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Literature: Nero Wolfe

A series of novels and short stories by Rex Todhunter Stout, beloved for their unique blending of the classic and hardboiled mystery genres.

Brilliant, eccentric cynic Nero Wolfe makes his living as New York City's finest private detective. He charges outrageous fees, usually in the tens of thousands, to solve the highest-profile murders — because, quite frankly, he needs the money. After an adventurous youth in his native Montenegro, he's now fully engaged in the pursuit of self-indulgence, weighing in at "a seventh of a ton" ('to insulate my feelings,' he explains). He literally refuses to leave his home on business — or most anything else, for that matter — and has seen to it that there's little reason why he should.

Renowned Swiss chef Fritz Brenner caters to his gastronomic obsessions; botanist Theodore Horstmann helps nurse the 10,000+ orchids in the rooftop greenhouse; and Archie Goodwin, our narrator, acts as his legman, secretary, bodyguard, occasional chauffeur and general sounding-board. A gifted investigator in his own right, Archie is the one who goes out and finds the suspects, collects the clues and romances the ladies, while Wolfe uses his keen intellect to piece it all together and collect the fee. (Although under some circumstances, usually touching pride - as when a woman was strangled in the office with Wolfe's own necktie - honour demands they solve a case regardless of client or funding.)

The enduring charm of the series lies in the meeting of their two worlds: 'a recurring miracle', as Wolfe once put it. Archie looks, fights and speaks fluent Dashiell Hammett with a deft, self-aware touch all his own, and is actually much more likely to out-talk opponents than physically intimidate them ("by God, you'd clown at your own funeral!"). True to his Midwestern roots, he unwinds with a tall glass of milk and often shocks Wolfe by skipping a gourmet dinner for a deli sandwich while on a case. He refuses to be intimidated by anyone, let alone his formidable employer... which is understandable, given that his main duty is to irritate Wolfe out of his cushy routine and into taking cases in the first place.

Wolfe, on the other hand, represents the 'drawing-room' mystery taken to its logical ultimate, right up to the climactic gathering of suspects to name the culprit. Within his plush, book-lined Manhattan brownstone he has evolved a lifestyle that has refined hedonism to the most exquisite routine — breakfast in bed, visits to the orchids from nine to eleven and four to six without fail, no talking business at meals, etc. etc. — and tolerates no interruptions, not even from the police. He is all intellect, quite openly misogynistic, seemingly immune to any human passion whatsoever... save perhaps in re: his trust in Archie, which is absolute.

Supporting cast includes freelance investigators Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin and Orrie Cather, often called in to work surveillance, IDs and other routine angles on a case; Archie's casual girlfriend, smarter-than-she-looks society dilettante Lily Rowan; and Lon Cohen, city editor of the Gazette, who trades inside info (and the occasional well-placed article) for scoops on the flashy murders that Wolfe solves. Inspector Cramer and Sergeant Purley Stebbins provide the police presence, many steps up the competence ladder from Holmesian bobbies, and much more realistically resentful of a civilian wielding such power, but never quick enough to do anything about it.

A popular Epileptic Tree (created by science fiction author John D. Clark in the '50s, but never mentioned in canon) is that Wolfe's father was Sherlock Holmes, by Irene Adler of course; the combination of deductive genius, heavyset build and laziness does sound uncannily like the Great Detective's brother Mycroft. The Wold Newton Universe has Wolfe as the son of Arsène Lupin. This is all sometimes extended to name Archie in turn as Wolfe's son, based off Wolfe's cryptic comment in one of the books: "If I were [a Negro], Mr. Goodwin would have to be one too." It's more likely that Wolfe was alluding to the fact that a white man would never accept a job as the assistant to a black man at the time the story was set, but that doesn't stop the speculation.

The Nero Wolfe stories has been adapted for radio, TV, and film. The 2001-2002 A&E series (technically titled A Nero Wolfe Mystery) is one of the more faithful adaptations, remaining firmly set in the amorphous mid-40's-to-60's of the books while lifting large portions of Archie's narration directly from the text. The show was notable for its approach to guest casting — one-shot characters would be played by the same core group of actors, much like a repertory theater, so that the murder victim one episode might be the murderer the next.

