The Nero Wolfe stories are narrated by Archie Goodwin whose principal job is get Wolfe to work since the fees from solving crimes employ Archie, Fritz Brenner as chef and Theodore Horstmann as caretaker of 10,000 orchids. While Wolfe is the genius, Archie is the indispensable implementer of Wolfe’s strategies. He is strong man, ladies’ man, organizer, body guard, chauffeur and regulator of Wolfe’s intake of beer.
Wolfe lives at W. 35th Street and under no circumstances will leave his home on business or alter his routines to accommodate a client. There are exceptions but they are few and remarkable. He would prefer to never have a woman in his house but this is not possible since some of them are clients. Good food, prepared by the exceptional Fritz Brenner, along with reading and his 10,000 orchids, are his main interests in life.
Wolfe’s main adversaries are Inspector Cramer who is head of Homicide in Manhattan. The two have a grudging respect for each other but the times when their relationship approaches friendliness are few and far between. In some of the stories it is implied that Cramer’s authority extends to other New York city boroughs but this is not made explicit. Cramer is assisted by Sergeant Purley Stebbins as well as the terminally stupid Lieutenant George Rowcliff, whose one aim in life is to get Wolfe and Archie behind bars; in this he is continually frustrated.
When necessary Wolfe uses outside operatives of whom Saul Panzer is the best – almost as good as Archie. Fred Durkin is unimaginative but solidly reliable and these two are supplemented, when needed, by Orrie Cather, Bill Gore and Johnny Keems; both of the latter later die in separate stories.
Other characters include Lon Cohen of the Gazette, Lily Rowan who is Archie’s one steady lady-love, Nathaniel Parker Wolfe's lawyer and Doctor ‘Doc’ Vollmer who is Wolfe's neighbor and friend.
The first Nero Wolfe book, Fer-de-Lance, should be read after a few of the other Wolfe novels. Reading it first might discourage one from considering the others as neither the characters nor the plot are yet as fully developed as in future stories. However, it is fascinating to compare this first novel with later works.
Fer-de-Lance takes place in 1934 just as Prohibition is ending and airplanes are becoming a serious new technology. We are introduced to Wolfe’s love of beer when Fritz buys a bottle of every commercially available beer. “It turned out that the idea was, as Wolfe explained it to me after he had invited me to draw my chair up the desk and begin opening bottles, that he had decided to give up the bootleg beer, which for years he had bought in barrel and kept in a cooler in the basement.” The Depression affected Wolfe and Archie as it affected almost everyone on the United States. “When Wolfe had to cut down on expenses like everybody else from bankers to bums, Saul Panzer and I got our weekly envelopes sliced, but Durkin’s was stopped altogether.” A number of characters that were introduced remain throughout all the novels with only minor changes, while others were replaced by more robust ones.
Archie has been with Wolfe for seven years (we aren’t told how he joined Wolfe; “…but that story isn’t for me to tell, at least not yet.”) and is always the man of action and tough guy who drinks a lot of milk, but in Fer-de-Lance he also has his own liquor supply in his room and even threatens to get drunk when the case seems to bog down. “I would have got drunk that evening it hadn’t been a Sunday.” In later novels Archie drinks rarely and sparingly. Saul, among other things, is a skilled pilot but this skill never appears in later books. In later books Saul and Fred are no longer on salary but are free-lance operatives.
Some characters put in a brief appearance and are replaced by someone else in future stories. A detective named O’Grady is replaced by the much more colorful and interesting Inspector Cramer. Harry Foster is Archie’s contact at the Gazette newspaper’s office and in later editions becomes Lon Cohen. Henry H. Barber, who becomes Nathanial Parker, provides Archie with information on accessories and arrests of material witnesses. Purley Stebbins remains but is the homicide division rather than in the District Attorney’s office.
One of the biggest changes is in Wolfe himself. The Wolfe of later books is a man who has a fundamental dislike and distrust of women. A woman that cries, or even looks like she might cry, is enough to drive him from his office. And even though a number of (young) women have occupied the spare bedroom in his house, this is an emergency forced on Wolfe; if she leaves she may become the murderer’s next victim. Much later, after she has been introduced in Some Buried Caesar, Wolfe tolerates, and perhaps even likes, Lily Rowan. But in Fer-de-Lance Wolfe has no negative feelings about women. He greets Anna Fiore as he enters his office; “I watched him stopping to tell the girl good morning on his way to the desk. He was elegant with women. He had some kind of perverted idea about them that I’ve never caught the hang of but every time I had ever seen him with one he was elegant.” At the end of the book Wolfe’s highest praise to Archie is “good” which is not as satisfactory as his later “satisfactory”.
Stout also created Tecumseh Fox, a private detective whose territory is Westchester County, close enough to New York City so as to be in the same world as Nero Wolfe. Fox’s full name is William Tecumseh Sherman Fox, nicknamed “Tec” which, as readers who have been fans of mysteries learn quickly, is slang for detective (although I have rarely seen it used that way).
Fox knows the same people as Wolfe and he and his compatriots and customers dine at Rusterman's, dance at the Flamingo Club, frequent the Churchill Hotel, read the Gazette, and drive Wethersill convertibles. Fox also knows Theolinda (Dol) Bonner, a not–so-subtle reference to her pulchritude, and he knows operatives from the Bascom Agency.
Stout created just three novels about Fox (two of which were later adapted to Nero Wolfe stories), before devoting himself exclusively to writing the Wolfe series.
Robert Goldsborough has written six Wolfe books (with the approval of the Wolfe estate). They are more contemporary than the Stout novels - Archie now drives a Mercedes and uses a PC and fax. However, in some ways they stray a little from the Stout characterizations, which may be good or bad or irrelevant, depending on your point of view. Archie seems to be more of a smart-aleck than before, he drinks much more than in the Stout books (which still isn't much) and Fred and Saul make fewer appearances. Wolfe has also changed; he leaves the brownstone much more frequently than in the past. Personally I have read them but will never re-read them - something I have done with many of the Stout books.
Books by Stout, Goldsborough and other authors are available from Mystery & Mayhem on the home age under various categories such as Tough Guy PI.