Nero Wolfe

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A popular Epileptic Tree (created by the author, no less, but never mentioned in canon) is that Wolfe's father was Sherlock Holmes, by Irene Adler of course; the combination of deductive genius, heavyset build and laziness does sound uncannily like the Great Detective's brother Mycroft. The Wold Newton Universe has Wolfe as the son of Arsène Lupin. This is all sometimes extended to name Archie in turn as Wolfe's son, based off Wolfe's cryptic comment in one of the books: "If I were [a Negro], Mr. Goodwin would have to be one too." It's more likely that Wolfe was alluding to the fact that a white man would never accept a job as the assistant to a black man at the time the story was set, but that doesn't stop the speculation.

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

The following tropes are common to many or all entries in the Nero Wolfe franchise.
For tropes specific to individual installments, visit their respective work pages.
  • Arch Enemy: Shadowy crimelord Arnold Zeck, a Moriarty type.
  • Always Murder: It always involves at least one murder, but many of the stories begin with a lesser crime; blackmail is common. Archie mentions at the beginning of one book that though Wolfe takes many kinds of cases, Archie only talks about the murders they come across because they are often the most fascinating and exciting.
  • Anyone Can Die: Well, anyone in the supporting cast at least. One recurring investigator is abruptly offed in the middle of an otherwise unremarkable case, and another dies in the final book. Clients die with frightening frequency, as do witnesses and suspects.
  • Bavarian Fire Drill: Archie's rather good at it, though he tends to drop the act before he gets everything he wants.
  • Big Eater: Sort of. Wolfe eats good food in sizable portions. Mediocre or bad food he will refuse completely or pick at. He also very definitely avoids the "speed eater" aspect that often accompanies Big Eaters; he is adamant that no meal should be rushed, no matter how simple it is, to the point that Archie eats separately in the kitchen if he has a task or appointment that would cause him to rush a meal.
  • Black Market: Wolfe's desperation for a source of meat during WWII food rationing leads to him accepting a job from a crime boss in "Before I Die". He demands (and gets) access to the black market as part of his fee.
  • Brilliant but Lazy: Wolfe. He hates any kind of physical exertion, but still solves the mysteries, just sitting and thinking.
  • 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.
  • Comic Book Time: None of the main characters age, but Stout set each story in the current present-day. Word of God is that Wolfe is in his mid fifties, Archie in his early to mid-thirties. Stout said he didn't want to write stories that were dated by their setting but also didn't want to have to deal with aging his characters.
    • This leads to at least one interesting chronological Gordian knot: In Too Many Cooks (1938), a young black waiter whom Wolfe impresses is a small but important part of the plot. He returns as a successful middle-aged man, with a case involving his grown son, in A Right to Die (1964). Wolfe and Archie both clearly recall the earlier case, even though in reality Archie would have been a child and Wolfe in his twenties.
  • Cool Chair: Wolfe's office chair was custom-built to his specifications... particularly the extra reinforcements.
  • Cool House: The double brownstone isn't quite a Big Fancy House, but is so lovingly detailed it's become iconic in crime fiction anyway. Given the vast bookshelves, the elevator, the professional-grade kitchen, the hi-tech-for-the-time phone and alarm systems, the orchid rooms on the roof, the kitchen garden, and the see-through front door... it's pretty damn cool.
  • Covers Always Lie: in the Seventies and Eighties, especially. (See also Executive Meddling.)
    • The worst offender has to be the 1984 Bantam reprints, as exemplified by Prisoners 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.
    • 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.
  • The Dandy: Wolfe is very particular about his clothing. He's especially fond of canary yellow - his pyjamas and shirts are always that colour - and the only time he's shown wearing casual wear is in The Black Mountain, when he's travelling through Montenegro. He's so disturbed by dirt that when he gets a spot on his tie he removes it immediately. Archie is also a dapper dresser, but not to Wolfe's extent - and he rarely describes his own clothing.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Archie is really, really good at this.
  • Diplomatic Impunity: The crux of the short story (and also TV episode) "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.
  • Driven to Suicide: Happens several times to murderers, at Wolfe's veiled instigation, throughout the series, usually for one of two reasons: There's not legal proof of what they did, so if it's left to a trial they'll get away with the crime; or -- according to Archie at least -- if the killer is tried Wolfe will have to leave his home to testify in court.
  • Early Installment Weirdness: Some extra freelance operatives (Bill Gore and Johnny Keems) hardly get used at times before they are either written out or disappear. The most glaring is the smoking Inspector Cramer does in the first five or six books, even smoking a pipe in the first one, which clashes with his ever present cigar which he only chews on in all subsequent books.
    • In the first book, operative Orrie Cather is described as a crusty old cigar-smoking veteran. By his next appearance -- and throughout the rest of the series -- he's become a handsome young smooth-talking ladies' man.
  • Enemy Mine: Wolfe and Archie vs. Inspector Cramer, Purley Stebbins, and other police officers. They don't like each other, and both sides love to get the best of the other, but they can and do work together.
  • Everyone Is a Suspect: especially obvious in the A&E adaptation. See Asshole Victim, reason #3.
  • Executive Meddling:
    • The covers of the volumes published in the 70's and 80's were horribly inaccurate to the stories inside them; the cover blurbs were worse. It's claimed that the marketing department thought it best to make Stout reprints look like thrillers instead of mysteries, since the traditional mystery had gained a reputation among the general public of being only fit for "pathetic spinsters" who found thrillers and suspense novels too "scary".
    • In Over My Dead Body, Wolfe says that he was born in the US. In every other story that makes mention of his place of birth, he says it was Montenegro. Word of God, in the form of a letter from Rex Stout to his authorized biographer, John McAleer says:

