The focus of my first TNB post on Rex Stout is going to be on his work’s most fundamental components: Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. In particular I am going to be looking at two things. The first is the different ways Archie and Nero have for doing detective work and the second is how these differences illustrate the way Stout combines ‘the pattern of the classic whodunnit with elements of the hard-boiled’ (Scaggs, 2005: 29). Using this as my basis I will also be exploring how representations of and attitudes towards women are symbolic of this genre blending.
N. B. The primary quotes for this piece come from Rex Stout’s A Right to Die (1964), by and large unless stated otherwise.
Starting with the basics, the debt to the classical tradition of detective fiction in Stout’s work is apparent in the parallel which has been made many a time between Nero and Archie and the characters created by Arthur Conan Doyle, though Nero’s lack of activity makes him more like Mycroft than Sherlock and Archie becomes a much more active Watson figure, who also records Nero’s cases (Stephen Knight, 2003). Nero Wolfe takes the attributes of the Great Detective figure to their max, rarely ever leaving his home, solving the cases at his desk. His ability to exert and his desire for control even result in Nero curtailing conversations short with clients just so he can tend to his orchids. Archie perceives this sense of control and says ‘you regard anything and everything beyond your control as an insult.’ It is telling though that Nero suggests that this is not entirely the case with his need for control only being in things which ‘men contrive’. It could also be said he has the ego of the Great Detective, which is an idea characters in A Right to Die express such as the civil rights lawyer Oster when he learns Nero had an article placed in the newspaper informing readers that he was taking on a case.
His methods of detection are unsurprisingly cerebral and abstract, requiring random titbits from his vast knowledge such as diphthongs. In contrast Archie’s methods of detection centre on people and social interaction with witnesses and suspects, especially if they are women. Unlike Nero there is a greater degree of chance in his detecting actions such as when he is deciding how to tackle Susan Brooke in A Right to Die:
‘Would she be a better quiz prospect while she was still wondering if she had made a sale, or after it was in the bag? My understanding of attractive young women wouldn’t tell me, so I fingered in my pocket a quarter, slipped it out, and glanced at it, Heads…’
I can’t really see Nero leaving anything to chance like that and would instead be informed by his understanding of the subject at hand. Moreover, like the not so quick thinking Watson figure, Archie also has moments where after questioning witnesses he usually thinks of many other questions he should have asked and which Nero would have done.
However, Archie is not a completely classically moulded Watson figure. He is also the predominantly hardboiled side of the detective duo, who deals with other operatives who do tasks for Nero and Archie, he is the muscle of the pair and is able to stand his ground in a fight. This does also extend to verbal sparring and he is rather dismissive sometimes of official authority, especially if it is embodied by policemen such as Inspector Cramer (a much more frustrated and grumpy version of Inspector Lestrade). Moreover, Nero cannot completely walk all over Archie, in the way Sherlock could probably do of Watson, as for example Archie will refuse to do tasks for the case if he has other plans and the tasks are not urgent. Furthermore, Nero says of Archie that
‘He is fairly headstrong and can’t be bullied. I stopped trying years ago.’
He also responds to situations in a much more physically active way, thinking later. The language he uses also reflects the more hardboiled side of crime detection. This is epitomised when Archie says in Might As Well Be Dead (1956), ‘I will ride my luck on occasion, but I like to pick the occasion,’ which not only links back to my idea on chance and luck being involved in Archie’s detective work, but it also displays that wisecrack tone that we associate with the hardboiled genre. In addition, in Over my Dead Body (1940), I think the private nature and imposed isolation private investigators in hardboiled detective fiction have is found in a comment made by Archie:
‘Wolfe could get sentimental about it if he wanted to, but I don’t like any stranger nosing around my private affairs, let alone a nation of 130 million people’
Ultimately out of the two of them Archie is the one who most fits the label of ‘gumshoe,’ though that doesn’t stop people calling Nero one also.
The mixture of Classical and Hardboiled in Archie is encapsulated in a comment Peter Vaughan makes in A Right to Die saying that ‘they said you’re tough but straight and you’re more human than Wolfe.’ The toughness of Archie aligns him with the hardboiled tradition, especially alongside the idea of him being ‘straight,’ as although hardboiled private eyes cannot be morally questionable at times, they do still often have a sense of integrity or a set of codes they work by. Being ‘more human than Wolfe’ though fits more with the classical mould where Archie is the Watson like figure who is the buffer between the outside world and Nero. Very much like Sherlock or Mycroft Nero responds to this criticism later in the book saying that:
‘You are not more human than I am. You are merely more susceptible, more sociable and more vulnerable.’
This felt quite Holmes-like, where the nature of being human is questioned and Nero instead suggests that these apparently more ‘human’ qualities are actually just weaknesses which can hamper detective work.
