The Nero Wolfe detective story series of Rex Stout (1886-1975) is, deservedly, one of the most famous American contributions to the genre. Wolfe is a classic genius detective, modelled in part, perhaps, upon Mycroft Holmes, the brilliant, corpulent elder brother of Sherlock.

Wolfe himself weighs a seventh of a ton and resides in an old brownstone on West 35th Street in Manhattan. An immigrant from Montenegro, he seems to speak English without accent and indeed is a great lover of the language. In fact he despises, and destroys his copy of, the third edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary. This edition was a radical departure from the famous second edition, not prescriptive and authoritative as it was, but permissive and descriptive.

So Wolfe is a man of strong views and has decided ideas of the sort of life he wants to live. Actually, he seems to have little natural zest for detective work but has found he has a great talent for it and that it provides him with the large income he needs to follow his way of life. While often an insightful observer of human beings and not exactly a misanthrope , he, unlike Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple, for example, has little natural interest in people.

Wolfe’s life is strictly ordered. He devotes two hours each morning and two each afternoon to his collection of orchids. Unless he has to, he rarely leaves his home. The exceptions are primarily for the sake of his devotion to orchids and gourmet food. As for the latter, he is mostly satisfied at home because of his chef, Fritz Brenner. Theodore Horstmann is his orchid gardener. In addition to orchids and food, Wolfe loves to read and converse and has wide-ranging interests.

He is eminently quotable (e.g. “All music is a vestige of barbarism,” “Few of us have enough wisdom for justice or enough leisure for humanity.”)

At least during the period of his life covered by the stories, Wolfe is celibate. While appreciative of feminine pulchritude, he is a misogynist. At the very least, he would, I think, find eros too disruptive. Though generally not a meddler in the lives of other individuals, Wolfe’s mania for order extends to making donations to a world federalist organization.

Wolf’s third and most important employee (at least to us as readers) is his detective assistant, Archie Goodwin. Goodwin is as wonderful a creation as Wolfe . He is in some ways a counterpoint to him: a tough guy, no fool but not a detective genius. Goodwin does the leg work and Wolfe solves his cases mostly while sitting in his specially made chair in his office.

Stout was not a good contriver of puzzles.; the strength of the stories lies rather in their narrative, and it is Goodwin who narrates. He is full of vim and humor. So the fun of the series is at least as much due to Goodwin as to Wolfe. It seems to me that, because of the nature of Goodwin’s narrative, the tales, while they certainly have their grim moments, are basically comical. (Not farcical however. For detective story farces I warmly recommend Edmund Crispin, especially The Moving Toyshop.)

The series began in 1934 with Fer-de-Lance and consists of tales of varying lengths. There is no need to read them in order. While social or political issues sometimes arise (racial equality, communism, the Second World War, the FBI), this is escapist fare. Wolfe might call it flummery (one of his favorite words), but it is flummery of a fine sort.