yourself
She didn’t raise her voice. She didn’t have to. The tone alone was enough to stop anything and anybody. It was what you’d expect to come out of an old abandoned grave, if you had such expectations.“Cordially Invited to Meet Death” from Black Orchids
Rex Stout wrote both novels and novellas. I think the novellas are generally better than the novels, but I have favorites in both categories.
- Over My Dead Body
- “Black Orchids” from Black Orchids
- And Be a Villain
- The Black Mountain
- “The Next Witness” and “Die Like a Dog” from Three Witnesses
- “Christmas Party”, “Easter Parade”, and “Fourth of July Picnic” from And Four to Go
- “Poison a la Carte” from Three at Wolfe’s Door
- “Kill Now-Pay Later” from Trio for Blunt Instruments
- The Doorbell Rang
- The Father Hunt
If you want to read the series, leave the last book A Family Affair for last. It has a plot twist that won’t have nearly as much impact if you read it before you finish the series.
For readers who like clean mysteries, the books do contain swear words, the first few books and the last few more than most of the others. There’s no other graphic content.
Who are some of your favorite detective sidekicks? Or what is your favorite mystery series?