Thursday, December 18, 2008

Archie Goodwin on Shysters, Shysterball on Archie Goodwin

From Rex Stout's Fer-de-Lance (1934)
"Oh no." I shook my head. "That's not the way us geniuses work, you can't shake us empty like a bag of peanuts."
A couple of days ago, at the suggestion of Terry Teachout, I picked up a Rex Stout two-fer, containing the first two Nero Wolfe mysteries, Fer-de-Lance (1934) and The League of Frightened Men (1935). Back in high school, I read the couple of Wolfe mysteries that my local library carried, but they didn't make much of an impression. This time around, spending time with Nero Wolfe has been a sheer joy.

When I read Stout all those years ago, I was interested almost exclusively in crime novels of a hard-boiled bent--having just progressed from Robert B. Parker to Lawrence Block. Wolfe, however, is decidedly soft-boiled, a willfully eccentric Sherlock Holmes who wholly eschews the physical component of the detective's art, in part because of his hippopotamean bulk. "You must pardon me," he tells a client, "for engineering reasons I arise only for emergencies."

All investigative activities that cannot be performed from the comfort of Wolfe's West 35th Street townhouse he leaves to his operative Archie Goodwin, who narrates the adventures in a voice that is somewhere between Huck Finn and Bertie Wooster, spinning a vibrant, slang-filled running monologue that offers a splendid contrast to Wolfe's lofty certainties. Here he is crossing off a suspect in Fer-de-Lance:
One look at Dr. Bradford was enough to show me that I had been wasting a lot of pleasant suspicions which might have been avoided if I had happened to catch sight of him somewhere. He was tall and grave and correct, the distinguished old gentleman type, and he had whiskers! There may have been a historical period when it was possible for a guy with whiskers to pull a knife and plunge it into somebody's back, but that was a long time ago. Nowadays it couldn't be done.
That's probably enough to give you a sense both of Archie Goodwin's mind and his voice--and also of the larger reason why I wasn't impressed with the Wolfe books back in high school: I simply wasn't attuned to the fun Stout was having with language and character. Revisit Agatha Christie's novels as an adult, and you find them almost murdered by their flat, even awkward prose and cardboard characters; revisit Stout's as an an adult and you find them offering pleasure after pleasure that simply didn't register when you were younger.

And now to explain this post's headline: in Fer-de-Lance, Archie describes the feeling of awe that always overtakes him when he enters the presence of Wolfe's enormous collection of orchids:
It was like other things I've noticed, for instance no matter how often you may have seen Snyder leap in the air and one-handed spear a hot liner like one streak of lightning stopping another one, when you see it again your heart stops.
Loving that image, I began to wonder what ballplayer Goodwin was talking about; when Baseball Reference turned up no appropriate Snyders, I appealed to Craig Calcaterra, proprietor of the wonderful baseball blog Shysterball. Craig was kind enough to put the question to his readers today, and you can read his post, along with his readers' thoughtful guesses, here.

In thanks, it's only right to share the following passage. Craig, as his blog's name indicates, is a lawyer, and it turns out that Archie Goodwin has a decided impression of lawyers:
When I consider the different kinds I've seen it seems silly to say it, but somehow to me all lawyers look alike. It's a sort of mixture of a scared look and a satisfied look, as if they were crossing a traffic-filled street where they expect to get run over any minute but they know exactly the kind of paper to hand the driver if they get killed and they've got one right in their pocket. This Derwin looked like that; otherwise he seemed very respectable.
I assume Craig has such a paper in his pocket at all times--unless, like Nero Wolfe, he's so powerful that he doesn't even need to leave the house?


  1. Oh, you are writing close to my reader's heart with this one - I love Archie and Wolfe. They are endlessly interesting. The plots hardly matter to me. I just want to hear what the boys are up to. I want to hear Fritz tut-tuting because there hasn't been a case for a while. And read of Archie's prowess on the dance floor, and his love of milk and walking. And Wolfe's books and beer and opinions. Thanks for the great piece, and I hope you write more. I have a really long quote I wrote down in my quote book years ago about Wolfe and his books that I've been thinking of writing up on the blog. It is one of my favorite passages in any book by any writer.

  2. I wish I was that powerful, Levi. Unfortunately, I still have to drive downtown every day (I keep the right papers in the glove box).

    If and when I can make a living writing about baseball, however, I will sit at home and grow fat like Nero Wolfe, sending off my Archie surrogate to go watch ballgames for me.

  3. This reminded me I've been meaning for ages to give Nero Wolfe a try. Looks as though it's time to take the plunge.

  4. Anonymous9:17 PM

    There are only two mystery writers I can re-read: Rex Stout and Raymond Chandler. Both written in the first person. When I have writers block I read Chandler. The opening pages of Farewell My Lovely are the best in the business. I believe the Snyder in question is 'Duke' Snyder, 1st baseman Brooklyn Dodgers.

  5. Sorry, I did not mean to post anonomous. boc