But although Archie has a more hardboiled side to him, which in a way reduces the hero worship problem which can happen with classical detective pairings (see Holmes and Watson, Poirot and Hastings), the power relations between the two are still a little one sided. This is exemplified when Archie is clearing up after a meeting at the Brownstones where he and Nero live:
‘When I went to the office Wolfe had his reading light on and had opened The Minister and the Choir Singer. That was as it should be; he would stay to keep me company while I took things out and straightened up. To go to bed, leaving the mess to me, would sort of imply that I was merely a menial, so he stayed to collaborate.’
Archie seems to think that this balances their relationships a little bit but in my opinion, regardless of where Nero is reading, Archie is still doing the clearing up and unless Nero is providing some sort of moral support we’re not aware about, Archie’s definition of ‘collaborate’ seems a little generous.
Gender and Genre Blending
So far in this post Nero Wolfe has been categorially placed on the classical side of detective fiction, with Archie being the more ambiguous figure. But now I want to complicate matters. I want to reveal the slightly more surprising (well it was to me) hardboiled side to Nero, below the surface. As I said in my introduction the attitudes and representations of women in A Right to Die, in my opinion actually symbolise the blending of classical and hardboiled detective fiction in Stout’s work.
For example early on in the novel Nero says about Susan Brooke, that ‘except for the innate and universal flaws of her sex, there may be nothing wrong with her’ and Archie also mentions that ‘there were many things he [Nero] likes about the old brownstone on West 35th Street… but what he likes best is that there is no woman in it’. In addition, Nero also goes onto say in the book that:
‘The mind or soul or psyche – take the term you prefer – of any man below the level of consciousness is a preposterous mishmash of cesspool and garden. Heaven only knows what I have in mine as synonyms for ‘woman’; I’m glad I don’t.’
All of these instance overtly suggest that Nero takes a dim view of the female sex, implying there are inherent faults in women. Moreover, the last quote is quite self-reflexive in that Nero is aware of his negative viewpoint, but more interestingly that he has no desire to explore or change this. Not liking women in his mind is hard wired in to him. I think someone was being kind in The Mother Hunt (1963) when they said that Nero merely ‘flirted with misogyny.’
So why do sexist comments and a general dislike of women make Nero hardboiled? Maureen Reddy asserts that hardboiled detective fiction ‘repeatedly position[s] women as the dangerous other that must be contained or controlled’ (Reddy, 2003: 194). Now containment and control can be physical or verbal. In Nero’s case his containment and control is mostly done through words as he verbally contains and controls women through his unbalanced and prejudiced definitions on what women are. Furthermore in A Right to Die the act of pressurising and tricking a female suspect verbally and physically into signing a statement about their alibi, also aligns Nero and Archie with the hardboiled tradition, where because women are ‘dangerous’ or elusive they need to be “handled” in a certain way.
A hardboiled approach to women can also be seen in Archie’s character and I would argue that his method of containing and controlling women is a combination of physical and verbal. For example in A Right to Die Lily Rowan, a socialite friend of Archie starts joking on with him when he is not in the mood and consequently Archie puts his hand over her mouth and will only release his hand once she moves her right eye to indicate surrender. This could be seen as harmless and as a more sexually charged scene but I still think it can be read symbolically as Archie containing and controlling a women and also silencing her.
In addition, as Nero’s Boswell, Archie narrates many of his cases and I therefore found it interesting how Archie constructs the behaviour of himself and others in terms of gender:
‘The feminine was in her eyes, and in her chin as it quivered a little, but that was all, except her saying, ‘I don’t want to go,’ Pure feminine. ‘Of course you don’t. So come on.’ Masculine. I stood up.’
In this passage there is a distinct dichotomy of the feminine demonstrating fear, passivity and childlike reluctance and the masculine which is bold, dominating and active. John Reilly asseverates this arguing that:
‘Genders are socially defined by their contrast to one another. In the realm of fiction, this has meant that male figures are represented by their difference from females, whereas often times the purpose of female figures is simply to be ‘other’ than male’ (Reilly, 1999: 277).
So therefore in this passage Archie is presented as stronger and more in control in contrast to the woman, Dolly Brooke. However, Archie especially in the text surrounding this passage also implies that the feminine is deceptive, that it is not weak, but pretending to be so in order to play for time, time to decide what line to take, time to make up lies, which puts this depiction of gender back into the hardboiled genre.
With the evidence concerning Nero, it can be argued that Nero’s opinions on women are still within the classical genre and are an extension of Holmes’ opinions on the feelings, emotions and romantic attachments. However, I think although this idea has basis, that the extent to which Nero dislikes the company of women and his consistent derogatory comments of them pushes a bit more into the hardboiled camp in this particular aspect.
Over to you
As always let me know your thoughts on Nero and Archie and the ideas I have put out about them in the comments section below.
Knight, S. (2003). The Golden Age. In: Priestman. M. The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 77-94.
Reddy, M. (2003). Women Detectives. In: Priestman, M. The Cambridge Companion to Crime Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 191-207.
Reilly, J. (1999). Male and the Male View. In: Herbert, R. The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp.276-277.
Scaggs, J. (2005). Crime Fiction. Oxen: Routledge.