These mystery novels provide examples of:

  • Acrofatic: Wolfe pulls off a few remarkable feats of exertion despite his sheer bulk, such as killing a huge poisonous snake with a beer bottle (Fer-de-Lance) and doing the same to a young woman intent on killing him (Over My Dead Body). In a less drastic sense, Archie frequently notes that he moves with grace, agility and coordination that most people wouldn't expect from a man of Wolfe's size.
  • Always Murder: It always involves at least one murder, but many of the stories begin with a lesser crime; blackmail is common. Archie mentions at the beginning of one book that though Wolfe takes many kinds of cases, Archie only talks about the murders they come across because they are often the most fascinating and exciting.
  • Anyone Can Die: Well, anyone in the supporting cast at least. One recurring investigator is abruptly offed in the middle of an otherwise unremarkable case, and another dies in the final book. Clients die with frightening frequency, as do witnesses and suspects.
  • Arch-Enemy: Shadowy crime kingpin Arnold Zeck, similar to Professor Moriarty. He plays a role in only three novels and physically appears in the last of these.
  • Asshole Victim: A lot of the victims tend to have a lot of people who want them dead. Blackmailers are quite common.
  • Bavarian Fire Drill: Archie's rather good at it, though he tends to drop the act before he gets everything he wants.
  • Big Eater: Sort of. Wolfe eats good food in sizable portions. Mediocre or bad food he will refuse completely or pick at. He also very definitely avoids the "speed eater" aspect that often accompanies Big Eaters; he is adamant that no meal should be rushed, no matter how simple it is, to the point that Archie eats separately in the kitchen if he has a task or appointment that would cause him to rush a meal.
  • Black Market: Wolfe's desperation for a source of meat during WWII food rationing leads to him accepting a job from a crime boss in "Before I Die". He demands (and gets) access to the black market as part of his fee.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: Archie will occasionally break away from the action to address the reader directly.
  • Brilliant, but Lazy: Wolfe. He hates any kind of physical exertion, but still solves the mysteries, just sitting and thinking.
  • Call Back: The novels will often feature brief references to previous cases that Wolfe and Archie have been involved in.
  • Canon Discontinuity: Small ones, here and there. One of the most noticeable is that in the novel The League Of Frightened Men, Inspector Cramer smokes a pipe, rather than his usual cigars. The address of the brownstone also changes once in a while.
  • Casual Danger Dialog: Archie, usually when dealing with the police. In custody he amuses himself by, among other things, seeing how long it takes him to make Lt. Rowcliff so angry he stutters. The oft-mentioned 'record' is two and a half minutes.
  • Catch Phrase: In addition to his Verbal Tic of "Pfui", Wolfe will often dismiss something he's skeptical of as "flummery" and, when he's impressed with or pleased by something (as for instance finally getting hold of the vital clue), will respond with "Satisfactory." When he's really impressed, it's "Very satisfactory."
  • Celibate Eccentric Genius: Wolfe.
  • The Charmer: At some point in the stories, Archie will inevitably be called upon to apply his charms to an attractive woman to try and get information. This is often justified, however; he has quite the knack for understanding women, something Wolfe lacks, and Wolfe will often request that he do this in order that he may ascertain whether the woman in question is lying or hiding something relevant to the case. While not always a master seducer, he does seem to have quite the habit of making at least one good friend among the various women who show up over the course of each case.
  • Comic Book Time: None of the main characters age, but Stout set each story in the current present-day. Word of God is that Wolfe is in his mid fifties, Archie in his early to mid-thirties. Stout said he didn't want to write stories that were dated by their setting but also didn't want to have to deal with aging his characters. This leads to at least one interesting chronological Gordian knot: In Too Many Cooks (1938), a young black waiter whom Wolfe impresses is a small but important part of the plot. He returns as a successful middle-aged man, with a case involving his grown son, in A Right to Die (1964). Wolfe and Archie both clearly recall the earlier case, even though in reality Archie would have been a child and Wolfe in his twenties.
  • Cool Chair: Wolfe's office chair was custom-built to his specifications and has special springs that can support up to 500 pounds. Archie can barely get it to tilt backwards when he tries it out.
  • Cool House: The double brownstone isn't quite a Big Fancy House, but is so lovingly detailed it's become iconic in crime fiction anyway. Given the vast bookshelves, the elevator, the professional-grade kitchen, the hi-tech-for-the-time phone and alarm systems, the orchid rooms on the roof, the kitchen garden, and the see-through front door... it's pretty damn cool.
