Holmes and Watson, Nick and Nora, Simon and Simon: the detective pair has been a staple in fiction for a long time. In many cases you get partners who seem very different in approaches but compliment each other. Why would you need a partner otherwise? But a skilled writer can take a duo and not only use them to compliment each other, but to contrast each other in a way that creates additional tension in the story.
Rex Stout created Nero Wolfe and his partner Archie Goodwin, and they are a great example of this style of detective pairing. This is the first time I’d read a Nero Wolfe mystery and I was pulled right in. The setting is the 1930s, and Archie comes across like your typical hard-boiled type. He’s streetsmart, he cracks wise, and he knows how to question folks to get the info he needs. He’s not afraid of a little danger, and he’s dedicated to catching the bad guy. What more do you need in a detective character?
Well you need someone who can put the pieces together, especially when the pieces are an intricate and diverse as the mystery at the center of Fer-de-lance. That’s where Nero Wolfe comes in. He’s a master of using deduction to find the source of the mystery and revealing who is the heart of the matter, as well as their motives.
There is only one small problem. Wolfe is a jerk. Seriously the guy has a foul attitude, he’s agoraphobic, and his love of the finer things in life has turned him into an obese toddler. His eccentricities make him an interesting character, because Stout allows us to see the genius behind the man. Sure Archie does all the leg work, but in the end the key witnesses come to see Wolfe and he questions them. And while Wolfe may be a complete jerk most of the time, he is also an excellent reader of people. He can tell by a glance and the entire approach of a person just what kind of role he must play to get the information he needs. And he can act. This compiled with his deductive skills makes him formidable.
The combination of the bizarre Wolfe and streetsmart Archie makes for a dynamic read. They have some great dialogue when they are together. Both men respect and understand each other, but at the same time find the other infuriating at times. It works so well, that combined with the interesting mystery at hand, I sought out more Nero Wolfe mysteries. If you haven’t given this character a shot and enjoy 1930’s style fiction, give Fer-de-lance a try.
Have you read a Nero Wolfe mystery before? What did you think of him as a character? Do you have a favorite fictional pairing? What made them work?