"In the original draft of Over My Dead Body Nero was a Montenegrin by birth, and it all fitted previous hints as to his background; but violent protests from The American Magazine, supported by [publishers] Farrar & Rinehart, caused his cradle to be transported five thousand miles."

  • FBI Agent: An unusually harsh treatment of the FBI for the time in The Doorbell Rang.
  • First-Person Smartass: Archie, who views witty repartee as an art form.
  • Friend on the Force: Inspector Cramer, in a way, and Archie sometimes plays cards with Sergeant Purley Stebbins.
  • Genteel Interbellum Setting:The first six novels (from, roughly, Fer-de-Lance to Some Buried Caesar) are set in this period.
  • The Gimmick:
    • Wolfe himself has two: his fanatical adherence to his daily schedule, and his adamant refusal to leave his house on business.
    • Rex Stout had one: in virtually every story, he had Wolfe use one unusual or little-used word. Archie sometimes notes that he had to look it up in the dictionary.
  • Great Detective: Wolfe is probably the last iconic example.
  • Hardboiled Detective: Archie and any other other Private Investigator featured, except Wolfe, as noted above, and Fred Durkin, who averts the lone wolf part by having both a wife and children.
  • 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: Wolfe dislikes women but doesn't actually disrespect them. 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.
      • In-universe, Wolfe relates the time he had a rather nasty experience with a Femme Fatale who held a knife to his throat. He actually seems rather tolerant of those females who are at least blunt and to the point and who forsake the "weaker aspect" stereotype. 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.
    • Wolfe's misogyny itself was a complicated example of Writer on Board. Wolfe prefers people who display their intelligence openly and who are direct, unemotional, and strong-minded. This is the absolute antithesis of how women of the time were expected to act. Women were trained to hide their intelligence, to act coy and uncertain, and to resort to emotions instead of reason at all times. (Rejecting this training could at give a woman the reputation of "hating men".) Through Wolfe, Stout was actually attempting to skewer the stereotypes that held women in check; unfortunately, he underestimated his male audience's support of these stereotypes and their identification with Nero Wolfe. These readers actually liked female characters to act like silly idiots because they made Wolfe (and by association, themselves) look superior. Stout found this immensely frustrating, as he and his feminist wife were strong supporters of women's rights.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • It's Personal: Applied rather more stringently than usual. Wolfe is old-fashioned enough that something as simple as the murder of someone who enjoyed his hospitality can obligate him to take a case, sometimes without even monetary reward. And that's for people he doesn't know...
  • I Gave My Word: Wolfe's uneasy truce with Cramer depends heavily on this.
  • 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.
  • Insistent Terminology:
    • Archie describes Wolfe as weighing "a seventh of a ton".
    • Wolfe's office chair is "the only chair [Wolfe] enjoyed sitting in."
  • 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."

