Thursday, December 11, 2014

"I then believed that all misguided or cruel people should be shot, and I shot some."

When Rex Stout created the obese detective Nero Wolfe, he was performing a rather delicate balancing act. Wolfe works as a detective only because he needs money to maintain his brownstone, care for his orchids and keep to a gourmet diet. Some of his most obvious traits are less-than-admirable. He's stubborn, sometimes a little childish, and is quite often a quarter-ton pain in the butt.

But if Wolfe was too obnoxious without any traits to balance this out, then we would get tired of visiting him. We might enjoy a few Nero Wolfe novels or novellas simply because they are nifty mysteries or because we like Archie Goodwin, but if we didn't like Wolfe, we wouldn't come back.

Of course, it probably helps that we spend most of our time with Archie and get Wolfe in relatively small doses.

So why do we like Nero Wolfe? There are a number of reasons, but one of them is that he does have a sense of right and wrong. He does have a code of honor, even if he doesn't care to admit to this if he doesn't have to. The novel Over My Dead Body (abridged in American Magazine in 1939; published as a novel in 1940) is perhaps the best example of this.

A recent immigrant from Montenegro needs Wolfe's help--she's been accused of theft by one of the clients of the fencing school at which she works. Wolfe's bank account is full at the moment, so he's not interested. But then it turns out the young lady might be Wolfe's adopted daughter.

We get to learn a little bit about Wolfe's background--that he wasn't always fat and that he spent a few years in what is now Yugoslavia during the World War. ("I then believed that all misguided or cruel people should be shot, and I shot some." One of the best lines ever.) While there, he stumbled across a starving three-year-old girl and took her in. Later, the two lost track of each other. Now she seems to be back.

So Wolfe sends Archie to the fencing school, despite the fact that no fee is likely to be collected. The theft thing is cleared up pretty quickly, but then a corpse turns up and Wolfe's daughter (if she is his
daughter) is a suspect. And the murder weapon turns up in the pocket of Archie's coat. It's the sort of thing that happens with surprising frequency to poor Archie.

What follows is a very faced-paced story. The action covers only two days (with Wolfe and Archie only getting a few hours sleep during this time), so there is an inherent excitement to everything. But the pacing never gets ahead of the story--when the complex mystery is finally sorted out, everything falls nicely into place. The twist at the end  is absolutely wonderful. Oh, and we learn that Wolfe is still perfectly capable of looking after himself in dangerous situations.

Along the way, Rex Stout has fun with his characters. Inspector Cramer realizes that Wolfe's clients always turn out to be innocent and that the corpulent detective often digs up vital information before the cops. So he eventually camps out in the brownstone, even following Wolfe up to the greenhouse during orchid-time.

But the best part comes in the last chapter, when Wolfe finally has time to talk to his daughter without worrying about solving a mystery. Boy, is that awkward. But its also legitimately sweet and if you want to know why people like Nero Wolfe despite all his annoying traits--well, here's your answer. It is this as well as the great mystery that makes it one of my favorite in the series.

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