Many people – including me – think that Nero Wolfe is the son of Sherlock Holmes.
I’ve been reading the Nero Wolfe novels since I was a teenager in 1981. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read and re-read these books, but I’m well past being able to count it on two hands. Wolfe is my second favorite “book friend” (as my son calls them) after Holmes. His adventures cannot be recommended highly enough.
Recently, and even though I don’t have time to do so, I’ve been of a mind to read about Wolfe again, thanks to things mentioned and discussed by fellow Wolfeans Bob Byrne and Dan Andriacco. But when reading about Wolfe, I don’t just read all the cases presented by Archie Goodwin’s literary agent, Rex Stout. There are actually a number of other Wolfe tales presented by others that should be read as well.
Back in 2013, I wrote an essay for the [Nero] Wolfe Pack Gazette, entitled “Re-reading the Corpus”, as the body of Wolfe stories is known. (It can be found in The Gazette, Vol. XX, No.2, Spring 2013). At the time, I was then in the middle of another re-reading the Wolfe adventures. The essay gives information about the other tales beyond the official Corpus, and suggests an order in which to read them.
As I consider whether to once again re-visit the Brownstone, I thought that I’d put that essay from The Gazette of nearly three years ago up on this blog for a wider audience. (I've updated a few on the list at the end, to reflect recent additions.)
So, from 2013, here it is for your consideration:
Rereading The Nero Wolfe Corpus
I recently started my umpteenth reread of the Wolfe Corpus, after looking up one day and realizing that it had been several years since I'd visited the Brownstone. When I read about the lives of Mr. Wolfe and Archie, I like to read chronologically. But I don't just read the Corpus and nothing else, and I don’t start with Fer-de-Lance. There are a lot of other stories to read as well.
Meet Nero Wolfe
I first encountered Nero Wolfe in 1975, when I was ten years old, but it was several years before I actually figured out his name. At that time, I had recently started my lifelong frenzied fascination with the life of Mr. Sherlock Holmes, and was reading Baring-Gould's Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street. I had reached Chapter 18, describing the birth of the son of Holmes and Irene Adler. The chapter continued by describing the grown son's attributes and his physical resemblance to Mycroft Holmes. The chapter concluded with Rex Stout's vague acknowledgement that, as literary agent for [name deleted] (as Baring-Gould showed it,) he could neither confirm nor deny the accuracy of the claim. I didn't know who Rex Stout was, and I certainly didn't know who [name deleted] referred to.
Of course, to some of you - but not all - the whole subject of Wolfe's parentage by way of a Holmes-Adler union is flummery. However, I was ten years old, and it seemed perfectly reasonable to me. I was quite willing to accept this fellow as Holmes's son. I just didn't know his name yet.
A year or so later, I was in a used bookstore with my dad, and he handed me a scuffed paperback titled Over My Dead Body. It was a Pyramid edition, with a cover illustration showing a man getting stabbed by some sort of sword.
Stout's name was in big orange letters, and underneath it was another name, an odd name, in slightly smaller yellow letters: Nero Wolfe. For all I knew, that was a coauthor's name. Knowing that I liked mysteries, my dad said that this was a book with a detective. I let him buy it for me, and promptly shelved it and forgot about it. (Back then I had much more extra space on my bookshelves . . . .) At some later time, I connected the author's name, Rex Stout, with [name deleted]’s literary agent, as mentioned in the Baring-Gould biography. So now I knew that Holmes's son was named Nero Wolfe – how strange! But that still wasn't enough to get me started reading the Corpus.
Strangely, what did nudge me into reading Archie's narratives was the premiere of the 1981 William Conrad television show. I acknowledge that this was not the best door to Wolfe's world, but at least it got me there. I had seen the film Death On The Nile with Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot a few years earlier, and my teenage interest in the other Great Detectives was slowly expanding. Wolfe's gathering of the suspects at the end of the television episode was much like what I had enjoyed at the end of the Poirot movie. After watching that first episode of the 1981 series, I remembered that I owned a Wolfe book. I pulled it out, and started to read it the next day in study hall. And that was all it took. Soon I was a Wolfe fanatic. Ever since, Wolfe has been my second favorite person about whom to read and collect, only surpassed by The Master, Sherlock Holmes himself.
In 1981, Bantam had been reissuing Wolfe books for a couple of years, each with that magnificent portrait on the back cover of Wolfe, glowering straight out at the reader.
I've never seen another version of Wolfe that looks better, or that better suits how I picture him. (I would love to know more about this painting, who painted it, and where the real item is right now. It seems to be a treasure that the Wolfe Pack should seek out.) For a high school sophomore in a small town in 1981, finding Wolfe books was a very hit-or- miss project, and I read them as I found them, in no particular order. It continued this way for several years, devouring new ones as I discovered them, and sometimes going back to reread old favorites.
