Authors: Rex Stout
Tags: #Mystery, #Crime, #Thriller, #Classic
Nero Wolfe 11 - The Silent Speaker
I LOVE NERO WOLFE. I love his house, his orchids, his sour disposition, and his shrouded past. I love his reading habits, his unabashed fear of women, and his incredible appetite; that is to say, I love his love of food.
When Nero Wolfe spoke, I learned. He taught me, when I was just a teenager, to look closely at the world because what might be apparent to us everyday kind of guys was probably just fluff. I'm not talking so much about the crimes he solved as the way he exercised his mind on whatever came before him. The way he read books or the petty arguments he had with his clients, his employees, and the police. Nero Wolfe was always thinking, always distrustful, and almost always right.
Wolfe was lazy, agoraphobic, prejudiced against many different kinds of people (most notably women), and a glutton. He was arrogant, vengeful, spiteful, and sometimes cruel. Any manners he had came from a personal sense of decorum and never from common civility. But I always knew that he had high moral values and that people sitting before him could trust him if they themselves could be trusted.
Wolfe was never a hero in the American sense. No gunslinger or karate master he. He never subdued the bad guy or ran a merry chase. As a matter of fact, Nero Wolfe was a coward when it came to things physical.
He was afraid of traffic.
Again, instead of condemning Mr. Wolfe for his cowardice, I learned from him. I learned that the American ideal of heroism is no more than a bad movie; that real heroes rarely exist-if, indeed, they ever do. I learned that life is not so much the struggle of good against evil as it is the struggle to survive.
Wolfe struggled for comfort. A great meal and a solid brownstone, that was the prize; a brief respite in this all too short, all too painful life.
Wolfe didn't care about crime and its eradication. He was a philosopher. 'As long as there is man there will be murder, adultery, and theft,' he might have said. And he knew that his efforts would make little difference in that equation. His job was to pay the rent and buy the groceries. All the liars and murderers and saints that passed through his house over the decades meant little or nothing to Wolfe's heart. He was a man doing his job.
And now that I think of it-what could be more heroic than that'
All of that said, I still haven't touched on why I've read all of the Nero Wolfe mysteries. As a matter of fact, you would be justified in asking why anyone would read about such a rude and unredeemed character.
The answer is, of course, Archie Goodwin.
Archie's voice is at once so humorous and so revealing that I often felt I was being addressed by a spirit rather than just some normal human being. Archie, it seemed, was sprung fully grown from the mind of that twentieth-century god, New York City. He's a footloose New Yorker who sees the whole world from Thirty-fifth Street. He can tell you about a cop's gait, a pretty woman's choice of a particular hue of lipstick, an unusual texture in Fritz's corn fritters, or the angle of a dead man's arm-all with wit and humor that keep you reading for more.
Archie is the leg man. He's the one who carries out Wolfe's plans and errands. He drives the car, romances the ladies, and applies the pike to Nero's rear end when the rent is due and there's a paying client downstairs.
Archie has no dark moods, no real fears, and no concerns beyond what it takes to keep three hundred and fifty pounds of genius going. He loves women (Lily Rowan especially), but he's married to his work.
All the years I read the Nero Wolfe mysteries it was because of Archie. Archie talking about walking up Madison; Archie cracking wise with Cramer; Archie amazed by the detecting abilities of Saul Panzer (the second or third greatest detective in New York- and, therefore, the world).
Archie Goodwin was the real gumshoe. He was willing to get out there and work. He wasn't daunted by traffic or sunlight or possibility of death.
Archie Goodwin is the distilled optimism of America as it was for more than half of this century. Ebullient and proud, he still had to be humble because of the great brain of his employer.
I read about Nero Wolfe because it was Archie who told the tale. His voice is the voice of all the hope and humor of a new world. This bright light shines upon the darkness of Wolfe's deep fears and genius and upon the craven and criminal minds that infest the world.