  • Covers Always Lie: in the Seventies and Eighties, especially. (See also Executive Meddling.)
    • The worst offender has to be the 1984 Bantam reprints, as exemplified by Prisoner's Base. The cover features a white, obviously plastic skull on a wooden pedestal with a streak of blood down one side, the whole thing surrounded by a coil of rope. None of this has the slightest connection with the mystery. Better yet, the accompanying blurb claims that there's a "fifty-fifty chance" the client will die.
    • Too Many Women: The cover shows a young woman and a pistol. Wolfe and Archie investigate two murders, neither of which involves firearms in any way.
    • The short story "A Window for Death" is described in all seriousness in one compilation as containing "glittering international intrigue". How glittering? One of the characters is a uranium miner from Saskatchewan. Yes, that's the "international" part, too.
  • Creator Breakdown: In-universe; the suspect in The League of Frightened Men is a novelist who has written some exceedingly violent books in which versions of his friends, whom he blames for an injury that crippled him years ago when they were at Harvard, meet with very unpleasant ends. This has partly convinced them that he is the one who has murdered two of their number and possibly a third. Wolfe, however, is insightful enough to realize that the author, although violently hateful of his friends, in fact is incapable of murder, and so merely writes about it and is manipulating their fear of him to get revenge. Once Wolfe exposes that he's innocent and thwarts his campaign of terror, the writer resolves to include Wolfe as a character in his next novel.
  • Cryptic Background Reference: Archie often casually mentions past cases, but gives little or no detail about them.
  • The Dandy: Wolfe is very particular about his clothing. He's especially fond of canary yellow - his pyjamas and shirts are always that colour - and the only time he's shown wearing casual wear is in The Black Mountain, when he's traveling through Montenegro. He's so disturbed by dirt that when he gets a spot on his tie he removes the tie immediately. Archie is also a dapper dresser, but not to Wolfe's extent - and he rarely describes his own clothing.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Hinted at times of Wolfe; the details of what he got up to in Montenegro are usually kept quite vague, but his experiences then and there appear to have soured him on idealistic principles and encouraged his hedonistic pursuit of indulgence (his seventh of a ton is intended to 'insulate his feelings' in more than one way, apparently).
  • Deadpan Snarker: Archie is really, really good at this. Wolfe himself has the knack for a cutting remark from time to time.
  • Defective Detective: Wolfe's agitation approaches this when something interrupts his ironclad personal routines. He also has a freely acknowledged phobia of travelling in a car or train (being convinced that any mechanical device is liable to malfunction at any time 'on a whim'). Generally, however, Wolfe arguably inverts the typical presentation of the trope, since he's at his happiest being a kooky shut-in and loathes having to work for whatever reason, meaning that rather than his eccentricities getting in the way of his solving crimes, he tends to view people making him solve crimes as getting in the way of his eccentricities.
  • Detective Patsy: Wolfe often requires his clients to sign a contract that states that no matter what, if Wolfe solves the case — even if it ends with them being implicated in a crime — he'll still get paid. Considering that a surprising number of people seem to think that committing a crime and then hiring the best private detective in New York City, if not the entire world, to solve it in order to throw the scent off themselves is a good idea, this is a wise precaution.
  • Diplomatic Impunity: The crux of the short story "Immune to Murder".
  • Drink Order: Archie's love of milk is a famous subversion of expectation, as hardboiled detectives are generally associated with hard liquor. He also drinks rye and scotch, if he's had a bad day; and brandy or champagne in celebration. Wolfe, on the other hand, drinks beer and brandy, and presumably, wine with his meals.
  • Driven to Suicide: Happens several times to murderers, at Wolfe's veiled instigation, throughout the series, usually for one of two reasons: There's not legal proof of what they did, so if it's left to a trial they'll get away with the crime; or — according to Archie at least — if the killer is tried Wolfe will have to leave his home to testify in court.
  • Early Installment Weirdness:
    • Some extra freelance operatives (Bill Gore and Johnny Keems) hardly get used at times before they are either written out or disappear. The most glaring is the smoking Inspector Cramer does in the first five or six books, even smoking a pipe in the first one, which clashes with his ever present cigar which he only chews on in all subsequent books.
