By Stewie Sutherland
With Sherlock Holmes taking over the big screen, I decided to re-watch one of my favourite shows that first got me into mysteries. If Holmes and Watson were the classical-persons detectives, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin were the more modern representations. Well, to a degree. Set 80 years ago, A Nero Wolfe Mystery was a short run (2 series only) show of the famous detectives created by Rex Stout.
Where Holmes and Watson talk in a very pronounced way, Wolfe speaks overly formal, whereas street wise Goodwin is more down to earth. They balance each other well and their methods are different – Wolfe is eccentric and fickle with a sharp mind, and relies on Goodwin to bring him the facts and verbatim reports of cases for him to solve. Set in New York back in the days of Big Band, with snazzy suits and some of the best music I’ve ever heard, Nero Wolfe was a show worth watching.
The show follows several of Rex Stout’s novella’s and methods: Nero Wolfe, eccentric genius and private detective, with the help of his right hand man Archie Goodwin, solves crimes and murders that leave the audience baffled and their police rivals scratching their heads. They’re not just doing this out of good will either: Wolfe decides who and why a client should be accepted, and will flatly refuse if a case is too simplistic or “too troublesome”.
“You know, I’ve taken great pleasure in lying to you in the past and surely will lie to you again”.
Archie Goodwin – Prisoner’s Base, Part 1.
Occasionally, Wolfe will be tempted too much by a sizable cheque. Even more often a case will be taken to embarrass the police because they have annoyed him or broken one of his several house rules. (By storming into his roof-top greenhouse, Wolfe worked Archie ragged to solve a case before them). Most of the time though, Wolfe will accept a case for interest alone. No matter what, through evidence, testimony, pluck and raw detective talent, he will always solve it.
As Watson is to Holmes, Archie Goodwin is to Wolfe, and Timothy Hutton plays Goodwin with such flawless acting, he could have been born to do it. A street-wise detective with good instincts and a sharp eye, Archie is Wolfe’s live-in assistant, partner, banker, secretary, accountant and leg man (as Wolfe refuses to leave his brownstone home). Archie enjoys dancing, poker and drinking milk, but while that might all sound a little silly, back in the 1930’s Archie was a cool character.
Dressing in colourful suits and wide brimmed hats, he could be counted on to bring suspects, witnesses and details back to Nero Wolfe’s, who would then piece together the facts and solve the mystery. Goodwin, again much like Watson, narrates the series in a witty and usually sarcastic voice that you can’t help but enjoy hearing. A Nero Wolfe Mystery is one of Hutton’s best performances to date.
“My standing instructions from Wolfe were that in any emergency when he’s not available, I should use my intelligence guided by experience. Or sometimes the other way around.”
Archie Goodwin narrating. The Doorbell Rang
On the other side of the partnership, Maury Chaykin plays the titular detective Nero Wolfe. A 7th of a ton genius, Nero Wolfe is also one of the most eccentric characters I’ve ever seen. Refusing to leave his house, he has a strict schedule involving time in the afternoon to attend to his orchid collection (in which he must never be disturbed), never discussing business at the dinner table, being a champion beer drinker and having a bellow that “could stop a rampaging hippo.”
Chaykin is another brilliant edition, and his portrayal of Wolfe is spot on. The visible ticks, squints and nods are subtle but clear with meaning, and watching him becoming red faced and bellowing in righteous (if occasionally not unjust) anger is a milestone of the series. Nero Wolfe’s most famous aspect is when he closes his eyes and pushes his lips in and out: this is his tell that his mind is working away at the case at hand. When this trance ends, it’s usually to signal that he finally has the answer.
“That’s a faulty observation! That’s a defect in your training! Specifically, it’s a persecution complex, you idiot!”
Nero Wolfe bellowing at Doctor Vollmer. The Silent Speaker
The same group of actor’s plays the regular cast, including Colin Fox as Fritz, Wolfe’s live in butler and chef, Conrad Dunn as Wolfe’s often hired detective Saul Panzer and the very busy Bill Smitrovich as Wolfe’s enemy, frequent rival and rarely –friend, Inspector Cramer.
The rest of the cast is referred to at the start as “The Players”. This is a nod to the old days where Rex Stout’s detective Wolfe was played out on stage, with the same cast of actors and actresses playing the different suspects, clients and witnesses in each case.
“I think Rose Tunnel told Goodwin to watch the bag. And he told her to forget it. That he would make sure that nothing happened. Well something did. Well you know him and so do I. You know how much he likes himself. So he says that she was murdered to cover the fact that he bungled it.”
“Well nobody likes me more than I do but I’m not that far gone.”
Inspector Cramer, Wolfe and Goodwin discussing Goodwin’s insistence that a suicide was murder. Champagne for One, Part 1.
There’s just something about Big Band styled music that’s so irresistible. The series’ soundtrack is full of hot and cool jazz numbers to go along with any situation. Watching Archie amble down the street on his way to meet with a suspect, saxophones and bass guitars keep in rhythm to his gait, allowing room for a snappy voice over as well. The series’ main theme (heard in the end credits) is a blend of brass horns and a very timely snare drum being tapped that makes me want to catch it and put it on my iPod. A Nero Wolfe Mystery is so rich with jazz, bebop and Big Band that it’s infectious. Soon you’ll be nodding your head or tapping your arm rest to whatever jaunty beat is playing out while Archie begins a narration.
The entire show is set in New York in the 1930’s. This makes the show one of the more classical ones you’re likely to find on ABC and the like, with bright suits and square cars. The technology comes into play too: Wolfe’s house has several telephone extensions scattered throughout, which would have been excessive and wealthy at the time. Another case was solved when a victim had left a long tube hidden in the office, which was part of a classic Dictaphone-style voice recorder.
The setting goes hand in hand with the music. Long coats on cold days and watching old fashioned-styled diner mixes well with the characters watching an apartment from across the street. I can’t help but get drawn in every time I watch.
If anyone has walked out of Sherlock Holmes wanting more or read one of Stout’s many enjoyable books, they simply cannot overlook this classic series that finished before its day was due, but rings true to the saying “the good die young.”
8 OUT OF 10
Special thanks goes out to NullawenSheElf for letting Alternative Magazine Online use her wonderful youtube music video!