Literature / Nero Wolfe

http://static.tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pub/images/nero_wolfe_gordon800_fs.jpg
Nero Wolfe, hard at work.

Nothing is simpler than to kill a man. The difficulties arise in attempting to avoid the consequences.
Nero Wolfe, Too Many Cooks

A series of 33 novels and 39 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 note " ('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 regards to 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 main police presence, many steps up the competence ladder from Holmesian bobbies—and much more realistically resentful of a civilian wielding such power, but both aware that they can't do anything about it and cognizant of the times that Wolfe can get results by doing something they can't. A set of lesser law enforcement characters are less competent, more resentful, and pettier, trying to stop Wolfe or somehow catch him out.

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 incorporated this theory. This is all sometimes extended to name Archie in turn as Wolfe's son or nephew, 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.

     Novels in the Nero Wolfe series 
  • Fer-de-lance (1934)
  • The League of Frightened Men (1935)
  • The Rubber Band (1936)
  • The Red Box (1937)
  • Too Many Cooks (1938)
  • Some Buried Caesar (1939)
  • Over My Dead Body (1940)
  • Where There's a Will (1940)
  • The Silent Speaker (1946)
  • Too Many Women (1947)
  • And Be a Villain (1948)
  • The Second Confession (1949)
  • In the Best Families (1950)
  • Murder by the Book (1951)
  • Prisoner's Base (1952)
  • The Golden Spiders (1953)
  • The Black Mountain (1954)
  • Before Midnight (1955)
  • Might as Well Be Dead (1956)
  • If Death Ever Slept (1957)
  • Champagne for One (1958)
  • Plot It Yourself (1959)
  • Too Many Clients (1960)
  • The Final Deduction (1961)
  • Gambit (1962)
  • The Mother Hunt (1963)
  • A Right to Die (1964)
  • The Doorbell Rang (1965)
  • Death of a Doxy (1966)
  • The Father Hunt (1968)
  • Death of a Dude (1969)
  • Please Pass the Guilt (1973)
  • A Family Affair (1975)

     Novella collections 
  • Black Orchids (1942; contains "Black Orchids" and "Cordially Invited to Meet Death")
  • Not Quite Dead Enough (1944; contains "Not Quite Dead Enough" and "Booby Trap")
  • Trouble in Triplicate (1949; contains "Before I Die", "Help Wanted, Male" and "Instead of Evidence")
  • Three Doors to Death (1950; contains "Man Alive", "Omit Flowers" and "Door to Death")
  • Curtains for Three (1951; contains "The Gun with Wings", "Bullet for One" and "Disguise for Murder")
  • Triple Jeopardy (1952; contains "Home to Roost", "The Cop-Killer" and "The Squirt and the Monkey")
  • Three Men Out (1954; contains "Invitation to Murder", "The Zero Clue" and "This Won't Kill You")
  • Three Witnesses (1956; contains "The Next Witness", "When a Man Murders" and "Die Like a Dog")
  • Three for the Chair (1957; contains "A Window for Death", "Immune to Murder" and "Too Many Detectives")
  • And Four to Go (1958; contains "Christmas Party", "Easter Parade", "Fourth of July Picnic" and "Murder Is No Joke")
  • Three at Wolfe's Door (1960; contains "Poison à la Carte", "Method Three for Murder" and "The Rodeo Murder")
  • Homicide Trinity (1962; contains "Eeny Meeny Murder Mo", "Death of a Demon" and "Counterfeit for Murder")
  • Trio for Blunt Instruments (1964; contains "Kill Now—Pay Later", "Murder Is Corny" and "Blood Will Tell")
  • Death Times Three (1985; posthumous, contains "Bitter End", "Frame-Up for Murder" and "Assault on a Brownstone")

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)
    • Cracking a woman's skull and wrist at once while dual-wielding beer bottles (Over My Dead Body)
    • Hiking for miles through the foothills of Yugoslavia with Archie, even if he does complain all the time about sore feet (The Black Mountain)
    • Kicking a woman under the chin, hard enough to send her reeling across his office, just by tilting backwards in his chair (Champagne for One)
    • In a less drastic sense, Archie frequently notes that Wolfe moves with grace, agility and coordination that most people wouldn't expect from a man of his size. Also see Offscreen Teleportation, below.