    • In the first book, operative Orrie Cather is described as a crusty old cigar-smoking veteran. By his next appearance — and throughout the rest of the series — he's become a handsome young smooth-talking ladies' man.
    • Archie's a lot quicker with his fists in the earlier books than in later works, where he's more likely to rely on his wits and wisecracks.
    • Archie makes some nasty racist remarks in Too Many Cooks, but becomes a lot more decent very quickly.
  • Enemy Mine: Wolfe and Archie vs. Inspector Cramer, Purley Stebbins, and other police officers. They don't like each other, and both sides love to get the best of the other, but they can and do work together.
  • Exact Words: A common tactic favoured by Wolfe; he prides himself on never lying, but is a master of equivocation when it comes to dealing with Inspector Cramer, among others.
  • Executive Meddling:
    • The covers of the volumes published in the 70's and 80's were horribly inaccurate to the stories inside them; the cover blurbs were worse. It's claimed that the marketing department thought it best to make Stout reprints look like thrillers instead of mysteries, since the traditional mystery had gained a reputation among the general public of being only fit for "pathetic spinsters" who found thrillers and suspense novels too "scary".
    • In Over My Dead Body, Wolfe says that he was born in the US. In every other story that makes mention of his place of birth, he says it was Montenegro. Word of God, in the form of a letter from Rex Stout to his authorized biographer, John McAleer says:
    "In the original draft of Over My Dead Body Nero was a Montenegrin by birth, and it all fitted previous hints as to his background; but violent protests from The American Magazine, supported by [publishers] Farrar & Rinehart, caused his cradle to be transported five thousand miles."
  • FBI Agent: An understandably harsh treatment of the FBI for the time in The Doorbell Rang. See Writer On Board, below.
    • Wolfe has some fun bulldozing the FBI in the short story "Home to Roost," after they refuse to comment on whether the murder victim had been working undercover for them.
  • First-Person Smartass: Archie, who views witty repartee as an art form.
  • Friend on the Force: Inspector Cramer, in a way, and Archie sometimes plays cards with Sergeant Purley Stebbins. These two grudgingly respect Wolfe, but nearly everyone else associated with law enforcement has a much lower opinion.
  • Friendly Rivalry: Archie's interactions with the other private detectives Wolfe engages the services of can touch on this at times, particularly Saul Panzer and Orrie Cather. Goodwin will often note, and sometimes fret, that Panzer and Cather seem to be gunning for his job, but they nevertheless get on quite well, although Archie does seem to be better friends with and hold greater respect for Panzer than Cather overall.
  • Genteel Interbellum Setting:The first six novels (from, roughly, Fer-de-Lance to Some Buried Caesar) are set in this period.
  • Genre Blindness: A surprising amount of perpetrators seem to think that hiring Nero Wolfe's services either before or after they've committed a crime to throw the scent off themselves won't backfire on them in any way.
  • Genre Savvy: Played with; Inspector Cramer and many other law enforcement officials are well aware that Wolfe, as is common for the Great Detective in general, plays games with the truth in his dealings with them and often conceals vital information about the case for his own purposes. However, they are usually mistaken with regard to precisely what Wolfe is actually holding back or develop an exaggerated impression of precisely what and how much he knows. As a result, Wolfe is able to run rings around them despite their savviness. After awhile, he is himself able to manipulate the authorities (up to and including the District Attorney) by leveraging their fear of thus looking ridiculous to make deals—such as having Archie released from jail, or rounding up the suspects—that enable him to close the case with the police looking on.
  • The Gimmick:
    • Wolfe himself has two: his fanatical adherence to his daily schedule, and his adamant refusal to leave his house on business.
    • Rex Stout had one: in virtually every story, he had Wolfe use one unusual or little-used word. Archie sometimes notes that he had to look it up in the dictionary.
  • Great Detective: Wolfe is probably the last iconic example.
  • Hardboiled Detective: Archie and any other other Private Investigator featured, except Wolfe, as noted above, and Fred Durkin, who averts the lone wolf part by having both a wife and children.
    • Archie probably also qualifies under Great Detective just barely. A few times he actually ends up unraveling the case before Wolfe and sits back in amusement watching his boss trying to figure things out.