This juxtaposition of light and dark is much more satisfying than the struggle between good and evil. It is the essence of positive and negative space in literature.
Rex Stout, through the voice of Archie telling us about his world (a full third of which was occupied by Nero Wolfe), raised detective fiction to the level of art with these books. He gave us genius of at least two kinds, and a strong realist voice that was shot through with hope.
SEATED IN HIS GIANT'S chair behind his desk in his office, leaning back with his eyes half closed, Nero Wolfe muttered at me:
'It is an interesting fact that the members of the National Industrial Association who were at that dinner last evening represent, in the aggregate, assets of something like thirty billion dollars.'
I slid the checkbook into place on top of the stack, closed the door of the safe, twirled the knob, and yawned on the way back to my desk.
'Yes, sir,' I agreed with him. 'It is also an interesting fact that the prehistoric Mound Builders left more traces of their work in Ohio than in any other state. In my boyhood days-'
'Shut up,' Wolfe muttered.
I let it pass without any feeling of resentment, first because it was going on midnight and I was sleepy, and second because it was conceivable that there might be some connection between his interesting fact and our previous conversation, and that was not true of mine. We had been discussing the bank balance, the reserve against taxes, expectations as to bills and burdens, one of which was my salary, and related matters. The exchequer had not swung for the third strike, but neither had it knocked the ball out of the park.
After I had yawned three more times Wolfe spoke suddenly and decisively.
'Archie. Your notebook. Here are directions for tomorrow.'
In two minutes he had me wide awake. When he had finished and I went upstairs to bed, the program for the morning was so active in my head that I tossed and turned for a full thirty seconds before sleep came.
THAT WAS A WEDNESDAY toward the end of the warmest March in the history of New York. Thursday it was more of the same, and I didn't even take a topcoat when I left the house on West Thirty-fifth Street and went to the garage for the car. I was fully armed, prepared for all contingencies. In my wallet was a supply of engraved cards reading:
With Nero Wolfe
922 West 35 th Street
And in the breast pocket of my coat, along with the routine cargo, was a special item just manufactured by me on the typewriter. It was on a printed Memo form and, after stating that it was FOR Nero Wolfe and FROM Archie Goodwin, it went on:
Okay from Inspector Cramer for inspection of the room at the Waldorf. Will report later by phone.
At the right of the typing, scribbled in ink, also my work and worthy of admiration, were the initials LTC.
Since I had got an early start and the office of the Homicide Squad on Twentieth Street was less than a mile downtown, it was only a little after nine-thirty when I was admitted to an inside room and took a chair at the end of a crummy old desk. The man in the swivel chair, frowning at papers, had a big round red face, half-hidden gray eyes, and delicate little ears that stayed close to his skull. As I sat down he transferred the frown to me and grunted:
'I'm busy as hell.' His eyes focused three inches below my chin. 'What do you think it is, Easter?'
'I know of no law,' I said stiffly, 'against a man's buying a new shirt and tie. Anyhow, I'm in disguise as a detective. Sure you're busy, and I won't waste your time. I want to ask a favor, a big favor. Not for me, I'm quite aware that if I were trapped in a burning building you would yell for gasoline to toss on the flames, but on behalf of Nero Wolfe. He wants permission for me to inspect that room at the Waldorf where Cheney Boone was murdered Tuesday evening. Also maybe to take pictures.'
Inspector Cramer stared at me, not at my new tie. 'For God's sake,' he said finally in bitter disgust. 'As if this case wasn't enough of a mess already. All it needed to make it a carnival was Nero Wolfe, and by God here he is.' He worked his jaw, regarding me sourly. 'Who's your client?'
I shook my head. 'I have no information about any client. As far as I know it's just Mr. Wolfe's scientific curiosity. He's interested in crime-'
'You heard me, who's your client?'
'No, sir,' I said regretfully. 'Rip me open, remove my heart for the laboratory, and you'll find inscribed on it-'
'Beat it,' he grated, and dug into his papers.
