Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street: The Life and Times of America's Largest Private Detective, by William S. Baring-Gould


Merely mediocre. It's nice to have the data from all the Nero Wolfe stories collected in one volume (well, all the stories published prior to 1969, that is--Death of a Dude, Please Pass the Guilt, and the rather dark A Family Affair came later and are not included here). I particularly appreciated the chronology (presented concisely in an appendix of sorts, and rather unnecessarily in text form in chapters 12 through 26). I read the books as they came my way, and never really got much of an idea of their proper chronological order. I expect that I will refer to the chronology often in future re-reading of the Nero Wolfe mysteries.

I also appreciated the map of the ground floor of the brownstone--I'd always pictured the office and front room to the right of the front door, and was grateful to have my misconception corrected.

Baring-Gould also includes descriptions of all of the main and repeat supporting players. However, he offers nothing new or insightful--his descriptions consist entirely of quotes and excerpts lifted directly from the text. Which is all well and good from an accuracy standpoint, but doesn't make for exciting reading. I suppose I was hoping for more of an analysis of the characters than a mere recitation of their appearances in the books and a parroting of Stout's own descriptions.

This unwillingness to expound on Stout's writing is particularly surprising in light of the fanciful and foundationless theories Baring-Gould offers regarding Wolfe's ancestry. Much emphasis is placed upon the conflicting dates and biographical details in the various stories. And perhaps this was deliberate obfuscation to hide Wolfe's unusual familial connections. However, since Baring-Gould himself admits that Stout usually cranked out a new story in 35-40 days, and in an era long before computers made the text of previous books readily searchable, it is much more likely that these inconsistencies are mere continuity errors--particularly since they so often concern minor details and dates. Baring-Gould uses these discrepancies to build an entire (and unlikely) history based merely on the fact that it "could have happened." No actual evidence is offered.

For example, much is made of the similarities between Wolfe and Sherlock Holmes--the assistant as narrator, the genius for crime-solving, the idiosyncrasies . . . yet it is far more likely that Stout wrote in such a way as to honor and to some degree imitate a classic character he loved (and a set-up that he saw worked well), than it is that he intended his stories to be connected to Holmes in a direct sense or to share a fictional universe with Holmes.

I think I would have preferred more critical analysis of the facts and characters we do see and fewer efforts to create an utterly preposterous backstory for Wolfe and Archie. Still, it has merits as a reference book, so it's not a complete waste.

[NOTE: My copy, which was purchased from a used bookstore, bears a stamp reading "U.S. Air Force" and another identifying it as having belonged to the library of a former U.S. Congressman. This is why I love used books.]

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