Thursday, July 24, 2008

Nero Wolfe

“Let’s run a race. Here goes my mind, I’m off, see if you can catch me.” —Rex Stout, on writing mysteries.

Nero Wolfe novels are some of the most entertaining in the genre for a few reasons:

-Unlike many detective stories, where clues are systematically and carefully laid out so the reader can keep up, Stout demands active thinking from his reader and rarely spells anything out.

-Nero Wolfe’s methods are unique in the slavish routines he maintains, and his refusal to leave his home on business. These are not just arbitrary facts Stout set up to constantly break, increasing artificial tension. He rarely ever broke them.

-Whereas many detective stories follow the convention of the dim but loyal, first-person narrator, Stout combined the side kick character with the American hard-boiled sleuth. The result is you have an idiosyncratic, super-intelligent, brain in Nero Wolfe and a man of action, clue finding gumshoe in Archie Goodwin. In fact, the books reveal that Archie is perfectly capable of working on his own quite successfully.

But he doesn’t.

Eugene Peterson lists Nero Wolfe as the only non-religious detective in his annotated reading list Take & Read. He likes to play with the idea of seeing Wolfe as a symbol of the church. It is even more fun to see Archie Goodwin as a symbol of believers; relating to the church yet living in a fallen world.

He has faith in Wolfe’s abilities—and yet he has his faith challenged. He follows instructions, but often is asked to use his own judgment. He knows Wolfe’s rules and routines and abides by them, but finds them chafing. He never ceases to be amazed seeing Wolfe at work solving problems and imparting his justice in the world.

Because Nero Wolfe is not ultimately interested in justice as defined by the law. He always seeks to leave things right as defined by his own stiff sense of morality.

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