Retro review–Rex Stout’s “Nero Wolfe, Black Orchids” a blast from the past

Review by C.J. Bunce

Before I watched the brilliant A&E television series Nero Wolfe, as far as I knew that was the name of the author, as the big print NERO and WOLFE are the biggest words on the cover of all the Nero Wolfe novels.   It makes sense as author Rex Stout’s gruff lead character is physically a large fellow who rarely gets up, rarely leaves his house, and when he does either it is always with purpose.   But as superbly written a character that Nero Wolfe is, it is really hard to compare to our first person narrator, Archie Goodwin.

Goodwin is your tour guide through the murder mystery and the world of Nero Wolfe, the seventy-year old series of 33 crime/detective novels, and in the ninth Nero Wolfe novel Black Orchids, Goodwin particularly is in prime, zealous form.  He likens himself more of a Gary Cooper than a Clark Gable.  Those who don’t know him see him as slick, and chastise his ego, as someone who “thinks he can slide uphill.”  On an errand for Wolfe to inspect three rare black orchids, he happens upon a woman wading her legs in a pool and this image alone puts him in a mode to fantasize her as his fiancée, for nearly the entire story.  As fate would have it, the man she is with is found with a hole in his head of the revolver variety, and Police Inspector Cramer has his sights on Archie as the trigger man since Archie was first to discover it.  Ultimately everyone who appears in the cast of characters becomes a suspect, and like a game of Clue, you can’t really know how the facts come together until the last scene.

Sounds like every episode of Murder She Wrote or Columbo?  Not really, although those series follow the Nero Wolfe model of storytelling.

Archie is so fast talking and quick-witted and drops laughs so effortlessly that the reader feels he must hold onto something for the ride.  Check out this tirade of inner reactions, keeping in mind Archie does not even know this woman:

“I was keeping tabs on Anne, knowing that the best time to get the lowdown on a woman is when she’s under stress.  I thought she was doing fine.  After four straight days in a glaring spotlight as the star attraction of a flower show, with such by-products as having her picture taken with Billy Rose and dining out with Lewis Hewitt, here she was kerplunk in the mire with murder-mud ready to splatter all over her, and so far she had nothing to forfeit my respect, even when I had explained how you could pull a trigger with your toes.  But at this juncture she wasn’t so hot.  She might have spoken up with something suitable about being armored in her virtue and not needing to be looked after by any sourpuss employer or millionaire orchid fancier, but all she did was deadpan W.G. Dill without opening her trap.  I began to suspect she either had depths I hadn’t plumbed or was a bit limited in the mental area–but don’t get me wrong, I was still faithful.  Even as a deadpan, the sight of her face–for the mental side of life you can go to the library.”

And much later when the exhausted Anne is asked by Wolfe to stay the night because he wants to speak with her before she must meet the New York City district attorney early the next morning, Wolfe offers her Archie’s bedroom.  Archie narrates:

“That meant my room and my bed.  Anne started to protest, but not with much spirit, and I went and got Fritz and took him upstairs with me to help change sheets and towels.  As I selected a pajama suit for her from the drawer, tan with brown stripes, and put it on the turned down sheet, I reflected that things were moving pretty fast, considering that it was less than ten hours since she had first spoken to me and we never had actually been introduced.”


And what you learn having read one of Rex Stout’s novels is how incredibly well the TV series was produced.  Archie was played by current Leverage star Timothy Hutton and Nero was played by the late, great Maury Chaykin (no relation to artist and writer Howard Chaykin, who once told me he and comics writer Archie Goodwin were also fans of the Rex Stout novels, and Howard Chaykin loved the TV series).  In fact, like any time you read the book after watching the series or movie, it is darned near impossible to construct the characters any other way.  But it doesn’t matter, as each character has his place, and they are as well constructed as you’d expect with such a celebrated series:  Nero, the food and plant connousieur, Archie the senior of a small band of Wolfe’s personal assistants and sleuther on the spot, Fritz the cook and butler, Inspector Cramer the Chicago-sounding angst-bitten griper who in any other brownstone but Wolfe’s would be the smartest guy in the room.

In Black Orchids, you get a taste of these classic characters in a typical Stout atypical crime and a puzzling web of lies set in a backdrop of 1940s stylishness.  You also can get an education in Wolfe’s hobbies, here, flowers and plant diseases.  Wolfe and Goodwin play off each other beautifully and the plot twists are seemless, a credit to this great writer.

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