Showing posts with label art of detection. Show all posts
Showing posts with label art of detection. Show all posts

09 April 2015

The True History of Nero Wolfe


by Eve Fisher

Because I read everything, to the great detriment of doing almost anything else, occasionally I come across such obvious patterns, such amazing coincidences, that I have to share them with someone. Thus, I am happy to relate that I have found the true origins of Nero Wolfe. The only question is, whether it's genetics or reincarnation. I'll let you decide.

For those of you who have never met the one and only Nero Wolfe, he is the misogynistic, gourmet one-seventh of a ton detective who lives in a brownstone in New York City and only leaves it under extreme emergency conditions. He solves mysteries usually without leaving his chair, leaving the footwork to Archie Goodwin, his amanuensis, investigator, and general thorn in Wolfe's side. His brownstone is his haven, his castle, his fortress, in which he follows a rigid routine, cares for his orchids and his stomach, and is cared for by Archie and Fritz, his cook. (Theodore helps with the orchids, but let's face facts: nobody – not even Nero Wolfe – likes him.)



Some theories (and I get these straight from Wikipedia) are that Wolfe (born, according to Rex Stout and Archie Goodwin, in Montenegro) was the offspring of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler, who had an affair in Montenegro (why they chose that country to frolic in is undetermined). Others have said that if Wolfe was of Holmesian descent, it was via Mycroft, who was vast and logical, like him. Others have posited the thief Arsene Lupin as Wolfe's father. However, this is all gilding the lily, not to mention assuming that one detective (or thief) leads to another.

Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds.jpgI believe that the origins of Nero Wolfe go all the way back to the early 18th century. Specifically to 1709, when Samuel Johnson was born, who grew up to be a man of exceptional mind and memory, a man to whom no place was so suitable to live as a major metropolis, in his case, London, and whose girth and eccentricities were as legendary as were his literary abilities. I speak, of course, of Dr. Johnson, lexicographer, poet, playwright, journalist, and wit.

What led me to correlate Nero Wolfe with Samuel Johnson was re-reading Boswell's "Life of Johnson". Their size, their reluctance to travel from their adopted great city (London for Dr. Johnson, New York for Nero Wolfe), their constant reading, and their love of food is identical. Both have remarkably similar amanuenses (Archie Goodwin, James Boswell) whom they find alternately useful, irritating, ubiquitous, and indispensable. Both Goodwin and Boswell are - to the urban dweller - from the sticks (Ohio and Scotland respectively). Both Goodwin and Boswell have had numerous amatory encounters, though Boswell was more graphic in his (secret) reminiscences than Goodwin. Essentially both write biographies, although neither are as educated, logical, or eccentric as their subjects.

James Boswell of Auchinleck.jpg
Archie to the left, Boswell above.


Yes, Dr. Johnson did marry (to a woman twice his age), while Nero Wolfe is, at first glance, the ultimate misogynist. (But even Nero Wolfe liked to look at women's legs: see The Silent Speaker, Chapter 20) But "Tetty" was Johnson's only known dalliance, and he was known to be as severe as Nero Wolfe in his judgments upon the fairer sex. (“Never accustom your mind to mingle virtue and vice. The woman’s a whore, and there’s an end on ’t.”) But they both were respectful of virtuous wives and mothers, as well as of professional women who were good at what they did: Dol Bonner and Jackie Jaquette, in Wolfe's world; the writers Charlotte Lennox and Fanny Burney in Johnson's world.

But to me, it was the use of language that cinched it. It is almost identical. See if you can tell who said what:
  1. "Some people have a foolish way of not minding, or pretending not to mind, what they eat. For my part, I mind my belly very studiously, and very carefully; for I look upon it, that he who does not mind his belly will hardly mind anything else"
  2. "What finally ruled [Voltaire] out was something that hadn't been mentioned at lunch at all: he had no palate and not much appetite. He was indifferent to food; he might even eat only once a day; and he drank next to nothing. All his life he was extremely skinny, and in his later years he was merely a skeleton. To call him a great man was absurd; strictly speaking, he wasn't a man at all since he had no palate and a dried-up stomach."
  3. "I know not why any one but a school-boy in his declamation should whine over the Common-wealth of Rome, which grew great only by the misery of the rest of mankind. The Romans, like others, as soon as they grew rich, grew corrupt; and in their corruption sold the lives and freedoms of themselves, and of one another"
  4. “We are all vainer of our luck than of our merits.”
  5. "The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it."
  6. “I will ride my luck on occasion, but I like to pick the occasion.”
  7. "Every man naturally persuades himself that he can keep his resolutions, nor is he convinced of his imbecility but by length of time and frequency of experiment."
  8. “A man may debar nonsense from his library of reason, but not from the arena of his impulses.”
  9. "[A] pessimist gets nothing but pleasant surprises, an optimist nothing but unpleasant.”
  10. "He is no wise man that will quit a certainty for an uncertainty."
  11. "Where there is no education, as in savage countries, men will have the upper hand of women. Bodily strength, no doubt, contributes to this; but it would be so, exclusive of that; for it is mind that always governs. When it comes to dry understanding, man has the better."
    "The true, strong, and sound mind is the mind that can embrace equally great things and small."
  12. “The more you put in your brain, the more it will hold -- if you have one.”
  13. "A fellow that makes no figure in company, and has a mind as narrow as the neck of a vinegar-cruet."
  14. "I never desire to converse with a man who has written more than he has read."
  15. “A person who does not read cannot think. He may have good mental processes, but he has nothing to think about. You can feel for people or natural phenomena and react to them, but they are not ideas. You cannot think about them."
  16. "It matters not how a man dies, but how he lives."
  17. “A guest is a jewel on the cushion of hospitality”
  18. "The right to lie in the service of your own interests is highly valued and frequently exercised.”
  19. “More people saying what they believe would be a great improvement. Because I often do I am unfit for common intercourse."
  20. "I have found you an argument; I am not obliged to find you an understanding."
  21. "A man is very apt to complain of the ingratitude of those who have risen far above him."
  22. “To pronounce French properly you must have within you a deep antipathy, not to say scorn, for some of the most sacred of the Anglo-Saxon prejudices.”
  23. "A Frenchman must be always talking, whether he knows anything of the matter or not; an Englishman is content to say nothing when he has nothing to say."
  24. “To assert dignity is to lose it.”
  25. "The law is the last result of human wisdom acting upon human experience for the benefit of the public."
  26. “Women don't require motives that are comprehensible to my intellectual processes."
(Answers at the bottom of the page)

