My Time on West Thirty-Fifth Street

It was Ian Fleming who first told me about the world’s largest detective, in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

M himself went behind his desk and sat down. He was about to come on duty. Bond automatically took his traditional place across the desk from his Chief.

M began to fill a pipe. ‘What the devil’s the name of that fat American detective who’s always fiddling about with orchids, those obscene hybrids from Venezuela and so forth? Then he comes sweating out of his orchid house, eats a gigantic meal of some foreign muck and solves the murder. What’s he called?’

‘Nero Wolfe, sir. They’re written by a chap called Rex Stout. I like them.’

‘They’re readable,’ condescended M.

That put Nero Wolfe on my radar. I was thirteen years old then. Some time after that, there was the TV show with a pre-Matt Houston Lee Horsley and a post-Cannon William Conrad, that I happened across and thought was pretty good.

But I didn’t become a fan until a weekend in the early 1980s when I was trapped at a vacation cabin on Mt. Hood with my dysfunctional family. The only good thing about these trips was that there was a used bookstore a couple of miles up Highway 26 from our place, hidden away in a little strip mall between a deli and the grocery store. This tiny little bookshop was a treasure trove of junk comparable to Cameron’s in Portland (I don’t know what it about Oregon, but it has far and away the best used bookstores.)

This particular hole-in-the-mall (long gone now, sadly; Julie and I went looking for it a decade or so ago and the whole strip had been replaced by a snowboarding concern and a Subway sandwich outlet) is where I found the original Leslie Charteris Saint, Spillane’s Mike Hammer, the Foundation trilogy, Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm, the Man From UNCLE paperbacks by David McDaniel…. and Nero Wolfe. All impulse buys, based mostly on curiosity and price. Paperbacks were a quarter each, or five for a dollar; hardcovers were at most two dollars and usually one. (Sigh… those were the days.) My usual habit on these outings was when Mom went to the grocery store, I’d ride along and blow whatever pocket money I had on books while she was picking up groceries. Then I’d hole up and read for the remainder of the trip.

Anyway, knowing it was going to be a long weekend, I risked a buck on five of the Wolfes. Always had meant to get around to them, I reasoned, and certainly I’d never see them this cheap again. The five I ended up with were The Red Box, The Rubber Band, If Death Ever Slept, Plot It Yourself, and The Golden Spiders.

As it happened, that was a really good sampler package of the series. Rex Stout had been writing Nero Wolfe stories since Fer-de-Lance in 1934 all the way up to A Family Affair in 1975.

My five didn’t quite run the spectrum, but they were a good representative selection from the thirties to the sixties. By the time I had finished the third I was completely in love with them.

See, the thing I’d never quite gotten hold of in my previous experiences was that not only had Rex Stout managed to brilliantly merge the old-school, eccentric-logician puzzle mystery (represented by Wolfe himself, the obese orchid-obsessed gourmet) with the hard-boiled private-eye thriller (represented by Wolfe’s legman Archie Goodwin, handy with his fists, his gun, and the ladies) but he had added a level of delight by having the series narrated in the first person by Archie.

Archie’s literary voice is — I am not even a little bit exaggerating here — one of the most amazing feats in the history of mystery fiction. Unlike, say, Dr. Watson with Sherlock Holmes or Hastings with Hercule Poirot, Archie Goodwin is anything but worshipful of Nero Wolfe. Moreover, Stout manages to put across Wolfe’s brilliance without making Archie sound stupid. (This is really damn hard to do, especially when constructing a traditional puzzle mystery where you have to play fair and seed clues throughout the story.) Within a narrative voice that is at once wry, sarcastic, tough and cool, Stout manages to convey Archie’s admiration of Wolfe’s genius while at the same time also conveying his exasperation with most of Wolfe’s other habits, largely Wolfe’s laziness and reluctance to actually work on whatever the case of the moment might be, especially if the case is interfering with any of Wolfe’s hobbies — gourmet dining or reading or playing with his rooftop greenhouse full of orchids. (Archie considers the real job that Nero Wolfe pays him to do is needling Wolfe into working.) Stout built the series in such a way that it could turn on a dime from slapstick comedy to tense suspense thriller, and Archie’s narration of this is so smooth you just get carried along.

