The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe

Let’s see a show of hands: how many of you know who Nero Wolfe was?

OK, fellow boomers, you can put your hands down now. We are the generation that knows Rex Stout. For the rest of you, I’ll tell you Nero Wolfe was the great detective created by author Rex Stout, who published an astonishing 72 novels (about half of which were full-length, the other half novellas), over a span of 43 years starting in 1934 (defined as ancient history, since it was before I was born). The vast majority of Stout’s fiction featured Nero Wolfe and his assistant, Archie Goodwin.

As you can see from the image of the cover, Josh Pachter has assembled a collection of “parodies and pastiches featuring the great detective of West 35th Street.” If you are not a reader of Rex Stout, you may wonder why the address is relevant; go read some of the novels to find out!

Of course the collection is uneven — like almost any collection — and your response to this fact may depend on your personality. It’s a bit like teaching: some of your classes turn out better than others, but do you judge the quality of your teaching by your best-taught class, your average class, or your worst class? Me, I’m a glass-half-full type, so I enjoyed The Misadventures of Nero Wolfebecause the best contributions are very good. Your mileage may vary.

Here’s the mystery (not the mystery presented in Stout’s texts, but the mystery about readers’ reactions): as the Nero Wolfe stories are fairly formulaic, to the point that they readily invite parody, why have they retained the fascinated attention of so many of Stout’s fans — known, of course, as The Wolfe Pack? To clarify, in case it’s not clear, I count myself among those fans, even though I’m not actually an official member of the Wolfe Pack. I’ve read every one of Stout’s novels and novellas at least twice, the second time in strict chronological order (which matters only some of the time). I think the answer lies in the tension between the familiar and the unfamiliar. There’s something comforting about meeting the familiar cast of regular characters again and again, with very little variation over the years. Everything feels grounded. But then there’s always something different about each story, whether it be a plot twist or personal growth of a familiar character or an interesting new character or even a new location. It’s a lot like teaching the same class multiple times — grounded in mostly the same topics but with some new twists and new techniques and always some new students.

Categories: Books