Monday, March 25, 2013

Mr. Wolfe prefers not to.

One of the things Rex Stout does best--and most entertainingly--in his Nero Wolfe novels is to portray the imperious presumption of executives . . . and then show what happens when it comes up against the 300 pounds of immovable object that is Nero Wolfe.

Before Midnight (1955), the Wolfe novel I read this weekend, offers some particularly fine examples, among them Wolfe turning down a $50,000 check to preserve his dignity ("Dignities are like faces," he says in explaining his opposition, "No two are the same."), tearing up a retainer check, and hiring, firing, and briefly re-hiring a lawyer.

The best moment, however, features Archie Goodwin as Wolfe's immovable proxy. Goodwin meets perfume exec Talbot Heery while on a mission to retrieve from a safe-deposit box some poetry, related to an advertising contest for Heery's company--a contest that became of interest to Wolfe when it led to murder. Archie introduces Heery by saying,
I could merely report that I kept my two-thirty appointment and got the verses and the answers, and let it go at that, but I think it's about time you had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Talbott Heery.
Heery doesn't make much impression until Archie takes him up on an offer to share a cab and get dropped off at Wolfe's on Heery's way downtown:
As we stopped for a red light at Fifth Avenue, headed west on Forty-seventh Street, Heery said, "I have some spare time and I think I'll stop in for a talk with Nero Wolfe."

"Not right now," I told him. "He's tied up."

"But now is when I have the time."

"Too bad, but it'll have to be later--in fact, much later. He has appointments that run right through until late this evening, to ten-thirty or eleven."

"I want to see him now."

"Sorry. I'll tell him, and he'll be sorry, too. If you want to give me your number I'll ring you and tell you when."

He got a wallet from his pocket, fingered in it, and came up with a crisp new twenty. "Here," he said. "I won't need long. Probably ten minutes will do it."

I felt flattered. A finiff would have been at the market, and a sawbuck would have been lavish. "I deeply appreciate it," I said with feeling, "but I"m not the doorman or receptionist. Mr. Wolfe has different men for different functions, and mine is to collect poetry out of safe deposit boxes. That's all I do."

Returning the bill neatly to the wallet, he stated, with no change whatever in tone or manner, "At a better time and place I'll knock your goddam block off." You'll see why I wanted you to meet him.
The scene could serve as an exemplar of a key aspect of Stout's genius, and the pleasures his books afford: it's the feeling of returning again and again to the familiar--familiar settings, characters, situations--while each time seeing a new set of changes rung. We've seen many an exec try to browbeat Archie, and plenty try to bribe him. Rare is the exec who tries both--and Heery, stand six foot though he may, is the only one bold enough to offer to knock Archie's block off.

Which, you'll not be surprised to learn, he doesn't get to do. We live in a fallen world, and not everyone gets everything he wants all the time--even executives.

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