I immediately sought out the rest of the series upon our return home, most of them from Cameron’s. The paperbacks could be had there for about seventy-five cents, and there were also the hardcover omnibus collections generally priced around three dollars.

Of all of them, The Silent Speaker is my favorite and it’s usually the one I recommend people start with.


Once I ran out of the books — 46 in all, novels and short story collections — I started on the ancillary material. Radio Archives had the old radio series (they still do, I think.)

I discovered there had been a couple of movies made back in the 1930s as well. Not that well thought of among Wolfe fans, but worth a look.

And I found a friend who was willing to trade me some VHS tapes he’d made of the William Conrad show, along with the pilot movie starring Thayer David as Wolfe and Tom Mason as Archie.

This didn’t happen all at once. It took about a decade or so, during which many other things happened; primarily the dissolution of my first marriage and me eventually cleaning up my act. But by the mid-90s I had reconstructed most of my library, including all the Rex Stout Wolfes and a couple of Robert Goldsborough’s pastiches. I’d even found the Julian Symons anthology Great Detectives, with his “final adventure of Nero Wolfe” pastiche, so beautifully illustrated by Tom Adams. (The Adams version of Wolfe is perfect; it’s the one I see in my head when I am reading.)

So matters stood when Karen entered my life. This would be about 1997, or thereabouts, back when we both were working at The Corporate Printshop That Shall Not Be Named.

Our unlikely friendship surprised pretty much everyone, including me. I was introverted, reserved, and teetotal. Karen was brash and flirty and loved to party, and she had a string of suitors no one could keep track of. Nevertheless, we grew to enjoy one another’s company a great deal, and she was one of the few people from work I would socialize with away from the shop. I’m sure that most of our other coworkers thought there was something going on there– if not actual dating, than at least some sort of friends-with-benefits arrangement.

The truth was that I was still smarting from my divorce and thought getting involved with Karen that way would torpedo a friendship that I had grown to value a great deal. And after one or two initial overtures from her in that direction, Karen came around to my point of view pretty quickly, and we settled into a comfortable brother-sister dynamic.

This was how I became privy to a side of her personality few others got to see: she was a book person.

Karen loved to read and it delighted her that I was a magazine writer on the side; she became one of my biggest boosters and demanded to see all the manuscripts I produced, even the trunk novels I had retired from circulation. This was, needless to say, tremendously validating. (It wasn’t just me; when my fellow WITH magazine writer Mary came out from New York to visit one July, Karen gushed over her like she was meeting Stephen King.)

We became book buddies, trading things back and forth all the time. It was Karen that got me hooked on Louis L’Amour… and I got her going on Rex Stout. I’d somehow acquired an extra copy of Three Doors to Death and gave it to Karen as part of our ongoing swap.

She was doubtful about Stout at first. “I’m not much on mysteries.”

“But these are really funny,” I told her. “Seriously. You will laugh out loud.”

Later that afternoon she called me at home, giggling. “These are great! I have been laughing my ass off! My roommate thinks I’m crazy, sitting up here by myself having hysterics.” She then proceeded to quote some of the lines from “Man Alive,” the first story in the collection, and cracking up repeatedly just in the telling.

“Told you.” I was smug.

“I’ve met my dream man,” Karen added, loftily. “I’m in love with Archie. He’s… he’s such a guy.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. I mean, I’d known she would enjoy them, but this took me off guard. “Um. Not much future there.”

“I know.” She sighed. “Still, I’m telling you, it’s love. Anyway, that’s all. I just wanted you to know that yes, I’m enjoying them.”

She hung up. I went back to the project I was working on, a movie column with a Christmas theme. But my heart wasn’t in it. WITH had a lead time measured in months, which meant I was trying to come up with a Christmas piece in July. I hated Christmas in any case. My mind would have seized on any distraction, probably, but this was the one that had presented itself.

I’m in love with Archie,
Karen had said.

And then, all at once, I saw it, as clear as day. Karen sitting in the brownstone on West Thirty-fifth Street, telling Wolfe and Archie about a murder at the copy shop where we both worked.