  • 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.
    • It's also suggested that Archie may or may not be selling the cases as stories, and murders pay better.
  • 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: Rex Stout worked with this a lot; victims are often at least fairly-unpleasant people:
    • Of particular note is Philip Laszio in Too Many Cooks, who apparently makes it his hobby to be an absolute back-stabbing prick to everyone he comes across and to spitefully annoy as many extremely hot-tempered highly-strung egotists with a penchant for threatening death on their enemies as possible. The novel even opens with a man ranting not just about how he has a motive to kill Laszio, but how pretty much everyone else you're about to meet has plenty of reasons to as well.
  • Bavarian Fire Drill: Archie's rather good at it, though he tends to drop the act before he gets everything he wants.
  • Beleaguered Bureaucrat: Over My Dead Body features a minor version in the form of an FBI agent who, in a Running Gag, keeps popping in at various intervals in the story to badger Wolfe over his status as an agent for foreign nationals, only to be faced with some bureaucratic detail which he didn't anticipate and which forces him to scurry away again to try and find some clarification for it.
  • Big Eater: Sort of.
    • Wolfe eats good food in sizable portions. Mediocre or bad food he will refuse completely or pick at. While he is a gourmet he will never disparage good food simply because it comes from a "low" source. In one book he is shown to be very fond of a particular diner's chili, and when forced to hide out in Saul Panzer's apartment he compliments him on his choice of cheese at the rather humble table Saul provides. 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.
    • Archie often asks Fritz for a huge breakfast if he's had a long night, either doing errands for Wolfe or being questioned by the police.
  • 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.
  • 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."
    • One of Saul Panzer's preferred ejaculations is "Lovin' babe!". In Fer-de-lance when Archie uses it a couple of times, Wolfe tells him to stop; he will tolerate it from Saul, but not from Archie.
  • Celibate Eccentric Genius: Wolfe.
  • Character Tic: Wolfe has a tendency to wiggle/waggle his finger at people while lecturing them.
  • 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.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Subverted with the alarm system in/around Wolfe's room. Archie repeatedly describes the way in which it's set up to ring a gong under his own bed if someone tries to break in, but in 72 stories, it is never set off.
  • 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.
  • Confess to a Lesser Crime: In The Second Confession, one of the characters confesses to having borrowed Wolfe's car and accidentally hit a passerby in the dark. Wolfe eventually discovers that he confessed to this because he didn't want anyone to realise that he actually intended to murder the passerby, and by confessing to an accidental hit-and-run he thought the police wouldn't look any further.
  • Cool Chair: Wolfe's office chair was custom-built to his specifications and has special springs that can support up to 500 pounds. It's the only chair he really enjoys sitting in. 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, the painting and its peephole in the office, and the one-way glass in the front door... it's pretty damn cool.
  • Courtroom Antics: Played with in "The Next Witness"; on a rare occasion that Wolfe can't wriggle out of testifying at a murder trial to which he is tangentially connected, when sitting in the courtroom waiting to be called to the stand Wolfe realises from the testimony of another witness that there's a frame-up afoot, and is so disgusted by a nearby woman's perfume that he storms out of court to find the real culprit. This means that the trial is thrown into chaos and that there's a warrant put out for his arrest for contempt of court, essentially meaning that he causes courtroom antics when he's not even there. And then, when he's figured out who actually did it, he plays some fancy footwork with the defendant in order to goad the prosecutor into asking a question which will enable him to reveal the truth on the stand, thus voiding the contempt charge by making it redundant.
  • Covers Always Lie: in the Seventies and Eighties, especially. (See also Executive Meddling on the YMMV page.)