  • Have a Gay Old Time:
    • Numerous references to 'dicks', ie. detectives (and to Dick as a fairly common male nickname of the time). This becomes especially awkward when 'female dicks' Dol Bonner and Sally Corbett are introduced.
    • Another example is in the short story "Method Three For Murder", where one suspect laments the death of the victim by saying "She was so gay. She was a gay person."
    • Wolfe and Archie also use the word "diddle" in its original meaning of "swindle". In one story Wolfe angrily growls, "I will not be diddled!"
    • One novel has repeated usage of 'ejaculating' as a synonym for 'exclaiming'.
    • Archie will occasionally use the phrase "I got erect" to describe getting up from a supine position. It is perhaps fortunate that he never made any exclamations after getting up...
  • He-Man Woman Hater: Nero Wolfe is openly one of these, but strangely enough his misogyny doesn't extend to sexism in that while Wolfe dislikes women, he doesn't actually disrespect them. He's actually quite tolerant of the occasional strong, independent female visitor to the brownstone. Archie, on the other hand, loves women but doesn't always respect them, and frequently pays for it. In one instance he calls a well-dressed feminist a "phony" and her ideas "stupid" — because women dress well only to attract men and feminists hate men, so a real feminist wouldn't dress well. This, ah, fascinating theory gets his ass handed to him on a platter when she solves the mystery at the same time Wolfe does. It's worth pointing out that Rex Stout was convinced that there was nothing a woman could do that a man couldn't do better - until he read Jane Austen. The above was probably written to poke fun at himself for his earlier opinions. See Writer on Board below for another example.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: More like HLP polyamory; it's hard to imagine the four residents of Wolfe's house functioning well without each other. In fact, whenever they are separated — most notably in The Second Confession — they kind of fall apart.
    • When Theodore Horstmann has to leave town to look after his mother in "Door to Death," Wolfe's desperation to find a replacement orchid nurse leads him and Archie to a country estate and a murder investigation.
    • On the other hand, when Wolfe flees New York during In the Best Families, Archie opens his own detective agency and eventually earns a higher salary than Wolfe had been paying him. Wolfe arranges jobs for Fritz and Theodore.
  • Hey, It's That Voice!: On the radio, Wolfe was voiced by Sydney Greenstreet, best known for his roles in The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca.
  • Hidden Depths: Wolfe, as a general rule, is fat, sedentary, and lazy. However, some poor unfortunate criminals make the tragic mistake of killing those close to him or outright threatening to kill him. At that point, Wolfe decides Let's Get Dangerous and revives the past badassery that heretofore had only been hinted at. In the former, he leaves the U.S. to infiltrate communist Montenegro, hikes through mountains, wins a freaking knife fight, and tricks the murderer into returning to the USA. In the latter, he drops off the face of the Earth, loses considerable weight, assumes a disguise so good even Archie can't recognize him, infiltrates his Arch-Enemy's gang, and then manipulates said Arch-Enemy into receiving a self-inflicted Karmic Death.
    • Likewise Archie enjoys hiding behind the role of Wolfe's sharp-tongued lackey and errand-boy and often presents himself to clients and witnesses as far less moral than he really is. In truth he's an incredibly gifted investigator in his own right (at one point setting up his own agency, even making more money than Wolfe ever paid him) and on a few occasions is able to solve the case before Wolfe does.
  • Honor Before Reason: For all that Wolfe has a rather mercenary reputation because he charges ridiculously high fees, what many of the people who accuse him of being a crook or who assume they can buy him off fail to realise is that he actually has an incredibly rigid code of honour. While Wolfe hates to work, once he's accepted a job absolutely nothing will break his loyalty to his client. He insists on ensuring that a client is satisfied with the result of his investigations and will not tolerate even a hint of extortion or blackmail being involved, usually giving them a right to refuse to pay him if they're unsatisfied with the outcome (they almost always are satisfied, however). He refuses to accept bribes, no matter how high, because if he's going to make money he's going to earn it. And so on.
  • It's Personal: Applied rather more stringently than usual. Wolfe is old-fashioned enough that something as simple as the murder of someone who enjoyed his hospitality can obligate him to take a case, sometimes without even monetary reward. And that's for people he doesn't know...
  • I Gave My Word: Wolfe's uneasy truce with Cramer depends heavily on this.