I closed out the file on the column and started a new one. In three days I had a Nero Wolfe novella, Memo For Murder. I was shamelessly pleased with it even though I had nowhere to send it.

What I did do was bind a copy for Karen and present it to her on her birthday, about two weeks later. In addition to including as many of the traditional Wolfe-and-Archie tropes as I could, I’d also put in some Easter eggs just for Karen. (All the books mentioned in the story were actual favorite books of Karen’s, and the murderer who framed Karen for the killing was based on an unpleasant co-worker of ours Karen loathed. And so on.)

Karen said it was the best present anyone had given her, ever. I was tickled that she loved it so much: she took it as fact, almost… like she really had met Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. As for me, it was as much a gift for myself as it was for her, because it was a new Wolfe story I hadn’t read. (This is the impulse most fan fiction comes from, I am convinced.)

That should have been it. Just one of those Useless Story fanfic things I’d had to get out of my system. At least someone had read it besides me.

But despite the lack of any legitimate publication, Memo took on a life of its own. For one thing, it got passed around the copy shop a lot, which made me a little nervous since I had included several of those people as supporting characters… but they took it in a spirit of fun. And Karen, who was never shy about anything, took great delight in telling people she had actually met Nero Wolfe. When A&E aired its Nero Wolfe pilot adapting (very faithfully) The Golden Spiders with Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton a few months later, we were both transported with joy. Karen was visiting her grandmother in Utah at the time and they made an event out of watching it.

Apparently they bonded over their mutual love of Nero Wolfe, something Karen had not previously been aware of. “Gram said it was a huge deal when she was a kid, like bestselling books and radio and everything,” Karen told me later. “And she loved your story.”

This was all very flattering, needless to say. It annoyed me a little that there was no market for the thing, because I was really proud of it; and it let me flex muscles I never got to use writing ripped-from-the-headlines social-justice pieces for WITH. (In my heart I was always a pulp and mystery guy and that’s what I wanted to do, despite my success with the other magazine stuff.)

But then I found out there was a market for my little Nero Wolfe fanfic. It was Bill Farley at Seattle Mystery Bookshop who first told me about the Wolfe Pack. (Months later I found out Bill had been a founding member. It shouldn’t have surprised me but it did. Bill loved mysteries and mystery writers and his bookstore was a legend. Of course he had helped found the Wolfe Pack.)

“Like the Baker Street Irregulars,” Bill told me. “But funnier. They do a magazine called the Gazette that’s always looking for writers.”

Well, hell, why not? I mean, I had the story just sitting there. There’d be no money in it, it was strictly a fanzine thing, but it would be in print. So I sent it off and they took it. It appeared as a two-parter, serialized over the Spring and Fall issues of that year’s Gazette. Karen was over the moon, especially since editor Jean Quinn had added Happy Birthday Karen! as a footnote to part one.

So that really should have been the end of it. We all moved on. I left the Corporate Printshop and so did Karen, and since she has no online presence, we gradually fell out of touch: last I heard, she had married and moved to Utah. Bill Farley is sadly no longer with us, nor is the wonderful Seattle Mystery Bookshop. As for me, when WITH folded up a decade and a half ago, I landed a column gig at CBR and eventually that led to here. And in that time I also got to finally fulfill my ambitions to be a working pulp and mystery novelist, too. I’m proud of all that work but my little Gazette fanfic remains one of my very favorites, largely because of the story of the friendship that goes with it.

But it turns out there’s more to the story. A few months ago I got wind of the fact that there was going to be a book compiling the best of the Nero Wolfe pastiches from the Gazette. Of course I hoped mine would make the cut, and I was more annoyed than I would ever admit out loud when I saw that it hadn’t.

It reminded me that I had been meaning to pick up a couple more copies of the issues of the Gazette with my story. So I went looking online and imagine my shock when I found this book listing Memo as one of the pastiches chosen to be reprinted therein.

The Archie Goodwin Files is the second of a two-volume set (the first being The Nero Wolfe Files) reprinting the best of the various articles and stories to run in the Gazette since its inception in 1977. Of the pastiches chosen for inclusion, Memo is one of five.

So the reason I didn’t make the cut for the new collection is because they’d already used it. In 2005. Fourteen years ago.

