Sunday, June 05, 2011

Noir Magic

The Mother HuntI'm surprised by how much I like Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe novels.  The Mother Hunt is only the second one I've read (The Golden Spiders was the first), and both of them have been so much fun.  I don't know why I had any doubt, since Kris has never steered me wrong, but somehow mysteries usually aren't on my radar, so I don't assume I'm going to enjoy them.

But these books are a blast.  They're short and fast, the traditional kind of mystery where you have all the information, but usually might not put it together.  This book isn't an investment--it's like watching a really good hour of TV.

A big factor in my enjoyment, I think, is competence. I've talked before, I think, about how I'm a sucker for folks who are good at what they do (as evidenced by a history of otherwise inappropriate work crushes and a fondness for the TV show Leverage).

Archie Goodwin--our narrator and detective Nero Wolfe's right hand man--is a superior example of competence.  He knows what questions to ask, notices what needs seeing, reads people like the proverbial book, and does all the legwork.  His colleagues are equally good at what they do--let me give you an example of the bluff, playful, competent world Archie runs in.  Let's meet Saul Panzer.

....when I rounded the bend [I] saw Saul's car, off the road at the wide spot.  When he saw me he flopped over on the seat, and when I arrived he was snoring.  He isn't much to look at, with his big nose and square chin and wide sloping brow, and snoring with his mouth open he was a sight.  I reached in the open window and twisted his nose, and in a millionth of a second he had my wrist and was twisting it.  There you are.  He knew I would go for his nose before I did.

What is that but classic noir characterization?  These books aren't about emotions running high, or the narrator's passions, or secrets, or his drinking problem or his girlfriend.  They're about good, solid detective work--the original procedural.

The main thing I can't figure out is what Archie needs Nero Wolfe for.  Wolfe is his own kind of competent--food, orchids, imperiousness, and, reluctantly, thinking about mysteries.  He never leaves the house, reluctantly works about four hours a day, and generally gives Archie marching orders.  But Goodwin thinks on his feet, reads people, and rarely misses anything Wolfe notices.  Very occasionally, Archie runs out of ideas and Wolfe comes up with one.  Usually Wolfe solves the mystery, but I'm not 100% convinced that Rex Stout doesn't throw him those moments to keep him in the book.

Because of course, Wolfe is the character.  He's the bombastic, opinionated one.  Goodwin's just about dames and work and having a job.  He's an icon, and you have to have one of those if you're going to write 10,000 detective novels, and make me read everyone.

1 comment:

Kris said...

I think the best part of these books is that Archie *doesn't* need Wolfe, but he sticks around because he enjoys working with Wolfe. He enjoys the perks and the cases and even needling Wolfe when needed. Wolfe is the detective, but Archie is who we keep coming back for. I might lend you a series to read in a certain order, for a certain storyline to develop.