    • 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. And the "intrigue" is a garden-variety murder.
  • 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.
  • Crying Wolf: A variation. The authorities know full well that Wolfe plays games with the truth, holds back vital information for his own purposes and makes an art-form out of Exact Words, and so tend to regard everything he says with skepticism. But they also have a tendency to misjudge precisely what information Wolfe is holding back and precisely what he does and doesn't know, and so tend to default to automatically distrusting everything Wolfe says. In particular, there are times when it seems like Wolfe can't send Archie out to get groceries without Inspector Cramer storming into the brownstone mere hours later to demand to know exactly who Wolfe's client is, what he knows about the crime and who the perpetrator is.
  • Cryptic Background Reference: Archie often casually mentions past cases, but gives little or no detail about them. Some verge on Noodle Incident
  • The Dandy: Both Wolfe and Archie
    • 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. In "A Window for Death", the rough-and-ready uranium miner asks him about the suit he was wearing when they first met, and Archie spends a good bit of time bringing the man up to speed on dressing well, including what type of hat is appropriate to wear when.
  • 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.
  • Death of a Child: In The Golden Spiders, the first murder victim (that we learn about) is Pete Drossos, a twelve-year-old boy who goes to Wolfe after he thinks he witnesses a woman being kidnapped. He's later killed in a hit-and-run.
  • Defective Detective: Wolfe's agitation approaches this when something interrupts his ironclad personal routines. He also has a freely-acknowledged phobia of traveling 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:
    • 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 tobacco-chewing 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.
    • The earliest books generally make much greater play of the contrast between rarefied intellectual Wolfe and crudely unsophisticated Archie. As a particularly awkward side effect of this, Goodwin makes some nasty racist remarks, notably in Fer-de-lance and Too Many Cooks, that are clearly intended to highlight Wolfe's own more enlightened views. Luckily, the whole rather pretentious conceit is dropped within a few books, and Archie becomes a lot more decent—not to say intelligent—very quickly.
    • In some of the earliest novels, Wolfe occasionally suffers what Archie calls a "relapse" - either eating nothing but bread and soup, or preparing one lavish gourmet meal after another with help from Fritz. The underlying cause is never explained, and Archie develops a knack for heading them off before they disappear from the canon altogether.
    • Not exactly an Early Installment Weirdness (as there had been fourteen novels and fifteen novellas by this point), but in his first appearance in "The Squirt and the Monkey" Wolfe's lawyer is named Henry George Parker. In later appearances, he's Nathaniel Parker.
  • Escalating War: A downplayed example, but a Running Gag in the series is that Wolfe and Archie, when they’re particularly irritated with each other, will do whatever they can to try to make the other as uncomfortable as possible, with the other inevitably responding to try and one-up the first. On the most extreme examples, they’ve managed to get themselves embroiled in all kinds of tricky, questionably profitable cases and trouble just because one, to try and trap the other, has agreed to get involved and the other is too proud or stubborn to back down.
  • 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.
  • Expy: Wolfe has inspired one; Loren D. Estleman's "Claudius Lyon", who is Wolfe's Hero-Worshipper in-universe and has tried to mimick Wolfe's lifestyle in as much detail as possible without being sued or tripping over his own limitations.
  • 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.
  • Formerly Fit: Wolfe, apparently. In Too Many Cooks he casually mentions having been on a mission for the Spanish government in his youth, which took him across several countries.
  • 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. The period is generally agreed to have ended with the onset of World War II, and Stout wrote no Wolfe novels (but two short stories) from Pearl Harbor until the end of the war.
  • 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 at least 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 himself is something of a subversion, as he's pretty chipper and optimistic (after all, he started as a good Midwestern boy before coming to the city). Accordingly, he prefers a glass of milk to Scotch.
    • 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.