Why wasn’t I aware of this? I’m not sure– certainly it’s not a rights thing, it was a fanfic and I have no claim whatsoever on Nero Wolfe. More importantly, even if Jean Quinn or Marvin Kaye had tried to find me, between my story’s original 1999 appearance in the Wolfe Pack Gazette and the 2005 book publication all my contact information changed. I moved, I married Julie and we moved again, I changed employers, and even the phone number and email address changed. My Wolfe Pack membership had lapsed as well, so their directory was no good.

So I get it. I do hope they tried, at least, but it’s no big deal. I’m just thrilled my story found a home in a real book. It’s long out of print, but I wanted some kind of author copy, dammit. I found one used on Amazon and another one on AbeBooks for cheap and I immediately snapped both of them up. (I wanted a second one to send to another old friend from those copy-shop days; I’d have gotten a third one for Karen, too, if I had any idea where she was today.)

My copies arrived a few days ago. Here is the editor’s introduction:

I’m just about levitating over that. I bet Karen would be too, if she ever saw it.

I immediately made sure the book was listed on my author page at Amazon and I hope you folks will check it out. But first get yourself caught up on the real ones from Rex Stout if you aren’t familiar with them. Trust me, you will laugh out loud.

Since my inner Wolfe fan has been awakened again, I also came across this remarkable oddity: an unsold Nero Wolfe television pilot featuring Kurt Kasznar from Land of the Giants as Wolfe and — wait for it– William Shatner as Archie.

You can find it on DVD here.

I’ve only seen one little clip of it; as far as I can tell, Kasznar is overacting just as badly as he would a decade later on Land of the Giants. But Shatner is nailing it as Archie. Julie and I are very excited to see this when the DVD arrives.

With all this I might even have to renew my membership in the Wolfe Pack. The dues are quite a bit more manageable for us today than they were when I was living in a crappy studio apartment and working at a copy shop.

Back next week with something cool.

*

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10 Comments

    1. From what I’ve read, the comics writer/editor, when starting out, had an editor at a magazine or something tell him not to use that pseudonym, only to be told that it wasn’t in fact a pseudonym.

      This is a cool story, Greg!

      I dig Nero Wolfe a lot from what I’ve read, and I agree that Archie’s narration is what really makes it work.

      Isn’t there some fan fic theory, or is it presented in the original stories, that Wolfe is the son of Sherlock Holmes and… somebody?

        1. A theory first postulated by William S. Baring-Gould in his biography of Holmes, and later elaborated on in his biography of Wolfe. Both books are great fun.

          By the way, I did do a second Wolfe mystery, just for fun, on the CBR fiction board about eighteen years ago. It was about a murder at a comic-con and my version of the Archie Goodwin gag was…

          She frowned at my name tag. “Not the Archie Goodwin that worked on MANHUNTER?”

          “No, I’m the Archie Goodwin that works for Nero Wolfe. He’s the manhunter, I just caddy.”

          I occasionally toy with the idea of putting it up here but I only have the one bound hardcopy and I don’t want to retype the whole novelette, just for a fan thing, and I don’t want to cut apart the binding to scan it. Now that I don’t work in printing any more these things cost money and we’re poor. Maybe one of these days, though.

  1. Edo Bosnar

    “(I don’t know what it about Oregon, but it has far and away the best used bookstores.)”
    QFT. Although back in the day, when I was growing up there, that statement didn’t apply to Salem, which is – fortunately – no longer the case.

  2. Mario Ribeiro

    I have the book, but I haven’t read your story yet. Knowing myself, I’ll probably read it a few months from now and drop a comment in a very unrelated column.

    I agree with your preference for The Silent Speaker, although sometimes I prefer Prisoner’s Base. It depends on the day.

  3. David107

    I was so taken by the story of your writing a Wolfe pastiche that i bought the book to read it. Of course, being that I’ve read most of the Wolfe books, both by Stout and by Goldsborough, it was an easy sell.

    Lovely little story, with everything one could hope for, although whoever proofread it was sleeping on the job.

    I’m now working my way through the rest of the book, which is very enjoyable, so thanks for pointing me towards it.

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