Too eccentric to be believable? Nero Wolfe novels by Rex Stout

Can characters be too eccentric? Nero Wolfe is certainly a most eccentric character.

After writing about the Brunetti novels, I went back to another detective series whose protagonists do not age: Rex Stout’s series that nominally concerns the cases of Nero Wolfe. I say nominally, because the cases are recorded in the first person by Wolfe’s assistant, Archie Goodwin. I read, and re-read the stories in order to spend more time with Archie. Rex Stout gave Archie an eidetic memory and a talent for reportage.

Archie’s voice is witty, his observations astute and his use of language individual, consistently in character, and hilarious. It is a little like reading Wodehouse, but the slang is 1930’s New York gumshoe rather than upper-class London dilettante (it turns out P.G. Wodehouse and Rex Stout were friends). Unlike the Jeeves books the settings reflect the year each book was written, and the liberal political outlook of their author. Like the Brunetti stories, the chief protagonists do not age, although they are affected by outside circumstances and remember their experiences in later novels.

Stout gave Nero Wolfe a huge intellect in an enormous body. Wolfe is a sedentary man mountain, almost as difficult to move to any kind of action as the dark mountains of his birthplace – Montenegro. He has two passions in his life – orchid breeding, and fine food. He spends four hours (ten to twelve and four to six) every day in the top floor of his New York town house, with his orchids and his plantsman, Theodore Horstmann. He takes lunchtime and dinnertime seriously; at these times he enjoys elaborate meals and intellectual conversation. He spends a great deal of time planning menus with his Swiss chef, Fritz Brenner.

Wolfe would prefer, when he is not thinking of orchids or food, to spend his time reading or studying maps. But Stout has given expensive hobbies to his detective, and Archie is there to remind him they need to be able to charge fees if salaries are to be paid, and food and orchids purchased.

The crimes are convoluted puzzles, while the characters involved are rarely complex (although, of course, not always exactly what their first appearance suggests). Beautiful women in their early twenties are usually involved, Archie appreciates and charms most of them. He’s just under six foot, in his early thirties, a well-read, wisecracking, competent, strong man-of-all-trades. He charms me, even though I’ve read his dismissal of ladies too old to be able to keep holding up the parts that he mostly notices. Archie’s admiration is not enough to prevent some of the most attractive women being murdered, whatever crime is initially committed, there is always a murder to solve.

So – can characters be too eccentric? It is true that if eccentric means a long way from the central norm, then Wolfe, not to speak of Fritz and Theodore, are eccentric. But I still go back to the novels more to spend time with Archie Goodwin, Wolfe and the other inhabitants of Wolfe’s brownstone, and to enjoy Archie’s wisecracks, than to pick up clues to the murder that I missed first time through (although that’s fun too). When I’m immersed in Stout’s clever, consistent narrative then disbelief is suspended, and I can enjoy a ride as Archie drives through New York’s streets, where the traffic still moves, or I can sit near the globe in Wolfe’s office, and eavesdrop on the conversation there.

As another (eccentric?) character said – I’ll be back.


About lifelonglearner

Teacher in Southern England enthusiastic about exploring ways to learn and teach, and evangelistic about sharing them. Specialism is Physics, but that's just a useful starting point.
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