  • Heroic B.S.O.D.: Archie spends a substantial part of the middle of In The Best Families in one of these after Wolfe disappears; he's notably curt and snappish with people in a way that is distinctly out of character, at one point just spends hours driving aimlessly around Manhattan, and spends a few weeks at least just going through the motions sitting around Wolfe's office wondering if he's ever going to show up. It's not until he finally decides "screw it" and goes into business for himself as an independent private investigator that he begins to perk up a bit.
  • 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 (although he does note that he finds the work a lot less interesting). Wolfe arranges jobs for Fritz (who never stops worrying about Wolfe) and Theodore.
  • 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. With regards to this trope, he most particularly finds himself bound by honor to work against his own interests when something compels him (usually the death of a client or potential client) to investigate a case for little-to-no fee at all.
  • Human Mail: In The Doorbell Rang, Wolfe and Archie set a trap for the FBI by smuggling Saul, Fred, Orrie, and two actors into the brownstone, packed up in orchid crates.
  • 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; when one of his close friends is murdered, he takes off to Montenegro to catch the killer.
  • I Gave My Word: Wolfe's uneasy truce with Cramer depends heavily on this. This also ties back to Exact Words. He's very precise in what he'll promise, because he will keep that promise.
  • 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 many 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". That's ~285 pounds, but since it sounds like much more when phrased Archie's way, and because he pretty much only refers to Wolfe's weight when he thinks Wolfe is slacking or is otherwise mildly miffed at him...
    • Wolfe's office chair is "the only chair [Wolfe] enjoyed sitting in."
    • Archie also tends to discuss corpses, even of people he knows, in a removed, even dehumanised manner ('it' or 'the object' rather than 'he' or 'she', for example).
  • 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.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: A very very deeply buried heart of gold, perhaps, and insulated along with his feelings by the large amounts of fat he carries. But there are occasional signs that underneath Wolfe's cynicism, apathy and coldness, there's a slightly more caring individual than he wants to admit. In particular, he tends to come closest he gets to displaying these tendencies when the case he's working on touches on the plight of immigrants; as a man who himself was an impoverished immigrant who prospered and thrived after arriving in America, he presumably feels a kindred spirit. And, of course, he's a lot fonder of Archie than he lets on.
  • Jurisdiction Friction:
    • Between the New York Police and the FBI in "The Doorbell Rang",
    • Between the New York Police and the Treasury Department/Secret Service in "Counterfeit For Murder" (first published as "The Counterfeiter's Knife", and an early draft was published posthumously as "Assault on a Brownstone".)
  • Knight in Sour Armor: For all his cynicism and snark, deep down Archie is quite the romantic knight-errant, 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 regularly call Wolfe by his first name to his face can be counted on one hand. Let's see, there, Marko Vukčić, and... that's it. In In The Best Families, Wolfe states that Marko is the only person in New York City who calls him by his first name. His preferred contact in Europe, Ethelbert (later Gregory) Hitchcock, may, (the readers never hear Hitchcock's side of any conversation) but probably doesn't, since Wolfe refers to him always as "Mr. Hitchcock".
  • Leave Behind a Pistol: On more than one occasion, Wolfe arranges for a guilty party to settle accounts by themselves rather than face the indignity and humiliation of a trial and conviction. According to Archie, his motives may be less about honor and more about making sure he manages to solve the case (and claim his fee) while simultaneously ensuring he doesn't have to leave his house to testify at a trial.
  • 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.
  • Literary Allusion Title: Some Buried Caesar is from Edward FitzGerald's Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám:
    I sometimes think that never blows so red
    The Rose as where some buried Caesar bled
  • Luxurious Liquor: This is part of the titular investigator's Bunny-Ears Lawyer life: as a hedonistic shut-in, he conducts his business from a well-appointed brownstone while knocking back six quarts of his preferred beer every day. When he vows to go dry until a particular killer is caught, it's seen as very Serious Business.
  • Manchild: 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.
  • 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.
  • Multiple-Choice Past: A mild case. In the novel Over My Dead Body, Wolfe tells a G-man 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 on the YMMV page for the real reason for this.)