For my final piece of evidence, I give you the novel Gambit, in which Nero Wolfe burns a dictionary - bought with a flammable cover on purpose - because it allows the use of "imply" in place of "infer". A passion for precise language was certainly passed down from the man who wrote "A Dictionary of the English Language".




Sadly, Dr. Johnson had no children. But he did have a brother, Timothy, who had children. The genes were put into the pool. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you twin sons, separated by time. So, was Nero Wolfe a descendant of Samuel Johnson's brother Timothy? Or is he a reincarnation?

Put a wig on the one, take the Tourette's away from the other, and we might just have the answer!














Nero Wolfe - 2, 4, 6, 8, 9, 13, 16, 18, 19, 20, 23, 24, 26
Samuel Johnson - 1, 3, 5, 7, 10, 11, 12, 14, 15, 17, 21, 22, 24, 25


29 January 2013

The Art of Detection


by Dale C. Andrews

    When I was in high school, back in the 1960s, I stumbled onto a paperback book entitled Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street.  The book, which was published in 1962, was not written by Arthur Conan Doyle.  The author of this “biography" of Holmes was W.S. Baring-Gould.  As a mystery fan I immediately purchased and then devoured the volume.

   Baring-Gould, as I later found out, was a Baker’s Street Irregular who had devoted much of his life to the study of Sherlock Holmes.  Among the things that interested me about the book were “facts” set down by Baring-Gould concerning the life of Holmes that were not elsewhere reflected in the Arthur Conan Doyle canon.  To wit, Holmes, according to Baring-Gould, was born on January 6, he lived to the ripe age of 108, and in his 108th year he completed an omnibus retrospective on his own life and work, The Art of Deduction

    As I have discussed at some length previously, I am a big fan of hidden alignments that seem to pop up in the world around us, facts that square up in ways that break the boundaries of coincidence and thereby hint at an underlying order.  And we now have yet another example of exactly such an alignment. 

    According to Ellery Queen’s 1957 novel The Finishing Stroke, Queen was born in 1905, the same year that his creators Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee were born.  So this year, 2013, would be Ellery’s 108th year.  And commemorating that event Professor Francis M. Nevins, the world’s preeminent Queen scholar (and a man whose own birthday, January 6, is the same as Holmes’) has published a true magnum opus on Ellery, entitled Ellery Queen:  The Art of Detection.  

     I shared a cup of coffee with Mike Nevins in St. Louis over Christmas (well, actually he drank soda) and he laughed off all of the Holmes/Queen alignments set forth in the previous paragraphs as mere coincidence.  The most he will get from me on this is a wink and a smile.  Unwitting or not, to my mind it is kismet that is playing with us here.

    Of course, the comparisons between Holmes at 108 and Queen at the same age, and between the works of Baring-Gould and Nevins, are not perfect.  For one thing, while Holmes’ The Art of Deduction never in fact existed, Nevins’ The Art of Detection, by contrast, is wonderfully real, all 351 pages of it.  But before getting to this encyclopedic tribute to all things Queen, let’s tarry just a moment and talk about Mike. 

