ANALYSIS: A Nero Wolfe Mystery (TV series)
Starring the late great Maury Chaykin as Nero Wolfe this series originally aired on the 22nd April 2001 in the USA and ran until 2002. It was also directed and produced by Maury Chaykin’s co-star Timothy Hutton who played Nero Wolfe’s street wise assistant Archie Goodwin. Those who have been watching the Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House may know Mr Hutton in his role as Hugh Crain. The A Nero Wolfe Mystery series was based upon the books by Rex Stout. In addition to Mr Hutton and Mr Chaykin it featured an ensemble of recurring cast members. Some of them reprised their role as a particular character (e.g. Colin Fox as Nero Wolfe’s servant, cook and friend, Fritz Brenner, and Bill Smitrovich as Inspector Cramer). Others—in the tradition of the theatre—assumed a new character with each mystery.
I discovered this series by chance many years ago when an episode was aired as part of the BBC’s ‘watching the detectives’ afternoon segment. Alongside classics such as Columbo and Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes this series provided a stark contrast in dialogue, premise, and style. The premise being that Nero Wolfe—an agoraphobic, culinary expert and genius—is able to solve the mysteries put to him without leaving his New York “brown-stone” home. In this aspect Nero Wolfe follows the golden age crime fiction tradition of the flawed detective. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is borderline obsessive compulsive in his behaviour while Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe drinks too much.
Though he has Archie Goodwin’s reports of suspect interviews, crime scenes, and information garnered from the press it’s always Nero Wolfe who finds the answer to the puzzle. In many concluding scenes, which echo Hercule Poirot’s explanations in Agatha Christie’s work, Nero gathers the suspects, his client(s) (which are sometimes one and the same thing) and Inspector Cramer to hear his conclusions. As with Poirot’s deductions we, as viewers, are left stumped as to how we missed the key elements that were vital to solving the mystery. A similar feeling is experienced when a magician explains the simplicity of the trick he’s just fooled you with. You know you should’ve spotted the trick’s mechanics but, for some unfathomable reason, you missed them completely. In this respect we, the viewers, share Inspector Cramer’s frustrations.
The relationship between Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin is, at times, as fascinating as the mysteries they’re investigating. On a behind the scenes segment for the series their relationship is described as an odd marriage. In my opinion this is an accurate comparison. Nero Wolfe is wholly dependent upon Archie and not just for his detective work and willingness to tackle the “rough stuff”. Archie gives Nero an insight into women (where needed) and, through his own determination and unerring morality, an insight into Nero’s own conscience. Archie knows Nero better than anyone else and is one of the few people who can disagree with him about cases and human nature.
When watching the series it’s important to remember it’s based on a selection of Rex Stout’s original work. Within this context it’s easy to see why the origins of Archie and Nero’s arrangement isn’t explained or visited upon. Though it’s clear Archie was hired/is paid by Wolfe to act as a clerical assistant in addition to being his eyes and ears beyond the “brown-stone”. I hope to one day read the very first Nero Wolfe book by Rex Stout. It may (or may not) answer this question. Likewise, I’m intrigued about how their arrangement ended.
If you’re someone who enjoys quirkier mystery series, without too much violence or cursing, then A Nero Wolfe Mystery is for you. Each mystery is self-contained and provides a delightful taste of Rex Stout’s genius as a clue-puzzle crime writer. The series also pays tribute to the film noirs of the 1940s and 1950s in its sets, visual style, and rhythmic dialogue. Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe is, in my opinion, one of the lynch-pin detectives of the golden age of the clue puzzle mystery. If you’re thinking about writing such a mystery this series provides excellent examples of the clue puzzle mechanics from the complex to the brilliantly simple.
~ T.G. Campbell, January 2019.