I stood up. 'Certainly, Inspector, I know you're busy. But Mr. Wolfe would greatly appreciate it if you'll give me permission to inspect-'
'Nuts.' He didn't look up. 'You don't need any permission to inspect and you know damn well you don't. We're all through up there and it's public premises. If what you're after is authority, it's the first time Wolfe ever bothered to ask for authority to do anything he wanted to do, and if I had time I'd try to figure out what the catch is, but I'm too busy. Beat it.'
'Gosh,' I said in a discouraged tone, starting for the door. 'Suspicious. Always suspicious. What a way to live.'
IN APPEARANCE, DRESS, and manner, Johnny Darst was about as far as you could get from the average idea of a hotel dick. He might have been taken for a vice-president of a trust company or a golf club steward. In a little room, more a cubbyhole than a room in size, he stood watching me deadpan while I looked over the topography, the angles, and the furniture, which consisted of a small table, a mirror, and a few chairs. Since Johnny was not a sap I didn't even try to give him the impression that I was doing something abstruse.
'What are you really after?' he asked gently.
'Nothing whatever,' I told him. 'I work for Nero Wolfe just as you work for the Waldorf, and he sent me here to take a look and here I am. The carpet's been changed?'
He nodded. 'There was a little blood, not much, and the cops took some things.'
'According to the paper there are four of these rooms, two on each side of the stage.'
He nodded again. 'Used as dressing rooms and resting rooms for performers. Not that you could call Cheney Boone a performer. He wanted a place to look over his speech and they sent him in here to be alone. The Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf is the best-equipped-'
'Sure,' I said warmly. 'You bet it is. They ought to pay you extra. Well, I'm a thousand times obliged.'
'Got all you want?'
'Yep, I guess I've solved it.'
'I could show you the exact spot where he was going to stand to deliver his speech if he had still been alive.'
'Thanks a lot, but if I find I need that I'll come back.'
He went with me down the elevator and to the entrance, both of us understanding that the only private detectives hotels enjoy having around are the ones they hire. At the door he asked casually:
'Who's Wolfe working for?'
'There is never,' I told him, 'any question about that. He is working first, last, and all the time for Wolfe. Come to think of it, so am I. Boy, am I loyal.'
IT WAS A QUARTER to eleven when I parked the car in Foley Square, entered the United States Court House, and took the elevator.
There were a dozen or more FBI men with whom Wolfe and I had had dealings during the war, when he was doing chores for the government and I was in G-2. It had been decided that for the present purpose G. G. Spero, being approximately three per cent less tight-lipped than the others, was the man, so it was to him I sent my card. In no time at all a clean efficient girl took me to a clean efficient room, and a clean efficient face, belonging to G. G. Spero of the FBI, was confronting me. We chinned a couple of minutes and then he asked heartily:
'Well, Major, what can we do for you?'
'Two little things,' I replied. 'First, quit calling me Major. I'm out of uniform, and besides, it stimulates my inferiority complex because I should have been a colonel. Second is a request from Nero Wolfe, sort of confidential. Of course he could have sent me to the Chief, or phoned him, but he didn't want to bother him about it. It's a little question about the Boone murder case. We've been told that the FBI is mixing in, and of course you don't ordinarily touch a local murder. Mr. Wolfe would like to know if there is something about the FBI angle that would make it undesirable for a private detective to take any interest.'
Spero was still trying to look cordial, but training and habit were too much for him. He started to drum on the desk, realized what he was doing, and jerked his hand away. FBI men do not drum on desks.
'The Boone case,' he said.
'That's right. The Cheney Boone case.'
'Yes, certainly. Putting aside, for the moment, the FBI angle, what would Mr. Wolfe's angle be?'
He went at me and kept after me from forty different directions. I left half an hour later with what I had expected to leave with, nothing. The reliance on his three per cent under par in lip tightness was not for the sake of what he might tell me, but what he might tell about me.