It’s always a good day for re-reading Rex Stout mysteries!
Nero Wolfe’s New York is my favorite literary city. Like all compelling and believable novelistic depictions of real places, it exists somewhere between fiction and fact, reportage and make-believe. The result? A tumultuous, vibrant, and tactile metropolis, at once fashionable and bleak, awash with the stains and glories of both history and contemporary life.
“The Manhattan garment district has got everything from thirty-story marble palaces to holes in the wall. It is no place to go for a stroll, because you are off the sidewalk most of the time, detouring around trucks that are backed in or headed in, but it’s fine as a training ground for jumping and dodging, and as a refresher for reflexes. If you can come out whole from an hour in those cross streets in the Thirties you’ll be safe anywhere in the world. So I felt I had accomplished something when I walked into the entrance of 340 West 37th Street at ten o’clock Wednesday morning.”—The Mother Hunt (1963)
Through this world saunters the irrepressible Archie Goodwin. Nero Wolfe’s second-in-command is always in his element, even when he shouldn’t be. By night and by day, whether flirting with heiresses at penthouse parties or skittering through greasy alleyways in pursuit of murderers or thieves, his composure rarely waivers. He stands his ground through any number of tricky situations, loosening or tightening his morality as needed but never straying too far to either side of the spectrum. Archie’s firmly maintained ambiguity is one of his greatest strengths.
“I always belong wherever I am.”—A Right to Die (1964)
In fact, Archie has lots going for him character crush-wise. Here are some of the reasons why he takes the top spot on my Sexiest Men in Literature List.
ARCHIE GOODWIN, DETECTIVE AND RIGHT-HAND-MAN:
- HE’S SMART. It’s well-known that Nero Wolfe does not get out much. If he deigns to see you, he’ll do so in his brownstone. No matter: even if he traveled to every corner of the city, he’d still be the genius in the room. Most people would quail at the thought of living and working in the shadow of such a formidable intellect. Not Archie. He knows his own value, even if he is outwardly modest as to where it comes from. “I know pretty well what my field is. Aside from my primary function as the thorn in the seat of Wolfe’s chair to keep him from going to sleep and waking up only for meals, I’m chiefly cut out for two things: to jump and grab something before the other guy can get his paws on it, and to collect pieces of the puzzle for Wolfe to work on.”—The Red Box (1937) He possesses finely honed street smarts, a deep trench of logic, a keen eye for detail, and an impressive memory. Archie thinks on his feet without letting it show. He knows when to stay put and when to run. He’s a subtle and highly accurate people-reader who understands exactly which information his boss will find relevant. His brand of intelligence is different from Wolfe’s, but just as vital to the continued success of the business. “I’m fairly good with a billiard cue, and only Saul Panzer can beat me at tailing a man or woman in New York, but what I am best at is reporting a complicated event to Nero Wolfe.”—In the Best Families (1950)
- HE’S WITTY. OH. SO. WITTY. Archie Goodwin is the great smartass in fiction. His quick-thinking sarcasm is his overarching character trait, and the one I find the sexiest. Humor is his natural state of being, and I dig it plenty. He turns it on everyone, even himself. “I have never regarded myself as a feast for the eye, my attractions run more to the spiritual, but on the other hand I am not a toad, and I resented her expression.”—Bitter End (1940)
- HE ENJOYS GOOD FOOD. Living at the gourmand Nero Wolfe’s house means having access to Felix Brenner, one of the best chefs in the world. Although this would turn anyone into a hardcore foodie (and Archie is no exception) he is definitely not a snob. He still appreciates convenience food, and his drink of choice is a glass of cold milk. “But it really pains him (Nero Wolfe) if I am out on a prolonged errand at mealtime because I may insult my palate with a drugstore sandwich or, even worse, I may offend my stomach by leaving it empty.”—The Final Deduction (1961)
- HE’S A COMPETENT, ORGANIZED PROFESSIONAL. I love an organized man, and Archie definitely has his act together in the efficiency department. In addition to doing most of the field work for Nero Wolfe, he maintains the business end of things. He types at a high WPM, does all of the bookkeeping, and makes sure his boss’s orchid records are up-to-date. He also manages to live and work with the demanding, high-handed Nero Wolfe without bumping him off. Talk about self-control. “For what you pay me I do your mail, I make myself obnoxious to people, I tail them when necessary, I shoot when I have to and get shot at, I stick around and take every mood you’ve got, I give you and Theodore a hand in the plant room when required, I lie to Inspector Cramer and Sergeant Stebbins whether required or not, I even help Fritz in the kitchen in emergencies, I answer the phone.”—Easter Parade (1957)
- HE’S BRAVE (BUT NOT FEARLESS). Archie isn’t just an office jockey; he’s a working private detective. Every case puts him in danger, whether from suspects, cops, or a shifting combination of both. His cleverness and experience are usually all the ammunition he needs to get out of trouble; when they aren’t, his fists or gun do the trick. He’s bold, yet rarely reckless. “I will ride my luck on occasion, but I like to pick the occasion.”—Might as Well Be Dead (1956)
- HE’S A GIFTED STORYTELLER. Archie types the end-of-case reports for his boss. This is necessary, as he is the only one who knows all aspects of each job. These are detailed and complex, with every conversation relayed verbatim. Like their narrator, they are witty, charming, and entertaining. You could almost say they read like novels. “I was in custody from 3:42 p.m. Sunday, when Inspector Cramer took me down, to 11:58 a.m. Monday, when Nathaniel Parker, the lawyer Wolfe calls on when only the law will do, arrived at the District Attorney’s office with a paper signed by a judge, who had fixed the bail at $20,000. Since the average bail for material witnesses in murder cases in New York is around eight grand, that put me in an upper bracket and I appreciated the compliment.”—The Mother Hunt (1963)
- HE’S FLAWED AND CONTRADICTORY. Archie has a tendency to be cocky and blunt, two things which, admittedly, come in handy in his line of work. He plays a bit fast-and-loose with the facts of his personal background/childhood (although we know that he is from Ohio). His temper is often short and surly. He’s also charming, loyal, upbeat, fair-minded, flirtatious, fun (he loves baseball, the theatre, and nightclubs),patient, shallow, and full of integrity. He loves dames as much as they love him, is occasionally mildly sexist, but usually falls for women of intelligence, independence, and character. “I had first noticed her in the lobby of the Churchill, because she rated a glance as a matter of principle–the principle that a man owes it to his eyes to let them rest on attractive objects when there are any around.”–Frame-Up for Murder (1958/1985) Archie is, on balance, largely decent and fair-minded, if unpredictable. In other words: he’s deliciously human.
Archie Goodwin is the narrator of the Nero Wolfe series of novels and short stories penned by Rex Stout between 1934 and 1975. He has been portrayed by nearly two dozen actors across different forms of media (films, radio, and television). My favorite portrayal is that of Timothy Hutton from 2000-2002 on A&E, in the television movie The Golden Spiders: A Nero Wolfe Mystery and the weekly show A Nero Wolfe Mystery. I think he’s the closest we’ll ever get to a flesh-and-blood Archie Goodwin. And I’m totally okay with that.
Rex Todhunter Stout was born on 1 December 1886. He gave the world that singular detective, Nero Wolfe (and his unremittingly charming factotum Archie Goodwin!), writing dozens of excellent genre novels and short stories during a four decade period. Stout’s version of New York City is one of the best (fictionalized) settings in all of literature. Here he is, mixing patterns and still looking casually dapper in his eighty-seventh year…
“To say that a man is a reasoning animal is a very different thing than to say that most of man’s decisions are based on his rational process. That I don’t believe at all.”-Rex Stout