Happy Birthday, Archie!

My annual tribute to one of my favorite fictional characters (if not my all-time favorite).

On Oct 23 in Chillicothe, Ohio, Archie Goodwin entered this world–no doubt with a smile for the pretty nurses–and American detective literature was never the same.

I’m toasting him in one of the ways I think he’d appreciate most–by raising a glass of milk in his honor.

Who was Archie? Archie summed up his life thusly:

Born in Ohio. Public high school, pretty good at geometry and football, graduated with honor but no honors. Went to college two weeks, decided it was childish, came to New York and got a job guarding a pier, shot and killed two men and was fired, was recommended to Nero Wolfe for a chore he wanted done, did it, was offered a full-time job by Mr. Wolfe, took it, still have it.” (Fourth of July Picnic)

Long may he keep it. Just what was he employed by Wolfe to do? In The Black Mountain he answers the statement, “I thought you was a private eye” with:

I don’t like the way you say it, but I am. Also I am an accountant, an amanuensis, and a cocklebur. Eight to five you never heard the word amanuensis and you never saw a cocklebur.

In The Red Box, he says

I know pretty well what my field is. Aside from my primary function as the thorn in the seat of Wolfe’s chair to keep him from going to sleep and waking up only for meals, I’m chiefly cut out for two things: to jump and grab something before the other guy can get his paws on it, and to collect pieces of the puzzle for Wolfe to work on.

In Black Orchids, he reacts to an insult:

…her cheap crack about me being a ten-cent Clark Gable, which was ridiculous. He simpers, to begin with, and to end with no one can say I resemble a movie actor, and if they did it would be more apt to be Gary Cooper than Clark Gable.

I’m not the only Archie fan out there:

  • A few months back, someone pointed me at this post, The Wit and Wisdom of Archie Goodwin. There’s some really good stuff here that I was tempted to steal, instead, I’ll just point you at it.
  • Robert Crais himself when writing an introduction to a Before Midnight reprint, devoted it to paying tribute to Archie. — one of the few pieces of anything written that I can say I agree with jot and tittle.

In case you’re wondering if this post was simply an excuse to go through some collections of Archie Goodwin quotations, you wouldn’t be totally wrong…he’s one of the fictional characters I like spending time with most in this world–he’s the literary equivalent of comfort food. So just a couple more great lines I’ve quoted here before:

I would appreciate it if they would call a halt on all their devoted efforts to find a way to abolish war or eliminate disease or run trains with atoms or extend the span of human life to a couple of centuries, and everybody concentrate for a while on how to wake me up in the morning without my resenting it. It may be that a bevy of beautiful maidens in pure silk yellow very sheer gowns, barefooted, singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” and scattering rose petals over me would do the trick, but I’d have to try it.

I looked at the wall clock. It said two minutes to four. I looked at my wrist watch. It said one minute to four. In spite of the discrepancy it seemed safe to conclude that it would soon be four o’clock.

She turned back to me, graceful as a big cat, and stood there straight and proud, not quite smiling, her warm dark eyes as curious as if she had never seen a man before. I knew damn well I ought to say something, but what? The only thing to say was ‘Will you marry me?’ but that wouldn’t do because the idea of her washing dishes or darning socks was preposterous.)

“Indeed,” I said. That was Nero Wolfe’s word, and I never used it except in moments of stress, and it severely annoyed me when I caught myself using it, because when I look in a mirror I prefer to see me as is, with no skin grafted from anybody else’s hide, even Nero Wolfe’s.

If you like Anglo-Saxon, I belched. If you fancy Latin, I eructed. No matter which, I had known that Wolfe and Inspector Cramer would have to put up with it that evening, because that is always a part of my reaction to sauerkraut. I don’t glory in it or go for a record, but neither do I fight it back. I want to be liked just for myself.

When a hippopotamus is peevish it’s a lot of peeve.

It helps a lot, with two people as much together as he and I were, if they understand each other. He understood that I was too strong-minded to add another word unless he told me to, and I understood that he was too pigheaded to tell me to.

I always belong wherever I am.