Discovering Scholarship and Pastiches
In the winter of 1984-85, I was in my second year of college, and I realized that I had finally acquired all of the Wolfe books. Or so I thought. I embarked on something that I had never done with any other series that I had read up to that time: I started trying to read the Corpus chronologically, beginning with Fer-de-Lance. Of course, I didn't get it right. I read the novella collections as whole books, in the order that the collections were published, instead of separating out the individual novellas and fitting them in between the novels, as they were actually written and chronologically occurred. But I did my best.
During that winter, I checked out McAleer's biography of Stout from the library. One night I was amazed to read that there was a relatively unknown - at that time - Wolfe novella, "Bitter End." (This was before it was later collected and published in book form.) My dormitory was located immediately behind the college library, so I walked over that night and found the lost story in an old American Magazine - it had probably been sitting on that shelf, untouched by anyone else, since it was first placed there. I truly felt like a Wolfe scholar at that point, knowing about and actually having read something of which the casual Wolfe reader was unaware.
Later, while still in college, I made it to New York for the first time and got to walk along West 35th Street. Not quite how I imagined it. By the late 1980's, I was married, and had discovered the Wolfe Pack. I joined, and learned about Reverend Gotwald's amazing annotated companions. I bought them all, even though we really couldn't afford them. This prompted another rereading, this time in better chronological order, as outlined in the companions.
Of course, I was still buying and collecting Holmes books as well, along with items relating to my other detective heroes, such as Ellery Queen, Hercule Poirot, and Perry Mason. While placing a telephone order to a now-defunct Sherlockian bookstore in California, I was talked into purchasing two hardback books by a then-unknown author, John Lescroart. The books, Son of Holmes and Rasputin's Revenge, were about someone with the odd name of Auguste Lupa, supposedly Holmes's son. I purchased them for my Holmes collection, received them, and promptly forgot about them, intending to read them some day, but with no urgency since someone named Lupa couldn't be Holmes's son. I already knew that Holmes's son was named Wolfe.
Weeks later, I was driving home from work, and a spark jumped in my brain that Lupa was a variant of the word for wolf. Wolf. Wolfe. Auguste . . . That was a name derived from that of a Roman emperor, Augustus. A bit like Nero, also a Roman emperor. Auguste? Nero? Nero Lupa? Nero Wolfe? Son of Holmes? Good grief!
I admit that it's embarrassing that it took me so long to make that connection. I checked as soon as I got home, and found that that Lupa was a heavy-set young man of the right age who loved food and beer, especially beer, and he was a World War I-era spy, and he wore yellow shirts, and he encountered and acquired a cook named Fritz . . . . This was the link that I had been searching for. These were narratives of young Nero Wolfe, before he was Nero Wolfe. And he was the Son of Holmes. Clearly in the future I needed to include these books as prequels to the Corpus whenever I reread it.
Later, I found another related item. The film Sherlock Holmes in New York, along with a corresponding paperback book, had appeared way back in 1976. For those who haven't seen or read it, Irene Adler is in New York with her son, Scott. Professor Moriarty - who did not die at Reichenbach - uses threats against Irene to lure Holmes and Watson to the United States, where he intends to commit the crime of the century right under their noses. As a distraction, he kidnaps Scott. Throughout the course of the book and film, Holmes and Irene reference their previous meeting in Montenegro, the fact that Holmes's middle name is also Scott (as theorized by some Sherlockians from Holmes's use of the name Escott in the story "Charles Augustus Milverton": Sherlock Scott Holmes: S.Scott Holmes: Escott,) and Holmes and Irene's general implied conversation that the boy's father is Holmes. I added this to the list of prequel materials to be read before Fer-de-Lance.
A few years ago I found two more books and a short story, all by Brian Freemantle, that I think should count as part of the early days of Nero Wolfe: The Holmes Inheritance, The Holmes Factor, and "The Faberge Egg." All of these take place in 1913. In these stories, Holmes's son, identified (incorrectly, in my opinion) as Sebastian Holmes, is on his first solo missions for the British government, initially to the United States, and then to Russia. It is my belief that Freemantle constructed his narratives after examining old documents relating to the events. In these notes, the protagonist, Holmes's son, was simply identified as "S. Holmes" or "S." Freemantle, not knowing that the actual name was "Scott," came up with the incorrect name of "Sebastian" to fill in for "S." Freemantle adds a few other editorial fictions that I don't agree with as well, and I am forced to rationalize them away as spurious elaborations by the editor, such as statements that Sherlock Holmes is still on cocaine as late as 1913, and that the mother of Holmes's son is not Irene Adler, but rather a woman who nursed Holmes back to health after the Reichenbach Incident.
