Though I am, like most mystery lovers, a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes, there has always been one character in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories who has actually fascinated me more than the famed detective himself. No, I’m not talking about his famed arch-rival Moriarty, though he is also a very intriguing figure, especially when one considers his actual “screen time” in the canon stories is so short.
No, the actual character I’m talking about is Sherlock’s “smarter brother”, Mycroft.
The main reason that I find Mycroft intriguing is that he is, at least in the Conan Doyle stories, a sedentary figure who appears to be even smarter than his more famous younger sibling, but who, as Sherlock describes him in “The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter”
…has no ambition and no energy. He will not even go out of his way to verify his own solutions, and would rather be considered wrong than take the trouble to prove himself right. Again and again I have taken a problem to him, and have received an explanation which has afterwards proved to be the correct one. And yet he was absolutely incapable of working out the practical points…
Mycroft, therefore, is a perfect example of what is known as the “armchair detective”. At least he is in the Holmes canon. For those of you who mostly know Mycroft from his portrayal in either the BBC’s Sherlock or CBS’s Elementary, Mycroft, probably to disguise his identity from viewers who know the canon and add their own “twist” or “surprise reveal” is portrayed as a much more active figure.
Of course, Mycroft is not the first armchair detective in mystery fiction. That distinction probably goes to C. Auguste Dupin who was the creation of the man who is responsible for innovating so much of what are now considered standard detective mystery tropes, Edgar Allan Poe.
Neither of these two men, however, is ny personal favorite character in the genre of the armchair detective. No, that distinction goes to a man who unfortunately goes largely unknown to today’s audiences, even, I would say, to many of those who consider themselves fans of mysteries stories.
His name is Nero Wolfe.
Wolfe is the creation of mystery writer Rex Stout who not only created the character, but wrote 33 novels and about 40 novellas and short stories featuring the character. (The reason for the “about” there is because there are a few stories which Stout wrote for magazines or other venues and then either revised or otherwise changed and which were then printed in the new version or even, depending on the extent of the changes, as new stories.)
Wolfe first appeared in the 1934 novel Fer-de-Lance, and the last Wolfe story written by Stout was A Family Affair, published in 1975. One of the most interesting aspects of Wolfe’s adventures is that while Stout’s stories were written over a period of more than forty years, and they quite often reflected what was going on in the world around them – for example, during the years of World War Two Wolfe was quite often consulted by the War Department for aid in tracking spies, and during the 60s Wolfe’s adventures took place amidst the civil rights movement – the characters of Nero and his assistant Archie Goodwin never aged or really changed.
Ah, yes, Archie Goodwin. Some people would likely say that Archie is the true protagonist of Stout’s stories, and while I won’t go that far, I will say that it is Archie’s unique voice which truly brings Wolfe to life. Goodwin acts as the narrator of Wolfe’s adventures, acting in much the same role that Dr. Watson plays in the Sherlock Holmes stories. He is the person who acts as the reader’s stand-in in the stories, though considering the sedentary nature of Wolfe – remember, he is an armchair detective – Archie is arguably more valuable to Wolfe than Watson is to Holmes. As a matter of fact, in their preface to a reprint of Stout’s book Too Many Cooks, mystery scholars Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor describe the relationship between Nero and Archie thusly:
First, Archie is not a friend but a paid employee, who acts as secretary, chauffeur, and legman to the mountainous and sedentary Wolfe. Then they differ in all important respects—age, background, physique, and education. Finally, it is impossible to say which is the more interesting and admirable of the two. They are complementary in the unheard-of ratio of 50-50. … Archie has talents without which Wolfe would be lost: his remarkable memory, trained physical power, brash American humor, attractiveness to women, and ability to execute the most difficult errand virtually without instructions. Minus Archie, Wolfe would be a feckless recluse puttering in an old house on West 35th Street, New York.
Personally, I think that Archie’s voice is the thing that makes the Wolfe stories stand out from most other detective fiction, even Stout’s own attempts at creating other detectives and characters. I’ve tried reading some of those other stories and have inevitably found them wanting, and in analyzing my reaction to them, I’ve become convinced that the reason for that is that they are missing the unique voice that Goodwin brings to Wolfe’s adventures. Archie, in his role as narrator, seems to be one of those “lightning in a bottle” creations that sets Stout’s Wolfe stories apart from his rivals.
Okay, for now I’m going to stop there, before actually getting into the character of Nero Wolfe and the things that make him a truly unique character even when compared to other armchair detectives. Instead, I want to take a moment to focus on one of my favorite adaptations of Rex Stout’s stories.
As indicated by the word “New” in the title, The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe was not the first series to bring the detective to radio. That distinction goes instead to the 1943-44 series The Adventures of Nero Wolfe which first aired on the on the regional New England Network before being picked up for national broadcast by ABC. Next came 1945’s The Amazing Nero Wolfe, which featured Francis X. Bushman as the titular character.
By far, however, in my mind the best characterization of Wolfe on the radio came from the aforementioned NBC series The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe, which aired on the network from 1950-51 and starred Sydney Greenstreet as Nero. Yes, that Sydney Greenstreet. The man who played Kasper Gutman (otherwise known as “The Fat Man”) in The Maltese Falcon and Signor Ferrari in Casablanca along with many many other roles.
As a matter of fact, Greenstreet’s portrayal of Wolfe is so strong that when I am reading Stout’s Wolfe stories it is his voice that I hear in my head as Wolfe. Who do I hear as Archie? Ah, we’ll get to the answer to that question in the second part.
There are only two problems that I have with this series, and they are easily overcome by the love that I have for Greenstreet’s Wolfe. The first is that the series had no consistent actor to play the part of Archie Goodwin. Over the course of the twenty-six episodes which make up the series, the voice of Archie was played by actors such as Gerald Mohr, Herb Ellis, Lawrence Dobkin, Harry Bartell, Lamont Johnson, and Wally Maher. The other problem is that the series consisted of original stories rather than adaptations of Stout’s writings, though that’s actually understandable and forgivable considering the complexity of Stout’s plots. They would have been nearly impossible to shoehorn into an thirty minute radio time slot, so it’s for the best that the producers didn’t even try. Instead, the producers opted to emphasize characterization over plot, and while one could perhaps nitpick bits of that, the truth is they did a pretty good job. Again, I’d say as well as could be done in a 30 minute time slot.
The other bit of good news about this series is that out of those twenty-six episodes, twenty five are known to survive and are available to collectors as opposed to the two earlier series of which only one episode each is known to have made it intact to the current day.
So I think it’s time to quit talking about the series and give you a chance to give it a listen.
Next up: Part Two where we take a look at the character of Nero Wolfe himself, my favorite television adaptation of the character, and my favorite portrayal of Archie Goodwin.