Years ago Larry and his friends conceived of a mythical motorcycle club called the Lowbrows. Their motto was “I’m a lowbrow. You figure it out.” (I never saw their motto written out, but I imagine lowbrows don’t use semicolons.) I don’t think the club had any purpose, it was more of a riff. But it came to mind when I thought about mentioning how much I love the Nero Wolfe mysteries by Rex Stout. I just finished listening to Before Midnight.
Stout has created a zany universe, with Wolfe as the star and Archie Goodwin as narrator. Wolfe is an eccentric genius who weighs (according to Archie) “a seventh of a ton.” His home and office occupy a three-story brownstone on west 35th street in NY with Fritz Brenner as resident chef (succulent recipes often mentioned briefly), and 10,000 orchids in a rooftop garden with a resident gardener, Theodore Horstmann.
Wolfe never leaves his house on business, and spends from 9-11 and 4-6 every weekday with his orchids. He is not to be disturbed at these times or at meals. He likes his beer as well as his food, and he’s wary of women and their unpredictability; he hates scenes. (I’m not a lowbrow, so I get to use the occasional semicolon.) He often say Pfui!
Wolfe prefers not to work, but when the expenses of his household force him to take a case, Archie does all the legwork, and Wolfe at some point sits with his eyes closed and his lips pushing in and out. This is the signal that he’s on to one of his ingenious solutions or schemes to come to a solution of the case.
The books, as narrated always by Archie (who lives in a room in the brownstone), have a smart-alec tone, and plenty of the colorful epithets and descriptions that make detective fiction fun. “It’s vulgar to eavesdrop when you can’t make out the words,” is the type of humor in these pages. And as Wolfe is allegedly very well-read, there are always references to books, to word usage, and to other affairs literary, culinary or horticultural. Here’s a typical exchange between a client, Kearns, and Wolfe:
“I demand an exlanation! I intend to hold you to account for alienating the affection of my wife.”
“Affections,” Wolfe said.
“Affections. In that context the plural is used.” He lifted the glass and drank, and licked his lips.
Kearns stared at him. “I didn’t come here,” he said, “to have my grammar corrected.”
“Not grammar. Diction.”
It’s a special pleasure to listen to these as audio recordings. Michael Prichard perfectly articulates Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe alike. Whether you think these are lowbrow or not, I’m in awe of this quirky, consistent, and charming world where all mysteries are solved without disrupting dinner. Luckily, I haven’t read them all.
And when Larry was complaining yesterday that he had many customers who wanted things and too many time-consuming tasks since he lost his employee, I suggested that because he has unique items that aren’t available elsewhere, he just be cranky and eccentric, like Nero Wolfe. “I’m already that,” Larry answered, “I just don’t want to get worse.”