  • Inscrutable Oriental: Played with/lampshaded by suspect Cherry Quon, who is actually called an "inscrutable Oriental" by Archie, and manages to live up to it while noting how silly it is that Americans see Asians this way.
  • Inspector Lestrade: Inspector Cramer. Though there are many hints of mutual respect between Cramer and Wolfe throughout the books (as well as between Archie and Sgt. Stebbins), they really don't like each other much. It's often stated that Cramer is not a bad detective, but he has a bad habit of jumping to a preferred conclusion based on obvious evidence and sticking to it without looking harder at anything more subtle. (Although this is subverted, interestingly, when Stout starred Cramer in his own solo mystery novel, Red Threads.) It should also be noted that compared to some of the other cops and law enforcement officials who show up, a large percentage of whom seem to be authoritarian bullies who are quick to leap to erroneous conclusions because it lets them throw their weight around more or spineless political careerists terrified of making a single step lest it ruin their chances for advancement, Cramer is a certified genius.
  • Insistent Terminology:
    • Archie describes Wolfe as weighing "a seventh of a ton".
    • Wolfe's office chair is "the only chair [Wolfe] enjoyed sitting in."
    • Archie often mentions that he goes 'dancing' with Lily Rowan and several other ladies throughout the novels. Whether he means this entirely literally or is Getting Crap Past the Radar for other activities he might be getting up to with these ladies is left to the reader to decide.
  • Insufferable Genius: Nero.
    Archie (complimenting Fritz, on tasting his breakfast): "There are two geniuses in this house. One of them is easy to live with. You may tell the other one I said so."
  • Insult Backfire: Wolfe is well aware that he is fat, and is usually quite unruffled whenever anyone tries to use his weight as an insult.
  • Knight in Sour Armor: For all his cynicism and snark, deep down Archie is quite the romantic knight-errand, and will unhesitatingly throw himself headlong into trouble in the name of a good cause (in particular if the cause in question is a pretty lady who needs his help).
  • Last Name Basis: The number of people who call Wolfe by his first name to his face can be counted on one hand.
  • Like an Old Married Couple: As might be expected for a couple of men who live in the same house and have a working relationship based heavily on one man nagging the other into working when he doesn't want to, Wolfe and Archie's bickering can sometimes take on this edge.
  • Long Runner: 33 novels and 39 short stories published between 1934 and 1974, with the original run ended only by Author Existence Failure. A further seven novels were officially sanctioned and published between 1986 and 1994 by another author, with a prequel in 2012.
  • Man Child: Wolfe has some tendencies towards this from time to time; he can get very petulant and petty if his routines are disturbed or if what he wants doesn't happen exactly when he wants it.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • Nero Wolfe lives a hedonistic lifestyle that any Roman emperor would envy and even though he rarely leaves his home has impeccable hunting instincts when it comes to seeking out his 'prey'. In essence, he lives the life of Nero and has the instincts of a wolf.
    • Archie Goodwin, as one commentator noted, is a classic example of the decent-hearted Everyman who tends to come out on top in the scrapes he finds himself in due to his wits. Or in other words, he's the Arch(i)etypal Good man who wins.
  • Memetic Sex God: In-universe; Wolfe, who has little-to-no comprehension of or ability with women whatsoever, seems to view Archie as something like this. Archie quite likes the idea but is willing to admit he's not quite the ladykiller Wolfe seems to believe he is.
  • Mrs. Robinson: Although Archie himself prefers younger ladies, his charms work very well on several of the older women who appear throughout the stories.
  • Mr. Vice Guy: Wolfe, arguably.
  • Morality Pet: Archie seems to serve as Wolfe's conscience in many ways, since it's his job to badger, prod and poke Wolfe out of his indulgent complacency and do the right thing, and Archie is often quick with condemnation when he feels that Wolfe has stepped over the line. Played with, in that Wolfe's conscience is not easily troubled and he has little problem ignoring Archie when he feels like it.
  • Multiple Choice Past A mild case. In the novel the Second Confession Wolfe gives prospective clients an exposition of his life, saying that he was born in the U.S. In every other story where he mentions his youth, he says he was born in Montenegro. (However, see Executive Meddling above for the real reason for this.)
