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Monday, January 8, 2024

Nero Wolfe Turns 90, But Still Ageless

2024 is the 90th anniversary of the first Nero Wolfe novel, Fer-de-Lance, as well as that of the Baker Street Irregulars. In celebration, I re-read that inaugural adventure of the Corpus for the umpteenth time since my teenage years. (I was 14 when I wrote Rex Stout a fan letter.)

To an amazing degree, it’s as if the whole W. 35th mise en scène sprang full-bodied from the head of Zeus (or Stout). Much of what we remember so well from the other novels and novellas is there in the beginning: Wolfe wiggling his finger, Wolfe pushing his lips in and out as he solves a case, the daily routine in the plant rooms, the ban on business talk at meals, Archie prodding Wolfe and Wolfe poking Archie, what Archie calls a “charade” at the end as the killer is outed.  

Many of the usual dramatis personae are also present from the creation at least in name, including the one who turns out to be the killer in the final outing, A Family Affair, 41 years later.

At the same time, there are a few differences. Archie drives a roadster, and there is no mention of the Herron sedan  of the later tales; his friend at the Gazette is Harry Foster rather than Lon Cohen. Nathaniel Parker, Doc Vollmer, and Lilly Rowan have not yet made their appearance.  

As every Wolfean knows, these stories always reflect the outside world even though Wolfe and Archie don’t age. It is not “always 1934.” As Fer-de-Lance begins, Wolfe is testing the newly legal 3.2 beer after the end of Prohibition and finding that, “So far, none of this is sewage.” A Family Affair is firmly set in the Watergate era.

Speaking of which, I’ll go read that now . . .

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