Of course, from this you can deduce that I have decided to accept that Nero Wolfe's actual real name was Scott Holmes. Lescroart says that Wolfe's real original name is John Adler Holmes, but I just don't think that is right. I have filled in some more of Wolfe's early biography to my satisfaction, after careful consideration over thirty-plus years and numerous rereads of the stories. In 2011, my first book of Holmes short stories, The Papers of Sherlock Holmes, was published. In the final story, "The Adventure of the Other Brother" and the subsequent Postscript, I outline what I believe is Wolfe's boyhood story from the time of his birth to his early twenties: Irene Adler's later marriage to a Montenegrin man named Vukcic (he has a son named Marko!), Holmes’s sudden departure from London and young Scott's move to Sussex with his father following Irene Adler's death in 1903, his exposure to deduction and criminal investigation while growing up during Holmes's supposed "retirement" when Holmes is actually functioning as an agent of the British government during the years leading to The Great War, Scott’s early uses of names involving variants of the word “wolf,” and Wolfe's eventual recruitment into service for the British government, under the supervision of Mycroft Holmes. I also reveal the true identity of the great Sherlock Holmes successor, Solar Pons, and his relation to young Wolfe.
Re-reading the Corpus
I've reread the Corpus many times since the first time,and later when I discovered the Auguste Lupa books in the late 1980's. I always work in the other books previously mentioned, so that I can read about Wolfe's whole life, and not just the vast, best, and most familiar part recorded by Archie Goodwin (with Rex Stout’s assistance) from the nineteen-thirties onward. I am in the middle of my current pass through the events of Wolfe's life, and I started, as usual, with Ch.18 of Baring-Gould's biography, because that details the events leading to Wolfe's birth. Then I read and watched Sherlock Holmes in New York, explaining an incident in Wolfe’s life when he was nine years old. This time I included a glance at the incidents outlined in my own book, The Papers of Sherlock Holmes, telling about Wolfe's experiences from childhood to early adulthood. Next came the Freemantle and Lescroart books, relating the events of the years leading to World War I through the middle of the war.
So far no one has really filled in the stories of Wolfe's travels between the War and the time he settled in New York. I have theories about that as well, including why he settled on the name Nero Wolfe for the rest of his life. The next chronological item to occur when reading about Wolfe’s life is "Firecrackers" by Charles Burns, which first appeared in The Gazette (Vol. IX, No.’s 1-3) and later in Nero Wolfe: The Archie Goodwin Files. This story is, for me, the definitive tale of how Wolfe and Archie met in December 1926. [Robert Goldsborugh has written a later version, Archie Meets Nero Wolfe, but it has some objections, and probably stands better as a later case with certain fictions added by Goldsborough later.] Finally, after reading these prequel items, I was ready to start Fer-de-Lance. As I read the Corpus this latest time, I find that the original stories are just as fresh, fun, and exciting as they were when I first found them in 1981.
As I visit W.35th Street this time, I'm adding in several other books that I should have read years ago. Unbelievably, in the thirty-plus years that I've been reading about Nero Wolfe, I never picked up Inspector Cramer’s adventure Red Threads or Dol Bonner’s The Hand in the Glove. In spite of the fact that it has taken me this long to actually read Red Threads for the first time, I have been amazed for years that it hasn’t received more attention. If Arthur Conan Doyle had written a separate book about Inspector Lestrade, it would have been studied and picked through as an honored addition to The Holmes Apocrypha. I've always had the impression that Red Threads doesn't get much respect. The same for Dol Bonner's initial appearance in The Hand in the Glove.
Granted, Red Threads and The Hand in the Glove aren't the most exciting stories that Stout ever brought to us. But it is fun to see Inspector Cramer competently dealing with other people when he isn't vexed by Wolfe and Archie. And if I hadn't read these books, I wouldn't have known several other facts, such as details about Dol Bonner's past and subsequent bitterness, or that District Attorney Skinner's first name is Bob.
