(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

In Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Purloined Letter,” the model for much of modern detective fiction, M. Auguste Dupin solves a mystery by cerebration; that is, he persistently thinks through the circumstances of the case, questioning the motives of the culprit and putting himself in the criminal’s place so that he can reenact the conditions of the crime. Dupin rarely leaves his room, for he works by ratiocination—Poe’s term for the detective’s cognitive ability to catch and to outwit the guilty party. Dupin is a man of thought, not a man of action. He is also something of a mystery himself, a remote figure whom his assistant and interlocutor (also the narrator of the story) has trouble fathoming. Dupin, in short, is the cultivated, urban intellectual who prevails in an environment that values strength of mind and mental resourcefulness. “The Purloined Letter,” then, is as much about the narrator’s fascination with the detective’s mind as it is about catching the villain.

Nero Wolfe Series

Nero Wolfe is a direct descendant of Dupin. He hates to leave his house on West Thirty-fifth Street in New York City. Except in extremely rare instances, all appointments with clients are in Wolfe’s brownstone. The detective has traveled widely—he even owns a house in Egypt—but it is a principle with him not to leave home on business. Archie Goodwin—Wolfe’s sidekick, detail man, inquisitor, and protector—is the legman, the detective’s link with the outside world. Goodwin prefers to believe that Wolfe is lazy; that is the reason the detective refuses to budge from his lair. Wolfe is sedentary, but his lack of physical exercise is more than a quirk. As his name Nero suggests, he has tyrannically created his own empire out of his towering ego. A man so bent on enjoying his own pleasures (chiefly a greenhouse with three hundred orchids and gourmet meals served by his live-in cook), to the exclusion of all others, has the perfect personality to pit against the egos of criminals, confidence men, and murderers. Wolfe knows what human greed means. He himself works for high fees that support his sybaritic existence.

Wolfe is wedded to his daily routines: breakfast at eight in his bedroom, two hours with his orchids from nine to eleven, office hours from eleven to quarter past one, then lunch and more office hours until four, after which he devotes two more hours to his orchids. Dinner is at half past seven. Goodwin knows better than to disturb the detective when he is working with his flowers, and only emergencies interrupt the other parts of the fixed schedule. This profound sense of order, of instituting a household staff that caters to his habits, is what motivates Wolfe to apprehend murderers—those disrupters of a peaceful and harmonious society. As his last name suggests, he is also a predator. Killers must be caught in Nero Wolfe novels, because they ultimately threaten his own safety; they sometimes intrude into his Manhattan brownstone or violate the lives of others in ways that offend Wolfe’s belief (never stated in so many words) that urban man has a right to organize his life in a highly individual, even eccentric, manner. Caring so passionately about his own security, Wolfe is moved to take on cases where another’s well-being is menaced.

Although there are significant female characters in the Nero Wolfe series, their values, characters, and concerns are never central. Wolfe himself is leery of women, especially younger ones. At the conclusion of In the Best Families (1950), it is a joke to Goodwin that a woman has finally got close enough to Wolfe to make him smell of perfume. Goodwin is a chauvinist. He can be rather condescending with women. Occasionally, as in And Be a Villain (1948), a female character becomes the focal point of the story. In general, however, the power and fascination of Stout’s fictional world is male.

Almost every Wolfe novel has this continuing cast of characters: Goodwin (who often has to spur Wolfe into action), Fritz (Wolfe’s brilliant, conscientious cook in charge of pleasing his palate every day), Theodore (the orchid nurse), and Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin, and Orrie Cather (Wolfe’s operatives, called in to help research and waylay suspects). Inspector Cramer of the New York Police Department is Wolfe’s competitor, sometimes his ally, depending on the nature of the case and on whether Wolfe has information that will help the police and encourage them to tolerate his investigations. Wolfe has contact with a newspaperman, Lon Cohen, who passes along tips to Goodwin or plants items in the press at Wolfe’s behest. Wolfe’s organization of his household and his talent for manipulating the press and the police also speak to his consummate talents as a modern, urban detective.

It is indicative of the strengths of the Nero Wolfe series that the first novel, Fer-de-Lance (1934), and the last published before his death, A Family Affair (1975), are considered to be among Stout’s best work. Every novel is characterized by Goodwin’s exasperated familiarity with Wolfe’s idiosyncrasies. Somehow Stout is able to create, almost immediately, the illusion of an ongoing world outside the particular novel’s plot. Instead of explaining Wolfe’s routine with his flowers, for example, Goodwin simply alludes to it as a habit. Gradually, in the course of the novel, brief and recurrent references to the routine are so embedded in the narrative that the presumption of a real world is easily assimilated. Indeed, the solving of a crime becomes inherently fascinating because it is contrasted implicitly with Wolfe’s thoroughly regularized agenda. In other words, the detective must settle the case to preserve his deeply domestic order.

And Be a Villain, for example, begins with Goodwin filling out Wolfe’s income tax forms: “For the third time I went over the final additions and subtractions on the first page of Form 1040, to make good and sure.” It is typical of Stout to start a book in the middle of some action. In this case, the way Goodwin does Wolfe’s income tax not only suggests his meticulous technique but also introduces the importance of money in the detective’s world. He usually works only when he is forced to replenish the income he spends so extravagantly. “To make good and sure” is also characteristic of Goodwin’s clipped speech. He...

(The entire section is 2631 words.)