  • Muse Abuse: The plot of Murder Writes The Book revolves around a law clerk who wrote a roman a clef about a lawyer who exposed another lawyer's jury-tampering to the court in order to get him disbarred so that the first lawyer could take his job, which was based on events at the very law firm he worked for.
  • Narrative Profanity Filter: Archie routinely uses the second version (usually beginning with "He pronounced a word that...'). The stated reason is that he, in character as the 'author' of the books — and hence probably acting as a mouthpiece for Stout's own reasoning — knows that women and children are among his readership.
    • One of the best:
    Archie: It called for profanity, and I used some, out loud. I don't apologize for either the profanity or the situation. I would have done it again in the same circumstances.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Inspector Cramer and the other cops can verge on this; although Wolfe does play fast and loose with the law, Cramer can often let his resentment, jealousy and dislike of Wolfe interfere with his good sense and go out of his way to obstruct Wolfe out of spite, even when it would benefit him more to let Wolfe continue unopposed.
  • Offscreen Teleportation: In the opening scene of Some Buried Caesar, Archie and Wolfe are taking a short-cut across a field when they discover there's an angry bull in it. Archie runs for the fence. When he makes it to the other side, he turns to see that Wolfe is now on top of a large boulder in the middle of the field, completely composed, with no clear sign of how he got there so fast, or climbed it, given how overweight and out-of-shape he is. Archie is (briefly) speechless.
  • Only in It for the Money: Wolfe hates to work but he needs to pay for his expensive tastes and equally expensive orchids, hence his outrageous fees.
  • Outlived Its Creator: Following Stout's death in 1975, his estate gave Robert Goldsborough authorization to continue the series. Between 1986 and 1994 he wrote 7 more Nero Wolfe novels. Reception was mixed.
  • Pet the Dog: All the time, but in one case, used literally. In the novella "Die Like a Dog," Archie brings a big black Labrador retriever home and announces he plans to keep it, as a ploy to annoy Wolfe into working. However, it backfires on him when Wolfe takes a liking to the dog - it turns out he used to own a similar dog in his youth. The ending implies that they wound up keeping him, renaming him from Bootsie to Jet. (Though it never actually appears again in-canon.)
    • As an immigrant to America himself, Wolfe frequently comes as close as he gets to demonstrating a heart of gold if the case he's dealing with touches on the plight of impoverished and desperate immigrants needing his help.
  • Photographic Memory: Archie was trained by Wolfe to have this. He can parrot conversations word-for-word that go on for hours. Saul Panzer needs only a brief look at someone, and he can remember their face until the day he dies.
  • Pride: Many characters have it to an extent, but Wolfe's overshadows them all. If someone suggests (through word or deed) that they think Wolfe is cheap, cowardly, or stupid, he will make them regret it. Unlike classic hubris, Wolfe's pride rarely backfires on him, and when it does (e.g., if he finds he's been barking up the wrong tree), he's the first to admit his mistake.
  • Private Investigator: Wolfe and Archie, of course, but also many of the corps of supporting characters: Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin, Orrie Cather, Bill Gore, and Johnny Keems, who are all freelancers who Wolfe employs; Theodolinda (Dol) Bonner, who runs her own detective business and Sally Colt (also called Sally Corbett), one of her employees; and Del Bascom, another competitor, who Wolfe freely admits is the better choice when sheer manpower is all that is needed.
  • Reality Ensues: The series can be seen as applying this concept to many of the tropes of classic detective fiction. For example, the "brilliant detective who lives a fairly luxurious lifestyle despite having no apparent income" archetype is here explained by the fact that when he does solve mysteries, he charges ridiculously high fees for doing so — which in turn gives him a mercenary reputation and occasional money troubles. The brilliant Amateur Sleuth who's always showing up the bumbling Inspector Lestrades with his razor-sharp deductive skills is consequently resented by pretty much everyone with a badge for it. The Watson hangs around and helps out partly out of respect and admiration, but mostly because he's actually the Great Detective's employee and go-getter. And so forth.
  • Sacred Hospitality: An interesting case; Wolfe is a misanthrope and a recluse with little interest in company outside of a rare circle, but except in rare circumstances if someone is prevailing upon his hospitality he will be in every part the impeccable host, allowing them to dine and sleep under his roof even if they have been accused or suspected of murder. In several cases, however, it is largely to make sure that a suspect with every reason to flee remains right where Wolfe wants him or her to be.
