Thursday, March 12, 2009

"I was reflecting that of all Wolfe's thousand techniques for making himself obnoxious the worst was when he thought he was being funny."

After reading a novel about Nazis, however, well-written it might be, a retreat to novelistic comfort food seems essential. And what better comfort than that offered by Rex Stout, who, following my recent discovery of the pleasures afforded by his Nero Wolfe novels, offers me a near-Wodehousian quantity of books to enjoy?

The mention of Wodehouse is anything but accidental, as Stout's novels in their tight plots and attention to slanguage resemble nothing so much as what one would imagine Wodehouse himself might have turned out had he devoted himself to mysteries rather than the troubles of privileged kittenheads. Not that Stout's language reaches the brilliance of Wodehouse--to be honest, it's hard to think of anyone who matches Wodehouse when he's at his best. But Stout at least earns the comparison, both for the off-the-cuff beauty of Archie Goodwin's vocabulary and for the Blandings Castle-like sense that, much as the trappings of life may change, in essence Archie and Wolfe remain forever in Depression-era New York, their townhouse a fiercely held redoubt against modern existence.

So I turned to a recently published two-fer, which comprises Some Buried Caesar (1938) and The Golden Spiders (1953), and I was far from disappointed. Both offer circumstances that are unusual for Wolfe: he spends the entirety of the former not only outside his beloved 35th Street townhouse, but, god forbid, in rural New York, while the latter sees the case at its heart opened by, of all things, a child. Yet (and this is one of the keys to the appeal of the Wolfe novels) Wolfe himself is essentially the same no matter the circumstances: certain and secretive, imperial and imperious, finicky and forbidding. His unchanging, self-involved nature offers many of the same pleasures as his model, Sherlock Holmes--but, crucially, Wolfe, for all his peculiarities and sensitivities, suggests nothing of the strange neediness or even hard-fought weakness that occasionally flicker around the edges of Holmes's personality. Wolfe will never need us or our mysteries--but if we need him, we can rely on Nero Wolfe completely. If, that is, we can put up with him.

To aid us in that mission, we have, as ever, Archie Goodwin, whose Bertie Woosterian vocabulary serves as an excellent distraction from his Jeevesian competence. If Archie can tolerate Wolfe, then surely so can we. He serves as our eyes and our sounding board, testing theories and attempting to interpret Wolfe's monumental self-confidence. Without Archie, these books could easily have been little but puzzle mysteries, chances to test our wits against Wolfe's complicated plans and cryptic pronouncements; Archie's constant attention to character and motive are a large part of what enlarges them so that they become something more, a sort of compromise among Conan Doyle, S. S. Van Dine, and the noir masters whom Stout's work is, by design, too light to openly acknowledge.

And then there's Archie's language, which is a treat in and of itself. Whether he's describing how out of place a dandyish thug looks on a country ranch--
[T]he proper environment for that type is bounded by 42nd and 96th Streets on the south and north, and Lexington Avenue and Broadway on the east and west. In their habitat they don't look bad, in fact they help a lot in maintaining the tone, but out in the country like that, still wearing a Crawnley town suit including vest and a custom-made shirt and a Monteith tie, they jar.
--or being pleasantly surprised by the secretary at a highbrow magazine--
Having on Sunday bought a copy of the magazine that Vincent Lipscomb edited, and looked through it before passing it to Wolfe, I had supposed that any female employed by it would have all her points of interest, if any, inside her skull; but a curvy little number with dancing eyes, seated at a switchboard, gave me one bright glance and then welcomed me with a smile which indicated that the only reason she had taken the job was that she thought I would show up someday.
--or dismissing an unctuous PR flack--
In size he had been shortchanged, the top of his head being about level with the tip of my nose. With his thin brown mustache trimmed so it wasn't quite parallel with the thick lips of his wide mouth, I wouldn't have called him well designed to make the sort of impression desirable for a handler of public relations, but I admit I'm prejudiced about a mustache trying to pass as a plucked eyebrow.
--or just describing his own movements--
The basement floor was concrete. I navigated it, now as silently as silence.
--Goodwin's running monologue is idiosyncratic, worldly, goofily self-regarding, and, most important, great fun. He's wonderful company.

Now to read the remaining sixty-nine Nero Wolfe novels. After all, if I don't do that, how will I know whether Stout ever came up with a better closing line that the one that ends The Golden Spiders? It's damn hard to top "What the hell," you've gotta admit.


  1. Likewise:
    it is probaly terrible to consider, but i felt as if I was suffering from SS Fatigue. I had paced myself in The Kindly Ones but after reading Omega Minor and How To Quiet A Vampire in the last year, I felt something give- I can't say whether it collapsed or simply calloused. The Fallada book does appear rather interesting. Though given its publicity, I was curious whether Primo Levi was aware of Peter Weiss' Aesthetics of Resistance.

    That said, I'm glad your trip proved fecund and I wanted to thank you again for making me aware of the joys of J.L. Carr's A Month In The Country.

  2. Anonymous4:45 PM

    I recently finished Golden Spiders and was so taken with "curvy little number" that I decided to google the phrase and you came up. Nice appreciation; thanks.

    Steve a
    Alpine, Texas