There are other Stout fragments that should not be ignored, such as “Why Nero Wolfe Likes Orchids” and the introduction to “The Case of the Spies Who Weren’t.” And what about the Stout short story "By His Own Hand," originally starring Alphabet Hicks, which features an appearance by Purley Stebbins? I've always read this story as if Archie was the actual main character, instead of Hicks, and that this is really one of Archie’s solo cases that took place in the summer of 1950, while Wolfe was on his own Great Hiatus during In the Best Families. In fact, I’ve rewritten it as an Archie Goodwin story,[see The Gazette, Vol.XX, No.2, Spring 2013] much like Charles Burns rewrote the Tecumseh Fox novel The Broken Vase as "Requiem For a Violin" (The Gazette [Vol. XI, No.’s 1-4]), which is another story I always include in the Big Reread. I also wish that someone would rewrite the remaining Tecumseh Fox novel, Double For Death, and the Alphabet Hicks novel, The Sound of Murder, as Wolfe stories.
As I go through the Corpus this time, I am also working in various other items in the chronologically appropriate places, such as traditional-minded fan-fiction items that I have discovered over the last few years. There are some stories in back issues of The Gazette that I haven’t read. There are items to be included from Nero Wolfe: The Archie Goodwin Files. Alan Vanneman has produced a Wolfe story collection on his internet blog, Three Bullets, containing "Politics Is Murder," "Invitation To A Shooting Party," and "Fame Will Tell." I can't judge all of these stories yet, as I haven't reached the point where I will read them and fit them chronologically into the Corpus. Some of the Vanneman tales seem as if they will be too modern to be acceptable, but "Invitation To A Shooting Party" is set in 1935, and it works just fine.
I am also listening again to each of the Wolfe radio shows that are still in existence. They aren't perfect, but if one accepts them with the understanding that they were probably heavily altered from Archie's notes in order to make them more radio-friendly, the essential Wolfe-ness comes through, and they make a fine addition to the Overall Corpus, thus presenting an even rounder picture of our heroes. The same is true for the pastiche episodes of the 1981 series.
An additional consideration as I read is a concurrent examination of the life of my all-time next-favorite person about whom to read and collect, also a famed New York detective, Ellery Queen. I have studied Ellery's adventures since childhood, since before I even heard of Nero Wolfe, and I have noticed some interesting intersections. More about that in a future paper - I hope! - but I will mention a couple of interesting ideas for further exploration. First, in "Disguise For Murder," set in 1949, Inspector Cramer seems especially overwrought when dealing with the idea of a strangulation occurring in Wolfe's office, to the point that he seems to unnecessarily antagonize Wolfe by sealing the office during the course of the investigation. Perhaps Cramer's over-reaction becomes understandable when one considers that The Cat Murders, a series of serial-killer strangulations, had just taken place during the previous summer and fall of 1948 (as recorded in Ellery Queen's Cat of Many Tails) and Doris Hatten's strangulation the previous October had occurred during some of the worst of New York's terror related to the Cat Murders. No wonder Cramer was sensitive, thinking that some part of the Cat Murders, as investigated by his old peer Inspector Queen, was beginning again.
An additional intersection occurs in the summer of 1950. Ellery Queen is in Los Angeles at that time, for reasons never adequately or convincingly explained, during the events of his own adventure, The Origin of Evil. It is my belief that he is there at the personal request of Wolfe, who needed his help while establishing his identity there as Pete Roeder. I am not certain what Ellery's role was in Wolfe's master plan, but I am sure that when Wolfe called, Ellery answered. Ellery's subsequent involvement in the events of The Origin of Evil was simply something else that happened to him while he was there - as things always seem to happen to the Great Detectives.
After reading all of the Corpus, with the additional items worked in, I'll reread Robert Goldsborough's wonderful additions. I have a slightly different chronological take on these books, as well as the later Wolfe stories as presented by Stout. Sadly, I don’t believe that Wolfe and Archie never aged. I think that the events of the later Wolfe cases, chronicled by both Stout and Goldsborough, actually took place earlier than the dates implied within the stories. In the case of Hercule Poirot, I have always felt that most of Poirot’s later investigations took place in the late nineteen-forties, that Poirot actually died in the early nineteen-fifties, and that the events of Curtain did not occur as late as 1975, the time of publication, as some would argue. Many people seem willing to believe that Poirot was one-hundred-twenty-five-plus years old at the time of his death, just because that's when Curtain was copyrighted. I believe that all of the Poirot books published during the late nineteen-fifties, sixties, and seventies, actually occurred in the late nineteen-forties, and that any contemporary references within them, implying that they were occurring around the time of their actual publication dates, were simply added by Christie during the writing process to give them an up-to-date feel. I think that Stout, and later Goldsborough, did the same thing when preparing Archie's manuscripts for publication.