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Pub Day Repost: Nearly Nero by Loren D. Estleman

Nearly NeroNearly Nero: The Adventures of Claudius Lyon, the Man Who Would Be Wolfe

by Loren D. Estleman
eARC, 192 pg.
Tyrus Books, 2017
Read: March 24 – 30, 2017

I’ve heard about the stories in this volume for years, but have never tracked one down before — and then a whole collection of them show up on NetGalley! How could I not request it? I’m so glad this book exists so that those of us who don’t get the magazines, etc. that publish short mystery fiction can have them (and even those who do have access to those magazines, etc. can have them in one handy volume).

Anyway, here’s the setup: Claudius Lyon is a huge fan of Nero Wolfe — he reads every one of the reports that Archie Goodwin’s literary agent Rex Stout publishes. He’s such a fan that he wants to be Wolfe (like the guys dressing up in Batsuits in The Dark Knight Rises) — he’s fat, fairly clever, and wealthy enough not to need to work and still indulge himself. He renovates his townhouse to include a greenhouse, an elevator, and a first floor floorplan that pretty much matches Wolfe’s. He hires a private chef — a kosher chef of dubious quality (not that Lyon needs to eat kosher, it’s just what Gus can cook), changes his name to something that approximates his hero’s and hires a “man of action,” Arnie Woodbine. Arnie’s an ex-con, small-time crook who doesn’t mind (too much) putting up with his looney boss for a steady paycheck and meals.

The number of ways that Lyon isn’t Wolfe is pretty large and I won’t spoil your fun in discovering them. Now, Lyon’s unlicensed as a PI, so he can’t take on paying clients — but he occasionally gets people who will take him up on his free services. He’s decent at solving puzzles and low-priority mysteries (not that he doesn’t find his way into something bigger on occasion). Once he gets a client (non-paying, Arnie’d have me stress), he goes through whatever steps he needs to figure it out (including his own version of Wolfe’s lip movement and sending Arnie on fact-finding missions), and goes to some lengths to assemble some sort of audience for his reveal. I can’t help smiling as I think about it, really.

The whole thing is a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the Nero Wolfe/Rex Stout — recognizing the brilliance of the Stout’s work (how can you not?), while poking fun at it. Lyon’s really a goofy character and Woodbine is great at pointing that out — while begrudgingly admitting that he gets things right every now and then. There’s a lot of fun to be had in the story telling — the mysteries aren’t all that much to get excited about, it’s in watching Lyon stumble through his cases that the entertainment is found. Well, that and Woodbine’s commentary.

Not unlike many of the Wolfe stories (particularly the short stories).

I wouldn’t recommend reading more than two of these stories in a sitting, I think they work best as solo shots. It’s a difficult call, because I typically wanted to go on for one more. Also, I’m not sure how enjoyable these’d be for non-Wolfe readers — but then again, I think a lot of the humor would hold up and it might entice a reader to learn more about Lyon’s idol. And anything that gets people to read Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels is a good thing.

But for readers of Stout’s Wolfe novels? This is a must read. He’s not trying and failing to recapture Stout’s magic (see Goldsborough post-The Bloodied Ivy), he’s intentionally missing and yet somehow getting a little of it. I really enjoyed this book and can easily see me re-reading it a handful of times.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Adams Media via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

Nearly Nero by Loren D. Estleman

Nearly NeroNearly Nero: The Adventures of Claudius Lyon, the Man Who Would Be Wolfe

by Loren D. Estleman

eARC, 192 pg.
Tyrus Books, 2017

Read: March 24 – 30, 2017


I’ve heard about the stories in this volume for years, but have never tracked one down before — and then a whole collection of them show up on NetGalley! How could I not request it? I’m so glad this book exists so that those of us who don’t get the magazines, etc. that publish short mystery fiction can have them (and even those who do have access to those magazines, etc. can have them in one handy volume).

Anyway, here’s the setup: Claudius Lyon is a huge fan of Nero Wolfe — he reads every one of the reports that Archie Goodwin’s literary agent Rex Stout publishes. He’s such a fan that he wants to be Wolfe (like the guys dressing up in Batsuits in The Dark Knight Rises) — he’s fat, fairly clever, and wealthy enough not to need to work and still indulge himself. He renovates his townhouse to include a greenhouse, an elevator, and a first floor floorplan that pretty much matches Wolfe’s. He hires a private chef — a kosher chef of dubious quality (not that Lyon needs to eat kosher, it’s just what Gus can cook), changes his name to something that approximates his hero’s and hires a “man of action,” Arnie Woodbine. Arnie’s an ex-con, small-time crook who doesn’t mind (too much) putting up with his looney boss for a steady paycheck and meals.