  • Muse Abuse: The plot of Murder by 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, distrust, 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.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business:
    • On the very rare occasions that Wolfe is willing to break his usual habits, it means that he's been seriously shaken. In Plot It Yourself, after three murders are committed in quick succession, Wolfe vows not to drink any beer or eat any meat until he finds the killer.
    • In "Not Quite Dead Enough", the outbreak of World War II sees Wolfe, convinced that he "didn't kill enough Germans in 1918", in a fit of patriotism abandon all his old habits and his detective business and begin to 'train' in order to enlist as a GI to fight in Europe. As his intelligence is a lot more useful to the country than his fighting skills (and as his training regime is hilariously ineffective), it's up to Archie to find a way of convincing him get back into his old habits and resume his detective work for the government as a counter-intelligence operative.
    • The Black Mountain involves Wolfe travelling from New York to Montenegro via three planes, a boat ride and a long hike through the mountains in order to expose the killer personally.
  • Out-of-Genre Experience: While most of the stories are armchair-detective murder mysteries, The Black Mountain is more of an adventure story with elements of a 1950s Cold War spy thriller bolted onto it.
  • Photographic Memory: Thanks to Wolfe's training, Archie can repeat hours-long conversations word-for-word. Saul Panzer needs only a brief look at someone, and he can remember their face until the day he dies.
  • Police Are Useless: Well, not entirely, but they're clearly shown to be not up to the job when Wolfe and Archie are around.
    • In The Doorbell Rang, the FBI are terrified that Wolfe's going to link a murder to one of their own operatives and so harass him and his client constantly, and the police vengefully want Wolfe to do so after being given the run-around by the FBI. It turns out, however, that the real murderer was lurking under their noses all the time. If the FBI hadn't been so consumed with spitefully harassing Wolfe's client after she embarrassed them or hounding Wolfe out of paranoia, and if the police had been able to get over their Jurisdiction Friction with the FBI, either one of them could have solved the murder without Wolfe getting involved at all.
    • Wolfe does take numerous opportunities to compliment the efficiency and rigor of police procedure, both to clients and in private; he delays getting involved in high-profile cases until it's clear they're making no progress, and Archie considers it a clear sign of desperation when his instructions focus on any detail the police should already be covering.
    • This is discussed in one novel when Inspector Cramer refers to Wolfe's claim that the police are sufficient to handle nine out of ten homicide cases, and that it's the tenth one that requires his particular genius. Cramer dryly notes that he actually has successfully closed nine homicide cases since the last one Wolfe was involved with.
  • 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.
  • Punch-Clock Hero: Wolfe is this in many of the stories; he's usually involved in the mystery just to earn his fee out of solving it and has no particular personal attachment to those involved. He also rigidly maintains his routines of spending the hours of nine to eleven and four to six with his orchids and no discussions of business during meals. On some occasions, however, honor demands that he solve the case without a fee, and on especially rare occasions he's been called upon to interrupt his habits.
  • 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 very small 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.
    • In some cases Wolfe is in the role of guest; while not quite so gracious he takes the duty of protecting the peace and privacy of his host's home equally severely. Once, having deduced another guest as a murderer and carried out his duty to inform the police, he arranges for an errand to clear out the household, and for said guest to escape and be caught by the highway patrol well off the premises - before the local police arrive with a search warrant at the empty and locked-up house, all because, to him, it would be a serious breach of his duties as their guest to put his hosts through that turmoil if he could prevent it.
  • 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.
  • Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: The various law-enforcement officials Wolfe and Archie come into contact with tend to feel threatened by Wolfe being present during on of their investigations and, worried that he is going to hold out on or humiliate them, go out of their way to treat him with hostility and suspicion, up to and including accusing him of being involved somehow and even having him arrested. Needless to say, this completely antagonizes Wolfe and results in him devoting himself to solving the case... by holding out on the authorities and completely humiliating them when he ends up solving the case before them. If they just dropped the attitude and treated him with civility, he’d probably stop doing it.
