Friday, January 27, 2012

Friday Favorites: Black Orchids by Rex Stout

Rex Stout wrote a lot of novellas featuring Nero Wolfe. They were usually collected, three to a book, and titled things like "Homicide Trinity" and "Trio for Blunt Instruments." They were the exact right length for a light puzzle mystery with a lot of great character interaction.

Novellas were popular in the old days. Every pulp magazine had one if not several. (Sometimes serialized, sometimes billed as "A Whole Novel In This Issue!") They didn't survive into the paperback era well, though. I only noticed two ways by the time I was around in the sixties: one was the "Dell Doubles" where two short novels would be bound, back to back, and the other were these Nero Wolfe stories.

I believe Black Orchids was the first of the Nero Wolfe novella collections -- billed as a "Nero Wolfe Double!" because it only includes two stories. It was the very first Nero Wolfe story I'd ever read, long long ago, and it had all the elements which made me fall in love with the series.

It is, in many ways, like a TV series. It's all about the characters, and their foibles, and struggles. In particular the conflict between the narrator Archie Goodwin, who is the real hero of the stories -- a smartass tough guy who is Wolfe's secretary, body guard and errand boy -- who is something of an irresistible force, and Nero Wolfe himself, whom Archie describes on the first page thusly:

"Wolfe himself could have got a job in a physics laboratory as an Immovable Object if the detective business ever played out."

Wolfe is brilliant, but agoraphobic and possibly a little obsessive-complusive. He hates to have his routines disrupted, and has set up his life so that they never will be. He owns an entire brownstone in New York City, and has a brilliant chef working in his kitchen, and a green house on the roof where he raises orchids. Wolfe is also a masterful bully who gets his way every time, and sometimes it's a wonder to watch him manage it when the whole world is trying to foil him.

Archie is the one person who can disrupt Wolfe's routine, and that's actually his primary duty -- to cajole, sass and manipulate Wolfe into taking on cases and making an income to support his lifestyle. Of course, even when Wolfe takes on a case, he won't leave the house except under extreme duress, so that's the other part of Archie's job -- to run around collecting information, and as often as not, cajoling, sassing and manipulating people into coming to see Wolfe. Sometimes Archie has to manipulate both the witness AND Wolfe into meeting.

I think the ending of the first novella in the book, Black Orchids, is the weakest part, but it's not bad. The truth is that the solution and unmasking doesn't really matter. The driving question of the story is how Wolfe will get his way, and how Archie will get his job done, in spite of opposition by the police and others, and the piling on of complicating problems they have to juggle.

The second story in the book, Cordially Invited To Death (I think originally called Invitation to Murder) is a little more pure puzzle/whodunnit, but still a good read. (I can't tell you if the ending is good or not, because, unlike the ending of the first one, I actually remembered the key clue, so I was expecting it.)

I am right now writing another Mick and Casey story, and one of the things that struck me as I read Black Orchids, is how much influence Archie's narrative voice had on me. Even though Mick and Archie are quite different characters, I think it was Archie who gave me the feel for the "reporting voice" of a pro, who also had a dry sense of humor about the world around him.

That is what appeals to me about Archie's voice; while it is often sarcastic and witty, underneath it is always meticulous, detailed reporting. That's his job. He can report conversations verbatim, without notes. He is observant enough to give Wolfe a clear picture of what happened elsewhere -- even though Archie may not have full grasp of the significance. Wolfe can always count on Archie to report everything there is to report, so Wolfe can figure out the crime.

A friend of mine once came across a meme: if you could have the life of any character in literature, who would you choose? I tend to ignore those kinds of memes because I don't really want to be anyone else... but that one I knew right away: Nero Wolfe. Never have to leave the house, have great food, time to commit to favorite hobbies, and best of all, I'd be living with Archie Goodwin! What's not to want?

See you in the funny papers.


Lee said...

"Never have to leave the house, have great food, time to commit to favorite hobbies..."
Sounds ideal. Sometimes I'd settle for just one out of the three!

The Daring Novelist said...

Lee: yeah, 'twould be nice to just get enough sometimes.

Megan Payne said...

I have noticed that novellas remained live and well in romances and seasonal stories, like Christmas books. Of course, I was always shopping the Christian market, but they stuck around there where I didn't see them in other genres until recently.

The Daring Novelist said...

Romance is one of the midlists that really stuck it out, and defeated the new paradigm. I think it was partly because of the direct-to-consumer sales that publishers used. They just basically bypassed the booksellers when the booksellers got nasty.

And, of course, the Christian market kept their niche bookstores and alternate distribution channels.

When you have a passionate niche audience, it's easier to be audience oriented -- because your audience will find you no matter where you go.