The number of ways that Lyon isn’t Wolfe is pretty large and I won’t spoil your fun in discovering them. Now, Lyon’s unlicensed as a PI, so he can’t take on paying clients — but he occasionally gets people who will take him up on his free services. He’s decent at solving puzzles and low-priority mysteries (not that he doesn’t find his way into something bigger on occasion). Once he gets a client (non-paying, Arnie’d have me stress), he goes through whatever steps he needs to figure it out (including his own version of Wolfe’s lip movement and sending Arnie on fact-finding missions), and goes to some lengths to assemble some sort of audience for his reveal. I can’t help smiling as I think about it, really.

The whole thing is a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the Nero Wolfe/Rex Stout — recognizing the brilliance of the Stout’s work (how can you not?), while poking fun at it. Lyon’s really a goofy character and Woodbine is great at pointing that out — while begrudgingly admitting that he gets things right every now and then. There’s a lot of fun to be had in the story telling — the mysteries aren’t all that much to get excited about, it’s in watching Lyon stumble through his cases that the entertainment is found. Well, that and Woodbine’s commentary.

Not unlike many of the Wolfe stories (particularly the short stories).

I wouldn’t recommend reading more than two of these stories in a sitting, I think they work best as solo shots. It’s a difficult call, because I typically wanted to go on for one more. Also, I’m not sure how enjoyable these’d be for non-Wolfe readers — but then again, I think a lot of the humor would hold up and it might entice a reader to learn more about Lyon’s idol. And anything that gets people to read Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels is a good thing.

But for readers of Stout’s Wolfe novels? This is a must read. He’s not trying and failing to recapture Stout’s magic (see Goldsborough post-The Bloodied Ivy), he’s intentionally missing and yet somehow getting a little of it. I really enjoyed this book and can easily see me re-reading it a handful of times.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Adams Media via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

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.

October 27, 1975: The Death of Rex Stout

Rex Stout

Forty years ago today, Rex Stout died at the age of 88. It doesn’t take much effort looking around here to know that he had a pretty big impact on my life — even if I didn’t “meet” him until over a decade later — so I didn’t realize how significant the date was at the time (hey, I was only 2 at the time). Outside of Scripture and various preachers/theologians, there’s a trifecta of authors who’ve left indelible fingerprints on my mind — Robert B. Parker, Douglas Adams, and Rex Stout.

John McAleer, in Rex Stout: A Biography, tells us:

On the ABC Evening News, Harry Reasoner told the nationwide television audience:

The news today was as usual full of politicians and other movers and shakers. But the odds are overwhelming that when historians look at the bright blue late October of 1975 the only thing that will keep about the 27th is that it was the day Rex Stout died and the 28th was the day the death was reported. Rex Stout was a lot of things during his eighty-eight years, but the main thing he was was the writer of forty-six mystery novels about Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. A lot of more pretentious writers have less claim on our culture and our allegiance.

That same day the latest issue of Time appeared on the newsstands. It carried a review of A Family Affair, which lauded Rex’s “elastic, contemporary mind” and his capacity “to confound the actuarial tables.”

Reasoner might have overstated Stout’s impact on history a but, but I appreciate the sentiment.

The man lived quite a life — for a taste, you could read McAleer’s 532 page biography, or check out this obituary from The Congressional Record(!!) (thanks to NeroWolfe.org for this, and a few other obituaries at the link).

Happy Birthday, Archie!

My annual tribute to one of my favorite fictional characters (if not my all-time favorite). Revised and expanded this year! Revising it mostly just reminded me that it’s been too long since I read any of these. Must fix that.

On Oct 23 in Chillicothe, Ohio, Archie Goodwin entered this world–no doubt with a smile for the pretty nurses–and American detective literature was never the same.

I’m toasting him in one of the ways I think he’d appreciate most–by raising a glass of milk in his honor.

