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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Great O-E Theory

I’m about to re-read a Nero Wolfe book. Picking which one will be part of the fun. If you don’t know Wolfe, you should. The two programs are remarkably good, but no substitute for the delights of author Rex Stout’s refreshing style.

Ever since the fat sleuth’s 1934 debut, readers and critics have drawn parallels between him and Sherlock Holmes. More than that, they have put them on the same family tree by speculating that Wolfe is the son of Sherlock or, less frequently, Mycroft Holmes. Certainly Wolfe looks like Mycroft. And in the novel Baker Street Irregular, Stout says that the character was based on Mycroft – although its author, Jon Lellenberg, told me that there is no evidence of that.

In October 1954, as they appeared together at a book signing at Kann’s Department Store in Washington, D.C., Frederic Dannay asked Stout how he came up with the name of Nero Wolfe. According to Dannay, Stout thought for a while and then said that he based the name on Sherlock Holmes. In McAleer’s version, Stout was just quoting Alexander Woollcott’s theory. Here’s how Dannay lays it out in the book In the Queen’s Parlor:

Now . . . how in the world does Nero Wolfe resemble Sherlock Holmes? Well, one likeness is quickly apparent: both names have the same number and the same distribution of syllables: Sherlock has two, Holmes one; Nero likewise has two, Wolfe one. But this is a superficial kinship: the        relationship is far more subtle. Consider the vowels, and their placement, in the name Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock has two – e and o, in that order; Holmes also has two – the same two, but in reverse order – o-e. Now           consider the vowels in Nero Wolfe: Nero has two – the same two as in Sherlock, and in exactly the same order! Wolfe also has two – the same two      as in Holmes, and again in the same reverse order!

Dannay called this “the great O-E theory,” and mused that it probably all went back to P-O-E.

What’s your favorite Nero Wolfe story?


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