From the Mailbag: Reading the Wolfe Books for the First Time

I received this email in response to my Happy Birthday, Archie! post last week.

Soooooo, each year you post this, each year I say I’m going to start…just put a request in for Fer-de-Lance, the first of the Nero Wolfe books, right?

Thanks for the question! This is a tricky one for me, and one that I’ve thought too long about already. I’m going to write for the person already interested in the series, and not to convince you to read them — this is practical advice only, no incitement.

Short answer: Maybe.

Longer answer (which I’ll still try to keep under control, because I tend to be hard to stop on this subject, and some of this is adapted from other things I’ve written. Also, because if I start fact-checking some of this, I’ll find myself spending hours, even days, on this, so I might make some minor errors)*:
Rex Stout’s Fer-de-Lance is the first of 40+ books (novels or short story collections) featuring the exploits of private investigator Archie Goodwin (2 parts Huck Finn, 1 part Philip Marlowe) and his eccentric employer, Nero Wolfe (1 part Sherlock Holmes, 1 part Mycroft Holmes)–yes, I am one of those who think that Archie’s the main character in the mis-nomered Nero Wolfe Mysteries. It makes perfect sense to start with Fer-de-Lance and read chronologically. I did it myself a couple of years back for the first time (I’ve been reading these books for about 30 years now, and its odd that it took me so long), and I picked up subtle nuances, little callbacks and references that I’d missed before. There are almost no story or character arcs that go beyond a book (exceptions are noted below), and (most of) those that do, are easy enough to pick up and don’t spoil too much. Yes, there are introductions of new characters, a character death or two, but by and large you can dip in anywhere and not notice.

    Two quick semi-parenthetical notes on the reading this chronologically before I continue.

  • Yes, read the short story collections when you come across them in the chronology. Even if you’re not a short fiction reader, do it. There are some utter gems tucked away in those (and I spent too much time ignoring them).
  • The short story collection Death Times Three was published posthumously, but I’m pretty sure they were published in magazines, etc. before the last novel, A Family Affair. Read the collection after Please Pass the Guilt and before A Family Affair. A Family Affair works so, so well as a series finale that it should be treated as one whether or not Stout wrote it as one. It’s oft-debated, but I’m convinced that if Stout lived another year, we’d have had another novel. But he didn’t. So, again, A Family Affair should be the last you read — even if you don’t read chronologically.


In reading about Rex Stout/Nero Wolfe (either by fans or professionals), there’s an oft-quoted line from Walter D. Edmonds that you simply cannot avoid seeing, “I shall never forget my excitement on reading Fer-de-Lance, sprung like Athena perfect form the Jovian brow, fresh and new and at the same time with enough plain familiar things in scene and setting to put any reader at his ease.” Aside from Oliver Wendell Holmes’ margin note (“This fellow is the best of them all.”), there’s nothing that sums up Fer-de-Lance better, sprung like Athena indeed.

It really doesn’t matter how many times you’ve read it, but upon re-reading (and probably even initial reading if this isn’t your first encounter with Wolfe and Archie) you can’t help be struck by how much Fer-de-Lance fits the model of a mature Wolfe novel–almost all the elements are there. These characters are introduced in practically their final format — a little tweak here and there over the course of the first few novels will get them in their final form. The addition of a few other characters will be necessary, but the cast of characters is already over 90% complete. In the first chapter alone we already have Wolfe, Archie, Fritz, Theodore, Fred and Saul presented in a manner fully recognizable to the familiar reader. The story follows a fairly typical route (although the identity of the murderer is revealed far earlier than is the norm), and the essential environmental elements are there — the beer, Wolfe’s eccentric schedule, the orchids, a relapse, the food, a cocky scheme to land a client, an outrageous stratagem for getting that last essential piece of evidence (not that Wolfe needs it to solve the crime, merely to prove he was correct) — the only thing missing is the gathering of the witnesses/suspects/clients for Wolfe to reveal everything in his characteristically dramatic fashion. One recurring thought I had while reading it the last time was that Fer-de-Lance could just as easily have been the fifteenth installment in the series as the first.

If you didn’t understand half of what I wrote above because you’re new to the corpus, well, you’ll get it soon enough. There’s a formula of sorts to Wolfe/Archie novels — violated all the time, despite what we purists like to think, these variations on the theme are some of our favorite moments. You’ll pick the formula up quickly, and find it as comfortable as Wolfe’s nigh-inviolable daily schedule.

So while there is glacial development, the order is almost negligible. I do endorse and suggest a chronological read — but it’s not essential. In fact, I typically recommend The Golden Spiders (#22) or Before Midnight (#25) to newbies before plunging into Fer-de-Lance, they’re among my favorites, and are pretty representative of the fully-developed Wolfe/Archie. A&E used The Golden Spiders as the pilot to their recent series, so I’m not alone in thinking it serves as a good introduction. If you like them in their final form, you’ll have an easier time appreciating Wolfe/Archie in their almost-final form in the early books. Think of the development of Bugs Bunny over the first few shorts as a rough analogue.

Therefore, if your library/used bookstore isn’t sufficiently stocked to do the chronological read, you shouldn’t avoid the series and can dip in wherever you can. It’s like old episodes of Law & Order that you come across on cable. But there are a few things you should read in a certain order for full understanding/emotional impact, and a few others you should read after you’ve acclimated to the world/series a bit, you’ll enjoy/appreciate them more than in they’re in the first five:

  • The Doorbell Rang (#41)
  • Too Many Women (#12) — a lot of people think Archie comes off like a cad here, it’s never bothered me, however. Still, if you already like him, you’ll forgive him this.
  • And Be a Villain (#13), The Second Confession (#15), and In the Best Families (#17) — just seeing the numbers now, surprises me — I’d have thought these were in the 30’s. If Stout had been planning out a 40+ book series, he’d have put them later. Not only should you read them with experience in the series, these three need to be read in this order. There is an omnibus edition in many libraries with these three called Triple Zeck.
  • The Black Mountain (#24) would be best read after Over My Dead Body (#7), and after you’re acclimated to the world.

A couple of other suggestions:

  • Some Buried Caesar (#6) — should be read early (but not first) and often.
  • A Right to Die (#40) should be read only after Too Many Cooks (#5), it’s one of the only times that a non-regular character shows up again. There’s some racially-tinged language in Too Many Cooks that Archie’d grow out of almost immediately. Remember it was originally published in 1938 and cut him a little slack — mostly, be happy that he grows out of it.
  • And again, A Family Affair should be read pretty much when there’s nothing left.

Granted, these are all only suggestions. But ones made by a passionate fan. Still, at the end of the day, just read these books, you’ll enjoy them.

Maybe sometime I’ll get into the official continuations by Robert Goldsborough in a post like this.


* Okay, I lied — I pulled up the goodreads page for the series so I could get the numbers on them just to help. But that’s it.

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