Who was Archie? Archie summed up his life thusly:

Born in Ohio. Public high school, pretty good at geometry and football, graduated with honor but no honors. Went to college two weeks, decided it was childish, came to New York and got a job guarding a pier, shot and killed two men and was fired, was recommended to Nero Wolfe for a chore he wanted done, did it, was offered a full-time job by Mr. Wolfe, took it, still have it.” (Fourth of July Picnic)

Long may he keep it. Just what was he employed by Wolfe to do? In The Black Mountain he answers the statement, “I thought you was a private eye” with:

I don’t like the way you say it, but I am. Also I am an accountant, an amanuensis, and a cocklebur. Eight to five you never heard the word amanuensis and you never saw a cocklebur.

In The Red Box, he says

I know pretty well what my field is. Aside from my primary function as the thorn in the seat of Wolfe’s chair to keep him from going to sleep and waking up only for meals, I’m chiefly cut out for two things: to jump and grab something before the other guy can get his paws on it, and to collect pieces of the puzzle for Wolfe to work on.

In Black Orchids, he reacts to an insult:

…her cheap crack about me being a ten-cent Clark Gable, which was ridiculous. He simpers, to begin with, and to end with no one can say I resemble a movie actor, and if they did it would be more apt to be Gary Cooper than Clark Gable.

I’m not the only Archie fan out there:

  • A few months back, someone pointed me at this post, The Wit and Wisdom of Archie Goodwin. There’s some really good stuff here that I was tempted to steal, instead, I’ll just point you at it.
  • Robert Crais himself when writing an introduction to a Before Midnight reprint, devoted it to paying tribute to Archie. — one of the few pieces of anything written that I can say I agree with jot and tittle.

In case you’re wondering if this post was simply an excuse to go through some collections of Archie Goodwin quotations, you wouldn’t be totally wrong…he’s one of the fictional characters I like spending time with most in this world–he’s the literary equivalent of comfort food. So just a couple more great lines I’ve quoted here before:

I would appreciate it if they would call a halt on all their devoted efforts to find a way to abolish war or eliminate disease or run trains with atoms or extend the span of human life to a couple of centuries, and everybody concentrate for a while on how to wake me up in the morning without my resenting it. It may be that a bevy of beautiful maidens in pure silk yellow very sheer gowns, barefooted, singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” and scattering rose petals over me would do the trick, but I’d have to try it.

I looked at the wall clock. It said two minutes to four. I looked at my wrist watch. It said one minute to four. In spite of the discrepancy it seemed safe to conclude that it would soon be four o’clock.

“Indeed,” I said. That was Nero Wolfe’s word, and I never used it except in moments of stress, and it severely annoyed me when I caught myself using it, because when I look in a mirror I prefer to see me as is, with no skin grafted from anybody else’s hide, even Nero Wolfe’s.

If you like Anglo-Saxon, I belched. If you fancy Latin, I eructed. No matter which, I had known that Wolfe and Inspector Cramer would have to put up with it that evening, because that is always a part of my reaction to sauerkraut. I don’t glory in it or go for a record, but neither do I fight it back. I want to be liked just for myself.

When a hippopotamus is peevish it’s a lot of peeve.

It helps a lot, with two people as much together as he and I were, if they understand each other. He understood that I was too strong-minded to add another word unless he told me to, and I understood that he was too pigheaded to tell me to.

I always belong wherever I am.

A Less Happy Anniversary – Rex Stout (December 1, 1886 – October 27, 1975)

Don’t worry, this is not going to become the Rex Stout/Nero Wolfe Almanac. But the Rex Stout Facebook page just posted something about this being the 39th anniversary of Rex Stout’s death at the age of 88. I was barely reading at the time — certainly not murder mysteries — so the event meant practically nothing to me. I certainly couldn’t have known then that he’d make a bigger impact on me than just about any other writer.

He’d have led a fascinating life if he’d never started writing novels. What he was able to do because he started writing — particularly writing the Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin series — is beyond the hopes of most people. Yeah, a lot of what he labored for politically would be the sort of thing that I’d be opposed to (but not all of it). Nevertheless, he showed the kind of civic activity that’s admirable.

As I write this, John McAleer’s 600+ page Rex Stout: A Biography, is literally an arm’s reach from me. I’m going to resist the urge to pull it off the shelf and start relating some of my favorite bits. Instead, I’ll just point you to this pdf version of the obituary The New York Times ran on the front page the day after he died.