Monday, January 18, 2010

Nero Wolfe of West 35th Street

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Nero Wolfe of West 35th Street (Viking, 1969).

Several years back, I read William Baring-Gould's delightful, winking little faux biography of Sherlock Holmes, and wrote a little about it at my LiveJournal. It's taken me a few years to get comfortable enough in the canon of Nero Wolfe to have a look at Baring-Gould's other pet obsession and the connections between them - I'm not spoiling anything by letting you know that the author works under the assumption that Wolfe is the son of Holmes and Irene Adler - and now that I've read it, I think of it a quaint little curiosity, nowhere as compelling as his Holmes book.

Part of it comes from Baring-Gould's odd insistence on treating the Wolfe canon - something like 76 stories - as a single narrative that unfolds in real, publication time. As far as I'm aware, the only real-world event that must punctuate the canon is World War Two, as Archie Goodwin spent two novellas working for army intelligence. Otherwise, a biography like this simply must compress the storyline into a series of stories set before the war and the remainder into a series of perhaps a decade or a dozen years afterward, but surely no more. The problem is that Rex Stout continued writing stories with the characters until his death in 1975, and the notion of a seventy year-old Archie still working as legman for a ninety year-old Wolfe, and still romancing Lily Rowan while they're both drawing social security, is pretty darn silly. Surely the canon must end in the mid-1950s to make sense, right?

But it's more than just the problem of affixing each adventure to its publication date. The Holmes book seemed to delight in the open spaces between the stories that Watson recorded, and consequently invented the modern notion of fanfic with its crossover plots between Doyle characters and speculation about the stories Doyle never wrote. The Wolfe book, by comparison, is incredibly narrow in its focus, speculating briefly on the characters' pasts before Archie came to work for Wolfe, but no further.

Perhaps some of the problem stems from the difference in the characters' popularity. Holmes is universally known and regularly reinvented for other media treatments, and the Doyle canon of sixty stories is known by tens of millions of readers worldwide. Wolfe's popularity has ebbed a great deal since the character's peak in the 1950s and 1960s. The recent-ish TV series, while pretty darn good, was apparently done in by a combination of a high cost and A&E's desire to turn into another reality channel, and was never the crossover hit that, say, the 1980s Granada Holmes series with Jeremy Brett was. So while the Holmes book has broad and amusing appeal to even casual readers, this is something that really could only appeal to Wolfe's devoted fan base, and with so little here beyond recapping the known narrative, it would just as easily be supplanted by an annotated guide to the short stories and novels, without the labored attempts to form it into a biography. It's an amusing diversion, but not one I can really recommend.

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