  • Series Continuity Error: Small ones here and there, such as:
    • In The League of Frightened Men, Inspector Cramer makes his first appearance smoking a pipe instead of chewing on his usual cigars.
    • The address of the brownstone changes from time to time.
    • Whether or not Fritz fries chicken.
    • Saul Panzer's marital status, and Orrie Cather's full first name.
    • Cramer's first name/initials (given as Fergus in Where There's a Will, and as L.T. in The Silent Speaker).
    • Wolfe's knowledge of cooking. The early novella "Bitter End" has him resorting to canned food when Fritz is out sick, but other novels and stories depict him as a skilled cook in his own right.
    • Wolfe's birthplace. In Over My Dead Body, he tells an FBI agent that he was born in the United States, but the rest of the canon includes several mentions of his birth and early life in Montenegro. "The Cop-Killer" ends with his statement that he's been a naturalized US citizen for 24 years.
  • Serious Business: Wolfe's rigid routines tend to fall here, but in particular his agoraphobia and distrust of cars/trains/transport in general tends to make him treat even the shortest and most inconsequential of commutes as if he were embarking across the Andes by donkey.
  • 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.
  • Sherlock Homage: Or a Holmes Homage, at least, since while he has some similarities to the Great Detective in general his indolence, obesity and refusal to break his routines or leave his house for all but the most diabolical circumstances suggest Mycroft Holmes rather than Sherlock. In a more literal sense, several stories mention that he keeps a framed portrait of Sherlock Holmes on the walls of his office as a tribute.
  • Speech Impediment: Lieutenant Rowcliff starts stuttering when he gets angry or flustered. Naturally Archie makes a point of bringing Rowcliff to this state whenever he's taken in for questioning, and even deliberately stutters a bit himself to finish the job. He makes a game of seeing how fast he can do it.
  • 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.
  • Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: 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.
  • Thinking Tic: Whenever Archie sees Wolfe close his eyes and start pushing his lips in and out, he knows Wolfe's brain has just gone into overdrive. It's the only time Archie knows for sure that Wolfe is working, and he never interrupts it.
  • This Bear Was Framed: In Some Buried Caesar, a champion bull is framed for goring the first victim.
  • Title Drop: The Doorbell Rang. Also arguably combined with a Crowning Moment of Awesome: It's the last line of the novel, and Wolfe is making a visitor who is heavily implied to be J Edgar Hoover, the immensely powerful director of the FBI, wait on his doorstep.
  • 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.
  • Urban Legend Love Life: Wolfe, who has little-to-no comprehension of or ability with women whatsoever, seems to view Archie as something like The Casanova. Archie quite likes the idea but is willing to admit he's not quite the ladykiller Wolfe seems to believe he is.
  • Verbal Tic: Wolfe's dismissive "Pfui". Archie sometimes retorts with "Phooey" or "Nuts," the last of which Inspector Cramer likes to use as well.
  • The Watson: Archie plays with this trope; he's a detective himself, and a pretty good one (who occasionally solves the case before Wolfe), but he's the narrator of all the mysteries Wolfe gets involved in and so a lot of the time writes them so that the reader won't work out too quickly exactly what's going on. He is also often legitimately forced to question exactly what Wolfe's thinking and doing, but is generally snarkier about it than the usual example.
  • We Want Our Jerk Back: A variation appears in "Not Quite Dead Enough"; after the outbreak of World War II, Wolfe is struck by a fit of patriotism, abandons all his old habits and vices — including his detective work — and begins to lose weight in order to enlist as a GI. However, his training regime is hilariously ineffective and the government would rather put his brilliance to work as a counter-intelligence operative, meaning Archie has to figure out a way to get him to abandon his quixotic pursuit and return to his old habits.
  • 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.
  • Who Murdered the Asshole?: A lot of the victims tend to have a lot of people who want them dead. Blackmailers are quite common.
  • 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.
  • 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.

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Literature/NeroWolfe