Nero Wolfe Redux

Nero refusing to leave his orchids.
When I first started Votaries over a decade ago, I split up my topics into separate blogs. The below post was originally posted with other posts about television (this was in the days before the "labels" feature).

Nero Wolfe

One of the great things about Timothy Hutton's Nero Wolfe [and the original Nero Wolfe, for that matter] is the morality of Nero Wolfe. It takes a bit of getting used to since it seems, on the surface, almost brutal.

On one occasion ["Prisoner's Base"], a woman comes to Nero Wolfe's brownstone. She wants to stay--in the same way she might stay at a fancy hotel (only safer). Wolfe rejects her proposition. Her attorney has offered Wolfe $10,000 to find her. But since she came to him of her own accord, he informs her that he will either (1) allow her to stay if she pays him an appropriate retainer ($10,000) or (2) give her 24 hours to run, and then follow her in order to obtain the $10,000.

She decides on (2) and is killed within 3 hours of leaving the brownstone. Wolfe sees no need to investigate: he is not responsible, has no client, and is peripherally involved. Archie disagrees and gets himself in trouble. Wolfe ends up resolving the case on Archie's behalf.

In an age still very much affected by chivalric impulses, Wolfe's proposition to the soon-to-be-murdered young woman seems callous (so it strikes Archie), but the more Nero Wolfe you watch [read], the more you realize that this hard self-interest is intrinsically honorable.

Debra Monk, a regular "player" on the show
In a later episode, Wolfe deliberately withholds evidence, to his own inconvenience, because the murder victim wished the evidence withheld, and he feels her (self-interested) choice (which got her killed) should be honored. The same episode contains one of my favorite pieces of Wolfe dialog. Speaking to his client, played by the marvelous Debra Monk, he states, "I agree with you that had you broken your promise [and told the police about the cylinder], Miss Gunther would not have been killed--but it was she who asked for the promise, so the responsibility is hers." 

Wolfe will take on clients and then release himself when a conflict of interest arises; in other words, he is not the type of detective to defend his clients out of personal liking no matter what; the one time he does defend a client despite lack of funds--a gardener--he does it because he wants the man to take care of his orchids, which the gardener can't do in jail.
Nero comforting Fritz

Wolfe will also defend a client for no money if he believes that he has an obligation (as he does with Fritz in "Poison a la Carte").

Likewise, he will withhold information from the police if he feels the information is not their business, yet he will respect a city ordinance not to enter his own study, simply because it is the law. He walks a fine line between deliberately subordinating justice to gain his own ends and satisfying justice to gain his own ends. And he never drifts off the line.

It is, overall, a consistent study of behavior that reflects, from what I have read and been told, Rex Stout's depiction of Wolfe in the books. The television series' plots (which are performed by the same "players") are simply a stylish backdrop against which Nero Wolfe and Archie argue over cases. Chaykin and Hutton pull this off (with more than adequate support from a stellar cast, including the marvelous Conrad Dunn) through rapid-fire dialog and fascinating reaction shots, but the complexity of Wolfe's integrity is the meat that the audience waits for. Without that underlying gritty hardheadedness, the show would be a more than adequate period piece but nothing more. It is the producers' willingness to keep Wolfe unpretty, unsympathetic and unsentimental that makes the show work. For 2 seasons at least!


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FreeLiveFree said...

Sam Spade was also a lot less than noble.

Wolfe has a stronger sense of obligation than compassion. In a world where tweeting something is considered being compassionate it's kind of refreshing. Thing about Wolfe is he's an Epicurean. I don't mean his love of food. Contrary to popular image, Epicurus lived off basically bread and water. However, like Epicurus he has removed himself to a great extent from human society in order to find equanimity of soul. There are more than a few hints in the book that his past is pretty dark and violent.

I always saw Philip Marlowe as a member of the Epicureans rivals the Stoic. Sam Spade is a pragmatist. Mike Hammer an Objectivist. Sherlock Holmes is...Sherlock Holmes.