Friday, January 27, 2012

Nero Wolfe stoops to ask

Let's stick with Rex Stout one more day. After all, the weekend is upon us, and while Nero Wolfe, from all I can tell, doesn't let that interfere with his usual schedule, for the rest of us that means shedding the routine, loosening up a bit, and enjoying good company--like that of Nero, Archie, and the gang.

Speaking of the gang, check out Archie's description of the apartment of Saul Panzer, ace operative for hire, in "Fourth of July Picnic" (1958):
Saul Panzer, below average in size but miles above it in savvy, lived alone on the top floor--living room, bedroom, kitchenette, and bath--of a remodeled house on Thirty-eighth Street between Lexington and Third. The living room was big, lighted with two floor lamps and two table lamps, even at seven o'clock of a July evening, because the blinds were drawn. One wall had windows, another was solid with books, and the other two had pictures and shelves that were cluttered with everything from chunks of minerals to walrus tusks. In the far corner was a grand piano.
Let's pause for a moment to raise a glass to 1958. Oh, I know that many things were worse then, and I harbor no substantial illusions about wishing I could go back to that time. But to think of the days when an detective op for hire, even one who, as Archie would point out, is the best in the business, would have 1) a wall "solid with books" and 2) a grand piano in 3) his spacious Manhattan apartment! It's hard not to let just wee bit of those-were-the-days creep in, no?

Thinking of Saul brings me to another moment found in the same book, And Four to Go, which collects four holiday-themed Wolfe stories. In Wednesday's post I quoted an exchange from the first page of the story "Easter Parade" in which Archie was refusing Wolfe's request that he try to snatch a rare orchid of which Wolfe is envious from the coat of a woman in an Easter Parade. Nero asks whether Ollie Cather, another of their regular operatives, might be willing to do it instead.
"I doubt it. Not just for the two C's, but he might as a personal favor to you."

Wolfe made a face. "I won't solicit a favor."
Instead, Archie agrees to find a man of looser morals and lighter pocketbook whom he can convince to do the deed. Wolfe, however, would also like Archie to be there with a camera as a backup. The problem is that it's Sunday, and Sundays are Archie's day off, sacrosanct when there's no big case on. "It's no go," says Archie,
"because as you say, my Sundays are mine, and I would only do it as a personal favor for you, and you won't solicit a favor. Too bad."

"I should have qualified that. There are only four people of whom I would ask a favor, and Orrie is not one of them. You are."

"Then go ahead and ask. Call me Mr. Goodwin."

His lips tightened. "Mr. Goodwin," he said coldly, "I solicit a favor."

It's amazing what lengths a man will go to for envy.
All of which leads to an obvious question: who are the four people? Archie is one, but who else? Saul, perhaps? He definitely ranks above Orrie, or Fred Durkin, the other operatives, in Wolfe's esteem. Fritz Brenner, the cook? Theodore Horstmann, the orchid specialist who lives in the brownstone so as to be close to Wolfe's orchids? Other ideas? The Wikipedia offers a nicely fleshed-out list of supporting characters, if you need a refresher. I'm open for suggestions.


  1. Most likely this is just Stout blowing smoke, as he often did with Wolfe's offstage life. If not, then Marko Vukcic is the only obvious choice (assuming he is still with us at the time the story is set). Other possibilities in the cast: Doc Vollmer (he routinely does favors for Wolfe, though mostly professional ones); Nathaniel Parker (ditto); Lily Rowan (wild card -- but Wolfe did say there were four people, not four men).
    I don't think it could possibly be Fritz, Theodore, or Saul, since to Wolfe they're basically employees -- however much he admires them, it would be hopelessly vulgar of him to ask them for favors. Wolfe is a fervent democrat in principle but his social instincts are still those of an Eastern aristocrat.

  2. Anonymous7:32 AM

    Agree with Doc Vollmer and Marco. Also: Lewis Hewitt, Wolfe's fellow orchid enthusiast, who helped in "Doorbell," although Hewitt wouldn't have been told why.

  3. I'd forgotten about Hewett. A strong candidate.

  4. Terry Teachout has some ideas, too. A bit of overlap, some disagreement.