It has been a long time since I hung out with the guys at 454 W. 35th Street. To be honest, that street address is the best guess of the Wolfe Pack, detective Nero Wolfe’s official fan club. But they were sure enough of their figures to arrange having a plaque posted on the brownstone occupying this address, marking it as the official fictional residence of Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, arguably the best Watson in crime fiction history.
I read a lot of Nero Wolfe mysteries in my 20’s, most of them from the Silver Age (late 40’s through the 1950’s.) In my halcyon days, I subscribed to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and you could count on a Wolfe novella appearing in those pages at least once a year. What I’ve come to expect from Rex Stout is a winning grasp on a formula, with Wolfe acting as the sedentary genius and Archie his girl-crazy leg man. A client calls or arrives at the brownstone, and Archie, eager for money to pay the massive bills Wolfe generates through his massive gourmet eating and his orchid hobby, foists the case upon his cranky, unwilling boss. Archie makes many trips into the outside world, flirts with the beautiful female suspects, runs afoul of Inspector Cramer, makes his reports to his boss, and then gathers the suspects into Wolfe’s study where a good time is had by all – except, of course, the killer.
The floor plan is for JJ!
It’s an okay formula, but for me at least it has never yielded really socko results in the mystery department. The best part of a Nero Wolfe mystery by far is the repartee between boss and employee. Check out their argument at the top of And Be a Villain (1948) about paying taxes. The way they talk to each other is hilarious. Here’s a tiny section to prove it:
- NW: You are sure of your figures?
- AG: Only too sure.
- NW: Did you cheat much?
- AG: Average. Nothing indecent.
- NW: I have to pay the amounts you named?
- AG: Either that or forfeit some privileges.
- NW: Very well. Confound it. There was a time when a thousand dinars a year was ample for me. Get Mr. Richards of the Federal Broadcasting Company.
And that is how most clients next New York’s best private detective!
As I said, I haven’t read any of Wolfe’s adventures in the longest time, so it was a joy to find Some Buried Caesar (1939) on sale for a dollar at the library store. Originally published in abridged form for magazines as The Red Bull (and published as a Dell mapback), this is Rex Stout’s sixth Nero novel, and lo and behold! it veers from formula from the start. And that, it turns out, is both a good and a bad thing.
The opening is, to my mind, one of the best in the canon. Wolfe is making a rare excursion away from home in order to show some prize orchids at a botanical exposition (and face down a hated rival grower) in upstate New York when their car gets a flat tire and runs into a tree. The oversized detective neither wants to traipse about nor be left alone in the car, and eventually he accompanies Archie in search of a house they saw a few miles back to get some help. They decide to jump a fence and walk across a pasture as a shortcut – and come face to face with Hickory Caesar Grindon, a prize-winning bull.
All of this – Archie’s navigation through the Scylla and Charybdis of a maddened bull and an equally angry handyman with a shotgun while the meticulously dressed Wolfe tries to escape with his life while moving as little as humanly possible – is very funny. Eventually, they are rescued by the first of three pretty women in the case, a golf champion named Caroline Pratt whose uncle Thomas owns the bull. Soon, Wolfe becomes embroiled in some messy affairs involving poor Caesar and a nasty feud between Pratt and his neighbor, the wealthy Frederick Osgood. It’s a battle between old and new money, and it centers around the fate of that aforementioned bull. There are also a number of dicey romances between the men’s children, which lends a touch of the Bard to the proceedings. Wolfe ends up taking on both men as clients, mainly in order to ensure himself a comfortable bed until his car is fixed, and he lends Archie out to protect the bull. What he ends up with is a triple murder case, and the only spoiler I’m going to give out here is that not all the victims are human!
There’s one more kinda great thing about this book, and that is the introduction of Lily Rowan to the Wolfe-verse. Lily is presented here as a sort of nouveau riche femme fatale, but she turns out to be the only woman in Archie Goodwin’s life who sort of sticks. She will figure in a number of later stories and is one of the only females Nero Wolfe can stand.
Unfortunately, the proceedings on this paddock seem, well, padded. (I checked it out, and the early novels are generally much longer than the ones I read before. I preferred when Stout would adopt a “less is more” attitude! Can anyone think of another author who was more successful with the novella form?) This is an instance where the set-up and exposition are more exciting than the case itself. Once the first murder occurs, a great deal of talking happens. And since Wolfe and Archie are guests in somebody else’s home, their back-and-forth seems muted out of politeness.
Along the way, there are numerous detours – to the flower show, to the paddock, and near the final act, Archie lands in jail in a sequence that seems to go on far too long without much payoff. At least, Stout rolls out Lily at every convenient moment, and with her come-hither eye and her sultry purring of “Escamillo” to Archie, I couldn’t help but picture Jessica Rabbit in my mind. This, by the way, is never a bad thing.
The whole mystery sorts itself out in fair fashion. Not that I had everything figured out, but I did have the villain pegged from the start. They just seemed like that kind of person; in fact, I know the actor I would have cast in the part – someone who played many a murderer in 1930’s mystery films. Many think of Caesar as one of Stout’s best, and I sort of understand this: the set-up is great, and Lily Rowan is a wonderful and rare addition to the canon. Personally, though, I’ll take hanging about the house, watching Wolfe eat what Fritz prepares and play in the attic greenhouse with Theodore, and enjoying as detective and employee drive each other crazy. I would certainly recommend this one to those who like to see Nero Wolfe out of his comfort zone, but I missed the Archie connection that zings through the hallways of West 35th Street.
Also, this book has put me off steak for a month. Go figure!