In the year 2000, the board of The Modern Library published its list of the 100 best novels of the twentieth century. I thought I’d give reading all 100 a shot and started at the bottom of the list with The Magnificent Ambersons. I followed that up with Wide Sargasso Sea, Ironweed, Sophie’s Choice, and a handful of other ultra-heavy books about the bleakness of the human condition. Eventually, I needed a break.
Enter Nero Wolfe.
I had copy of Black Orchids, sitting on my bookshelf. A middling Wolfe mystery, Black Orchids still hooked me right away with its collection of fully realized, eccentric characters. According to Wikipedia:
“Nero Wolfe is a fictional character, a brilliant, oversize, eccentric armchair detective created in 1934 by American mystery writer Rex Stout. Wolfe was born in Montenegro and keeps his past murky. He lives in a luxurious brownstone on West 35th Street in New York City, and he is loath to leave his home for business or anything that would keep him from reading his books, tending his orchids, or interfering with the gourmet meals prepared by his chef. Archie Goodwin, Wolfe’s sharp-witted, dapper young confidential assistant with an eye for attractive women, narrates the cases and does the legwork for the detective genius.”
Over the next couple of years I was neck deep in Nero Wolfe. At used bookstores, I tracked down all 46-or-so Nero Wolfe books. I ordered a bootleg DVD of the 1937 Hollywood adaptation, Meet Nero Wolfe and listened to all the episodes of the various old-time-radio series based on the character. I thoroughly enjoyed season one and season two of the A&E TV series starring Maury Chakin as Wolfe and Timothy Hutton as Archie Goodwin. I read a few of the disappointing post-Rex Stout books written by Robert Goldsborough and a couple of the Wolfe pastiches by other mystery writers. I even attempted to make Wolfe’s famous 40 minute scrambled eggs from The Nero Wolfe Cookbook.
Eventually, I ran out of Nero Wolfe material and went back to reading other stuff. But I look back on those few years fondly. So when a new Wolfe pastiche popped up on my radar, I was immediately interested.
In Loren D. Estleman’s Nearly Nero, her detective, Claudius Lyon, is so obsessed with reading mysteries, particularly those starring Nero Wolfe, that he patterns his life after the genius detective, including enough differences to keep the lawyers away. Lyon’s right-hand-man and chronicler is the ex-con Arnie Woodbine. Lyon grows tomatoes rather than orchids. He drinks cream soda, not beer. And he just isn’t that great at solving mysteries. The solutions in most of the short stories in Nearly Nero involve misheard words that sound like other words. This kind of wordplay lends itself to Encyclopedia Brown level deductions and Three’s Company style misunderstandings. This isn’t Wolfe worthy. Not good enough. Pfui!
So I didn’t like Nearly Nero enough to recommend it to anyone, but I never miss an opportunity to talk about how great Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books are. If I were you I’d start at the beginning with Fer-de-lance and read them in the order of publication.
The curious can reserve a copy of Nearly Nero. The rest of us masochists are thinking about getting back to the Modern Library list.