Visiting the Old Brownstone

At reunions and other gatherings like that where you run into a lot of people you haven’t seen for a while, I got sick of asking people what they were doing and started asking them what they were reading. I think you find out a lot more about them that way.

I never know what I’m going to be reading, but once I get going on a good book, if I’m visiting somewhere in the dead of winter and I left it in the car, I’ll get up and get dressed and go out and get it, even though there are lots of other good books around.

Lately I’m rereading old Nero Wolfe books by Rex Stout. It’s such a pleasure to visit his old brownstone in New York. It’s located on West 35th Street, probably in the 900 block, which according to the maps is in the middle of the East River, but don’t you believe it.

Wolfe lives there with his employee, Archie Goodwin, his cook, Fritz Brenner, and then the guy who helps him take care of the 10,000 orchids on the roof, Theodore Horstmann, who seems to have his own place after the first few books.

Wolfe weighs about a seventh of a ton (286 pounts) and never leaves his house on business, and so, according to the wacky premise, Archie Goodwin, who is very dapper, a good dancer, and an experienced gumshoe, ambles around talking to people and gathering evidence and comes back and reports to Wolfe, who then solves the crime because he is a genius.

I happen to know a guy who weighs in at a seventh of a ton and is a genius, so maybe that’s why I’m digging up these old books.

Anyway, Wolfe loves to drink beer and he’s a gourmand and a gourmet, so we’ll hear him in the kitchen in a long debate with Fritz about fennel or something. He once endured the indiginity of a trip to the Kanawha Spa, where, naturally, he had to solve a murder, simply to get the recipe for saucisse minuit.

I love the routine of the household and the interplay of the characters, and the dynamic between Archie, who is always known by his first name, and Wolfe, who never is. The only guy who ever calls him Nero in all the 30-odd books is his old friend from Montenegro, Marko Vulcic, who ran Rusterman’s, the finest restaurant in New York, until he got murdered…

It’s an exploration of how our imagination and our creative faculties interact with our practical, problem-solving faculties. In most people the creative side is like a child and the practical side is like an adult, but Wolfe’s child genius has grown up by making certain compromises, including allowing Archie to pester him to work when the bank balance gets low.

That’s the other fun part about these books: you’re always wondering not only who did it, but also how Wolfe will end up collecting a big fee to pay the fertilizer bill for all those orchids, and Archie’s salary, and Fritz’, not to mention the grocery bill.

And Archie, who narrates, is a genius himself, at times. It is he who coined the adage, “There are times when a principle should take a nap” — a profound truth if ever there was one.

Archie is also an appreciater of feminine beauty (which Wolfe is not, though in one book he seems to have a daughter) and he writes something somewhere — I wish I could remember this right — something about not liking women who wiggle their hips when they walk.

Later in the book he meets a woman who “walks like a Prussian drillmaster.” Ouch. I knew a woman like that once, and if she asked me to push a peanut with my nose across the rotunda of the Capitol Building, I would definitely consider it.

Some of the peripheral characters get kind of cartoony, and plots fall down once in a while, but for gross tonnage of pure enjoyment over years and years, reading after reading, Rex Stout is hard to beat, and I know so many friends who love these books too.

By far the best one is the first, Fer de Lance. It’s a real masterpiece.