Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Anti-Hero From Montenegro: Nero Wolfe and theDetective Story

This morning I called my brother to tell him about the Red Room detective story challenge and to ask which words came to his mind when he thought about Nero Wolfe. My brother said “I have all the books here if you'd like me to check?” I said “not really."

The truth is that I just wanted to hear my brother's unaided associations; we agreed that although we forgot Wolfe’s cases and adventures we remembered in great details Nero Wolfe, the "man."

Here are some of the words that we came up with:.

Fat, armchair detective, Montenegro, Orchids, rooftop, brownstone, NYC,  Archie Goodwin, Ohio, Fritz,  ice cold  beer, globe, books, nincompoop

I have always loved reading detective novels, but since my brother introduced me to Nero Wolfe, he has been my all-time favorite. The eccentric Montenegrin detective is still very much part of my world. Rex Stout (1886 –1975) created a most unusual anti –hero,  an enormously fat and brilliant detective, who works only when he needs the  money as he detests work and  refers to many of his clients as nincompoops. He would much rather spend his time on the roof top with his precious orchids, or sit in his study drinking ice cold beer, reading a book (more precisely 4 books at a time), and looking at his globe.

Ever since I first read Rex Stout’s novels some 30 years ago, the name Montenegro has had only one connotation for me – Nero Wolfe. Recently that tiny country has become a popular tourist destination and I found myself saying  “You must have heard of Nero Wolfe.” Most people just stared at me blankly so I stopped mentioning his name.

But when I was in graduate school at the University of Missouri in Columbia, my love for Nero Wolfe  was instrumental in finding a new friend. In a graduate school gathering a fellow student from London started talking about detective stories. It transpired that she too loved Nero Wolfe; we knew  right away that we would become  great friends. Indeed 32 years later she is still one of my best friends.

Although he lives in a brownstone on 35th street in Manhattan NYC, Wolfe, an armchair detective, never leaves his house; his whole world is inside that house. We know everything about his current reality but almost nothing about his life prior to his arrival to the new world. Stout  has created a complete universe in which the same characters reappear from book to book: the two protagonists Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin (originally from Ohio) ,  the cook Fritz, the gardener Theodor, Inspector Cramer,  Archie’s poker friends; in addition, scenes and issues are revisited. In this sense these novels transcend their detective story genre and are part of the  novel-sequences. Stout’s interconnected 33 novels follow the experiences of the characters  through different adventures in  an extended period of time but in an immovable setting.

I believe that part of my attraction to Wolfe’s world is the cosy feeling of being part of such hermetic world.  In the 19th century Anthony Trollope, wrote his novels as sequences and by doing so offered his readers a world which enjoyed stability and continuity. Wolfe’s world is similar in the sense that it is a microcosm in which motifs, themes, and concrete narrative details are read not only within the boundaries of one novel but also across all of them.

In Rex Stout’s microcosm we experience on the one hand a static unchanged reality in which daily routine is sacred; the life of  Nero Wolfe in his home seems  safe and stable. On the other hand, we should not forget that each novel introduces a crime which threatens to destroy that same stability and put an end to the calm existence on 35th street. Those two forces, pulling in opposite directions, ultimately culminate in a perfectly satisfying balance. No wonder that we cannot forget Nero Wolfe.

No comments:

Post a Comment