  • Sarcastic Devotee: Archie to Wolfe. It's actually a part of Goodwin's unofficial job description. Without Archie to goad him into taking cases, Wolfe would otherwise just eat and tend his orchids.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: Wolfe is possessive of a rather grandiose and expansive vocabulary; Rex Stout made a point of having Wolfe use at least one rare or obscure word in every story. Often subject to snarky lampshading by the less-loquacious Archie, who frequently comments that he has to consult a dictionary just to understand what his boss has just told him.
  • Sharp-Dressed Man: Archie who, while less fastidious than his employer, is still presented as stylish and well-dressed.
  • Speech Impediment: Lieutenant Rowcliff, when he gets riled up or flustered, starts stuttering. So naturally Archie makes a point of getting him riled up as quickly as possible when in his custody.
  • Supporting Protagonist: Sort of. Both Wolfe and Archie are equally important to the premise but it's Archie the reader follows, professionally and usually personally, throughout the story.
  • Supreme Chef: Fritz.
  • Taking You with Me: Near the end of In the Best Families, Wolfe and Archie engineer a meeting between crime boss Arnold Zeck and a murder suspect who used to work for him. Realizing he's completely screwed no matter what happens (a choice between jail time or Zeck's wrath), the suspect grabs a gun and kills Zeck, only to be immediately killed by the bodyguards waiting just outside the meeting room.
  • Trademark Favorite Food:
    • Archie really, really likes milk. He's also quite fond of ham-on-rye or corned beef sandwiches.
    • Wolfe loves shad roe so much that it's served at almost every lunch and dinner during the short time it's in season. Archie is sick of it by the time the season is over.
  • Tuckerization: Lieutenant George Rowcliff — he of the angry stutter — was based on Lieutenant Gilbert Rowcliff, an officer who'd made Stout's life a living hell when he was serving aboard Theodore Roosevelt's yacht. Years later, Stout professed himself wryly amused when Rear Admiral Rowcliff was named Judge Advocate General of the Navy.
  • Undying Loyalty: Archie will often hint at disloyalty towards Wolfe towards a client, but this is usually just to get their guard down and see if they might be willing to take advantage of this (and, consequently, whether they might have something to hide or fear from Wolfe). In truth, his loyalty towards Wolfe is completely unbreakable.
  • Verbal Tic: Wolfe's dismissive "Pfui". Archie sometimes retorts with "Phooey."
  • What the Hell, Hero?: It's actually part of Archie's job to deliver these to Wolfe on a semi-regular basis in order to keep him motivated. He delivers an epic one in The Golden Spiders after a boy who visits Wolfe is killed.
  • Worthy Opponent: The first couple of times they cross swords, Arnold Zeck expresses a reluctance to outright kill Nero Wolfe because the world is "a more interesting place" with Wolfe occupying it.
  • Writer on Board:
    • Stout loathed J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, and for good reason: he was investigated during the Red Scare and came very close to being blacklisted, as his strident anti-Communism wasn't enough to defer Hoover's suspicion that any prominent liberal must be a fellow traveller. Stout eventually published an enormous Take That against Hoover in The Doorbell Rang.
    • He was as strongly anti-Communist as he was anti-Hoover. The Second Confession and the short story "Home to Roost" show Communists as not just dangerous and violent but also stupid and willfully ignorant.
    • The entire oeuvre is full of Writer on Board, but Stout sometimes uses it to poke fun at himself. In the novel Gambit, he has Archie holding back a snicker as Wolfe furiously burns a hated dictionary in the office fireplace because it stated that "imply" and "infer" were synonyms. In real life, Stout had been one of the loudest voices denouncing that particular dictionary.
    • Wolfe is often shown reading real-world books that Stout himself had read, including "The FBI Nobody Knows" in The Doorbell Rang and "Mathematics for the Million" in The Zero Clue. Word of God is that he likewise shares his creator's reverence for Jane Austen.
  • X Meets Y: A Hardboiled Detective works for a Great Detective; They Fight Crime.
  • You Keep Using That Word: A literal In-Universe invocation: Wolfe dislikes the use of "contact" as a verb, and (as mentioned above) once burned a dictionary because it claimed that "imply" and "infer" were synonyms.

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alternative title(s): Nero Wolfe
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