18.3.12

Rex Stout's Black Orchids

Although Rex Stout worked at more than 30 different jobs, he found his true career when he turned to writing. His 33 novels and 41 novellas featuring private investigator Nero Wolfe have never waned in popularity from the time they were first published. Winner of both the Silver Dagger and Grand Master awards, Wolfe continued to write Nero Wolfe novels until his death at age 88. His works have been translated into 26 languages and have sold over 100 million copies.

In Black Orchids, Stout presents two novellas loosely joined by the title’s flower motif. The first case begins as Nero Wolfe makes one of his rare exoduses from his comfortable New York brownstone to view exotic black orchids at a local flower show. A murder takes place at the show and Wolfe’s prize for solving the crime is the coveted orchids. In the second case, a client who enlists Wolfe’s services is subsequently murdered.

What attracts readers to this novel is the character of Nero Wolfe. Whitman (1975) described him as “a Falstaff in girth and wit, a serious eater, a devoted orchidologist, an agoraphobe who solved crimes by sheer brainpower, albeit with the help of a brash but efficient legman, Archie.” Wolfe is a lovable eccentric, a man so large he rarely leaves his home and one who spends four hours a day with his beloved plants.

Although he can be gruff, irascible, and grumpy, he has an old-world charm that is hard to resist. His home is his castle and is organized according to old-fashioned rules and rituals. A true gourmet, he lives for food and never allows business discussions during meals.

The narrative is presented through the eyes of Archie Goodwin – Wolfe’s tough, streetwise assistant. The witty repartee between Wolfe and Goodwin animates every novel in the series. Part of the charm of these mysteries is their combination of cozy and hard-boiled traditions. Wolfe stays home in a quaint, soft-boiled world while Goodwin treks through the tough streets.

The adversarial relationship between Wolfe and his colleague Inspector Cramer is depicted with humour and insight. Cramer tries repeatedly to bully Wolfe into acquiescing to his demands and is usually unsuccessful. Goodwin tells us, “If the man who knew Wolfe best was me, next to me came Inspector Cramer. Over and over again through the years, he tried bluster because it was in his system and had to come out, but usually he knew when to drop it” (84).

Nero Wolfe’s West 35th Street brownstone, like Ellery Queen’s similar abode (see my post on The French Powder Mystery), is a male bastion with urbane charm. Wolfe’s four-story apartment is home to Goodwin as well as Wolfe’s chef and gardener. This place of exotic plants and gourmet feasts is both a pastoral oasis and a comforting locale of reassuring order in the midst of the violent New York streets.

Stout, Rex. Black Orchids. 1941. In Black Orchids; The Silent Speaker. New York: Bantam Books, 2009.

Whitman, Alden. “Rex Stout, Creator of Nero Wolfe, Dead.” New York Times. October 28, 1975.