Mike in St. Louis, December 23, 2012
    Mike Nevins  is Professor Emeritus at St. Louis University Law School, and is a magna cum laude graduate of St. Peters College and a cum laude graduate of New York University School of Law.  For many years he taught law, specializing in copyright law, in St. Louis.  But as all Queen aficionados know, Mike’s interests run well wide of legal matters.  He has written definitive literary analyses on subjects as disparate as Cornell Woolrich and Hopalong Cassidy.  Mike has also published six novels, two collections of short stories, several books of non-fiction and has also edited more than 15 mystery anthologies and collections.  More importantly, and, luckily for us, he is, without question, one of the world’s leading authorities on Ellery Queen and the collaborative team that was Queen:  Frederic Dannay and Manfred B. Lee.  Mike has twice won  Edgar Allan Poe Awards for critical works, once for an earlier study of Ellery Queen and once for his volume on Cornell Woolrich.  Mike is also the author of one of the finest Ellery Queen pastiches ever written, Open Letter to Survivors. Who better to offer the reading public the definitive analysis of the works of Ellery Queen?

    As noted above, Mike’s 1974 Royal Bloodlines has already garnered an Edgar for its treatment of the Dannay and Lee writing team.  In the introduction to The Art of Detection the basis for his new second take on the same subject is explained by Mike as follows:
I think I just heard a question.  “Hey, didn’t you do that book already, back in the Watergate era?  Well, sort of.  But as I got older I became convinced that I hadn’t done all that good a job.  Fred Dannay was the public face of Ellery Queen, and in the years after we met he became the closest to a grandfather I’ve ever known, but I never really got to know the much more private Manny Lee.  He and I had exchanged a few letters, and we met briefly at the Edgars dinner in 1970, but he died before we could meet again.  Because of his untimely death, Royal Bloodlines . . .  inadvertently gave the impression that “Ellery Queen” meant 90% Fred Dannay.  One of the most important items on my personal bucket list was to do justice to Manny.
    That concern (notwithstanding that prior Edgar award) is completely addressed and fully remedied in The Art of Detection, which painstakingly traces the lives, times and collaboration of the two cousins who invented Ellery the detective and Ellery the writer and editor.  No matter how familiar you are with Queen, you will take away new knowledge when you finish reading The Art of Detection.  

    Like Joe Goodrich’s excellent volume from earlier this year, Blood Relations, which focused on the drafting of three of the best Queen novels in the late 1940s, much of the background material in The Art of Detection, notably including the legendary feuding between Dannay and Lee, is premised on the words of Dannay and Lee themselves, as forth in their letters, which are extensively quoted throughout the new Nevins work.  Also included are correspondence between Nevins himself and Dannay, and between Lee and legendary critic and writer Anthony Boucher, who famously opined that "Ellery Queen is the American detective story," and who contributed plotting to the Ellery Queen radio shows during times that family illnesses kept Dannay from performing that task.  The resulting narrative of the lives of these two writers, much of it in their own words, and of Queen, is a wonderfully detailed portrait.

    As already noted, The Art of Detection is encyclopedic in its coverage.  Beyond biography, the reader finds detailed discussions of all of the Queen books, as well as the various ventures into other media, including  the various radio shows featuring Ellery, the (often unsatisfying) Ellery Queen movies of the 1940s, the early television series, and the 1975 NBC series featuring Jim Hutton.  Mike has even offered detailed analyses of the infamous “ghosted”  Queen paperbacks, farmed out to other authors and then edited by Lee, which were commonplace on the paperback shelves of the 1960s.  In short, there is basically nothing about Ellery that is not addressed and answered by this fine work. 

    As any Ellery Queen fan is well aware, the Queen library, at least in the U.S., has teetered on the edge of extinction over the last few years.  Near the end of his book Mike comments on this as follows:
When the author dies, the work dies.  That is almost always the reality, and certainly it’s the rule in genre fiction.  There are always a few exceptions, like Agatha Christie and Louis L’Amour, but those authors are rarae aves.  I took it for granted that Ellery Queen was one (or two) of them.  I never thought I’d live to see the falling off into near oblivion of what had been a household name for more than a decade before I was born and for at least the first thirty years of my life.
    It is certainly true that it takes an historical perspective such as that provided by The Art of Detection to fully appreciate how much a part of mystery fiction Ellery was in the past, and how diminished his role is today.  But hopefully there is still time and space for resurgence.  Certainly excellent works such as The Art of Detection and Blood Relations, each of which has been offered to the reading public in the course of the past year, and Jeffrey Marks’ projected biography of Dannay and Lee, which should be out in 2015, contribute toward resurrecting the works of Queen.

    And speaking of kismet, another real indication of renewed interest in the works of Ellery Queen is evident on the very day this article is being posted.  Today, January 29, Calamity Town, a new play written by Joe Goodrich and based on the 1942 Queen novel that first introduced the upper New York State town of Wrightsville, has a "first reading" performance at the New Dramatists playhouse on West 44th Street in New York City.  Let's hope this is just the beginning for this latest Queen opus by Joe.

   There is also a new Ellery Queen pastiche (modesty compels me to not include the author in the foregoing list) coming out in EQMM sometime in the coming year.  And particularly eagerly awaited is the imminent re-issuance of 23 original titles in the Ellery Queen library, as reported by Janet Hutchings, editor of EQMM, in her editorial note following publication of Mike Nevin’s article End Time for Ellery? In the January 2013 issue of EQMM.  As Janet observed there, thanks to efforts such as Mike’s “Ellery Queen may soon enjoy a renaissance.”

    The once and future Queen?