Thursday, April 10, 2014
I Is for "In The Best Families"
One of the saddest moments in my life as a book lover was when I realized I had read every Nero Wolfe novel. This does not of course preclude rereading books (as readers of this blog should already be aware.) Still the is a sadness in the finality that I now know everything Rex Stout chose to tell us about his two greatest creations: Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Today I am looking at one of my favorite Wolfe adventures- In The Best Families.
Rex Stout was, to my thinking, one of the most extraordinary people of the 20th century. AS a young man in the Navy he spent 4 years serving on Theodore Roosevelt's presidential yacht. While still a young man he created a school banking system that allowed students to set up accounts to save money. He worked a number of jobs in his youth, before settling upon writing as a profession. He helped build his own house and much of its furnishings.
An early opponent of Fascism, he gave up most of his writing career during the early 40's to devote himself to radio programs and writing propaganda articles supporting World War II. He was also a president of the Writers Guild, and helped create the International Copyright Convention.
Oh and he wrote some of the best mystery novels and novellas ever penned, most featuring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. He employed the Conan Doyle technique of Narrator/Detective, but perfected it by making the narrator, Archie a fine detective in his own right. Archie is a hard boiled detective in the tradition of Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe. He does the leg work, bringing evidence and suspects to Nero Wolfe, an eccentric fat man, a classic thinking detective, reminiscent of Mycroft Holmes (If you've only watched Sherlock you don't know what Mycroft was really like. Go read The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter or The Bruce Partington Plans.) Wolfe would prefer to spend his days raising orchids, planning extravagant meals (he employs an orchid nurse and a chef) and reading, but in order to afford his extravagant lifestyle he must make a living by his wits. Oh one other thing, Wolfe hates to leave his house on business. T hats what we have Archie for. One of Archie's jobs is to nag Wolfe into working, and he relishes it. Archie is a chivalrous womanizer, which is to say he is always a gentleman and has no intentions of settling down.
This particular case is part of a set of linked books often referred to as the Zeck novels. In each of the stories Wolfe runs up against the activities of a man named Arnold Zeck, who has his fingers in enough activities to make Professor Moriarty look like a common criminal. Not that Zeck is ever directly involved. He has multiple layers of men between the street level crime and himself. When Wolfe refused to withdraw from an earlier case, Zeck had the entire rooftop greenhouse shot up, destroying 10,000 orchids. Each time previously, Wolfe has found a way to solve the crime without connecting it to Zeck's activities. But this case is different, so Wolfe disappears without even telling Archie where he is going.
There is a whole middle section of the book in which Wolfe is missing, and we see Archie running his own detective agency. We realize Archie can function without Wolfe far more effectively than Wolfe can without Archie. Eventually of course, the plot to deal with Zeck kicks into high gear, ending in a climatic shootout.
This is only an outline of course, and it barely touches on the main reason most people read (and especially reread) Rex Stout. Seldom have there been any fictional characters in any genre more completely created so that one feels like they could sit down and converse with them. It is not merely the two main characters, there is also an equally well drawn supporting cast: Cramer and Stebbins from Homicide, Fritz the cook, Saul, Fred and Orrie the backup PI's, Theodore the orchid nurse. Archie has a breezy and confidential style, and he is just plain fun to read. The people and furnishings of Nero Wolfe's brownstone are as familiar as one's own family. One would fake a crime just to get in the door to talk with Wolfe, and hope to stay for dinner, then be escorted home by Archie.
Somehow Rex Stout accomplished a miracle with the 40 year span of these books, keeping Archie and Wolfe more or less the same ages and personalities, while keeping the world around them contemporary. The first book takes place in the Depression, the last tackles Watergate.
Though I picked this particular book as one of my favorites, there are dozens of stories, none of them bad, most of them fabulous. If you want one with a particularly contemporary feel, check out The Doorbell Rang. In this story Wolfe takes on the FBI, which is intimidating a client. Some things never change. It really doesn't matter where you start. Just get the heck over to the old brownstone. Tell Archie I sent you.