  • Mr. Vice Guy: Nero Wolfe, arguably.
  • Multiple Choice Past A mild case. In the novel the Second Confession Wolfe gives prospective clients an exposition of his life, saying that he was born in the U.S. In every other story where he mentions his youth, he says he was born in Montenegro. (However, see Executive Meddling above for the real reason for this.)
  • 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.
  • Only in It For the Money: Wolfe hates to work but he needs to pay for his expensive tastes and equally expensive orchids, hence his outrageous fees.
  • Outlived Its Creator: Following Stout's death in 1975, his estate gave Robert Goldsborough authorization to continue the series. Between 1986 and 1994 he wrote 7 more Nero Wolfe novels. Reception was mixed.
  • Pet the Dog: All the time, but in one case, used literally. In the novella "Die Like a Dog," Archie brings a big black Labrador retriever home and announces he plans to keep it, as a ploy to annoy Wolfe into working. However, it backfires on him when Wolfe takes a liking to the dog - it turns out he used to own a similar dog in his youth. The ending implies that they wound up keeping him, renaming him from Bootsie to Jet. (Though it never actually appears again in-canon.)
  • Photographic Memory: Archie was trained by Wolfe to have this. He can parrot conversations word-for-word that go on for hours.
  • Pride: Many characters have it to an extent, but Wolfe's overshadows them all. Possibly subverted in that he can usually back up everything he says, so it rarely comes back to hurt him.
  • 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.
  • Sharp-Dressed Man: Archie who, while less fastidious than his employer, is still presented as stylish and well-dressed.
  • Supporting Protagonist: Nero Wolfe only solves the mystery, Archie is the real hero.
  • Supreme Chef: Fritz.
  • 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.
  • Unlimited Wardrobe: Archie in the A&E series. Not only does he have more fabulously tailored suits and hats than many women have dresses, but he's also able to obtain any disguise he might need at a moment's notice.
  • Verbal Tic: Wolfe's dismissive "Pfui". Archie sometimes retorts with "Phooey."
  • Writer on Board:
    • Stout loathed J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, and for good reason: he was investigated during the Red Scare and came very close to being blacklisted, as his strident anti-Communism wasn't enough to defer Hoover's suspicion that any prominent liberal must be a fellow traveller. Stout eventually published an enormous Take That against Hoover in The Doorbell Rang.
    • He was as strongly anti-Communist as he was anti-Hoover. The Second Confession and the short story "Home to Roost" show Communists as not just dangerous and violent but also stupid and willfully ignorant.
    • The entire oeuvre is full of Writer on Board, but Stout sometimes uses it to poke fun at himself. In the novel Gambit, he has Archie holding back a snicker as Wolfe furiously burns a hated dictionary in the office fireplace because it stated that "imply" and "infer" were synonyms. In real life, Stout had been one of the loudest voices denouncing that particular dictionary.
    • Wolfe is often shown reading real-world books that Stout himself had read, including "The FBI Nobody Knows" in The Doorbell Rang and "Mathematics for the Million" in The Zero Clue. Word of God is that he likewise shares his creator's reverence for Jane Austen.
  • X Meets Y: A Hardboiled Detective works for a Great Detective; They Fight Crime.
  • You Keep Using That Word: A literal In-Universe invocation: Wolfe dislikes the use of "contact" as a verb, and (as mentioned above) once burned a dictionary because it claimed that "imply" and "infer" were synonyms.