You might argue that the Watergate Crisis is an integral part of A Family Affair, invalidating my argument. I actually think that the events of A Family Affair took place in the mid-nineteen-sixties, not long after the events of The Doorbell Rang, and that the Watergate elements of A Family Affair were worked in by Stout in the nineteen-seventies, when he was updating from Archie's notes. Actually, the sensitivity to a cover-up as shown by Wolfe in A Family Affair was simply related to his wariness following the events of The Doorbell Rang. All of the novels between The Doorbell Rang and A Family Affair still occur between those two books - they are just compressed into the late nineteen-sixties, instead of extending into the mid-seventies. Perhaps it is a topic worthy of future discussion.
Finally, I'll probably finish reading about Wolfe’s life with three pastiches that I found on the internet by Glenn Dixon under the collected title Three Strikes, which sounds perfectly Goodwin-ish. The stories included therein are "Welcome To Death," "No Body," and "Not With A Whimper." I must admit that I haven't read them yet, since it's been a while since I journeyed through the Corpus, but I hear good things, and I was glad to find them.
To sum up, I believe that a well-rounded view of Wolfe must include other stories than those presented by Stout, although I freely agree that Stout’s are far, far better than any others, and if you're only going to read one thing about Nero Wolfe, by all means, make it something from the original Corpus. However, when rereading the complete life of Nero Wolfe, I would like to suggest the following sources:
To Be Read Before Fer-de-Lance:
• Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street, Ch 18 - William S. Baring-Gould - The facts relating to Wolfe's birth
• Sherlock Holmes in New York (Book and Film) - Wolfe at age nine in New York
• "The Adventure of the Other Brother" and "Postscipt" - The Papers of Sherlock Holmes - David Marcum - Although Wolfe isn't specifically a character, his history from birth through his early twenties, and an incident involving him in the late 1920's, is outlined, as well as mentions of his early acquaintances with Ellery Queen, Solar Pons, and Hercule Poirot
• The Holmes Inheritance, The Holmes Factor, and "The Faberge Egg" - Brian Freemantle - Wolfe in 1913 as an agent of the British government
• Son of Holmes and Rasputin's Revenge - John Lescroart - Wolfe, the British agent, during The Great War
• "Firecrackers" - Charles Burns - The definitive meeting of Wolfe and Archie Goodwin
To Be Read With The Understanding That This Is The Real Deal:
• The Nero Wolfe Corpus - Rex Stout (Accept No Substitutes! To be read in chronological order!)
To Be Read/Listened-To/Watched Concurrently With The Corpus (In The Chronologically Correct Location . . . .):
• Red Threads and The Hand in the Glove - Rex Stout - Incidents in the lives of Inspector Cramer and Dol Bonner
• "By His Own Hand" - Rex Stout - With Archie substituted for Alphabet Hicks - One of Archie's solo investigations during the summer of 1950
• "The Case of the Spies Who Weren't" - Rex Stout (Ramparts Magazine, January 1966) - Archie's narrative of the only recorded time Rex Stout visited the Brownstone
• "Why Nero Wolfe Likes Orchids" - Rex Stout (Life Magazine, September 15, 1963) - A revealing peek at one of Wolfe's early cases, and what it led to . . . .
• Nero Wolfe’s Introduction to the boxed set of recipes created by American Magazine to accompany their version of Too Many Cooks
• Fritz Brenner's Introduction to The Nero Wolfe Cookbook
• [Later volumes by Robert Goldsborough, published since this essay was in The Gazette in early 2013. These, to be fit in the chronologically correct spot, include: Archie Meets Nero Wolfe, Murder in the Ball Park, Archie in the Crosshairs, and Stop the Presses!]
• "The McAleer Fragment" in Rex Stout: A Biography - The text of a Christmas card from Archie to Stout biographer John McAleer
• "Requiem For A Violin" - Charles Burns - A Wolfe investigation, originally written by Stout as a Tecumseh Fox novel
• Pastiches in various back-issues of The Gazette and Nero Wolfe: The Archie Goodwin Files.
• Various serious fan-fictions - No slash, parody or comedy, please
• Existing "Nero Wolfe" Radio Shows
• Pastiche Episodes of the 1981 "Nero Wolfe" Television Show
• Various intersecting clues gleaned from the lives of Ellery Queen and Solar Pons
To Be Read Upon Completion of the Corpus:
• Murder In E-Minor, Death On Deadline, The Bloodied Ivy, The Last Coincidence, Fade To Black, Silver Spire, The Missing Chapter - Robert Goldsborough - What happened after A Family Affair
• Three Strikes - Glenn Dixon - Taking up where Goldsborough left off. I can't wait to see what happens in these. . . .
In conclusion, I would recommend that anyone rereading the Wolfe Saga, sometimes described as encompassing more than ten-thousand pages, be willing to add a few hundred more pages in order to see the complete picture. It is well worth it, I assure you.