Article by Jeff Quest
Wolfe, Nero Wolfe.
Although now largely forgotten, 40 years ago there was no bigger detective than Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. Wolfe, who first appeared in 1932 had an unprecedented run with a nearly yearly appearance on bookstore shelves until Stout died in 1975.
Wolfe, a gigantic man with a mind just as big, and Archie Goodwin, his assistant and the narrator of the novels, were the spiritual heirs of Holmes and Watson and worked out of a brownstone on West 35th Street in New York City. They were also a major cultural force on par with James Bond, having appeared in movies, tv, a radio show, and a newspaper comic strip.
The books had many admirers, among them a writer by the name of Ian Fleming.
As written elsewhere here, the novels of Stout are the subject of a rather extensive discussion between M and Bond by Fleming in On Her Majesty’s Secret Services.
From the novel –
“M himself went behind his desk and sat down. He was about to come on duty. Bond automatically took his traditional place across the desk from his Chief.
M began to fill a pipe. ‘What the devil’s the name of that fat American detective who’s always fiddling about with orchids, those obscene hybrids from Venezuela and so forth? Then he comes sweating out of his orchid house, eats a gigantic meal of some foreign muck and solves the murder. What’s he called?’
‘Nero Wolfe, sir. They’re written by a chap called Rex Stout. I like them.’
‘They’re readable,’ condescended M. ‘But I was thinking of the orchid stuff in them. How in hell can a man like those disgusting flowers? Why, they’re damned near animals, and their colours, all those pinks and mauves and the blotchy yellow tongues, are positively hideous! Now that.’
It’s obvious that Fleming read the books and enjoyed them.
For many years in Wolfe fan circles there was a rumor that at one point a Nero Wolfe/James Bond team up had been proposed by Fleming. In the current media environment, with everyone trying to build a franchise and team ups, spinoffs and reboots being very much in vogue, this may not seem as shocking as it would have been to the readers of the 60’s. Wolfe’s hazy backstory includes time spent as an intelligence agent, so it’s perhaps not as far fetched as it might at first seem.
The team up was first mentioned in WillIam S. Baring-Gould’s introduction to his 1969 book Nero Wolfe of 35th Street.
“Stout considers the late Ian Fleming to have been a good storyteller too, but he turned down Fleming’s suggestion that M, James Bond, Nero Wolfe, and Archie Goodwin should all appear together in the same novel.’Bond would have gotten all the girls,’ Stout admits ruefully.”
That is where the thought of a Bond/Wolfe team-up sat until Rex Stout fans, known as the Wolfe Pack, posted Fleming’s letter. Reading it, the story becomes a little clearer. Apparently, Stout received an advance copy of the section of OHMSS referencing Wolfe. He wrote to Fleming and Fleming replied back. From Fleming’s reply –
“Actually, we might have quite fun together starting up a kind of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby relationship between our two heroes. And I should be very amused to find the English agent, James Bond, slipping into one of your pages and perhaps being thoroughly seen off over a girl by Archie Goodwin.”
It seems clear to me that Fleming’s tongue was firmly in cheek. I’m sure Stout realized that as well but overlooked it in order to tell a better story. It obviously worked, as a Bond/Wolfe novel is still discussed decades after the fact.
Although it appears to have been mainly wishful thinking, it is interesting to imagine what other literary figures might best mesh with Bond. Sherlock Holmes? Phillip Marlowe?
Who would you choose?
Jeff has been working on a podcast rereading the Nero Wolfe novels with his co-host Reyna Griffin. Join him here – http://www.likethewolfe.com
Spy author Gayle Lynds’ speech on “Nero Wolfe, Spy”
The fan site for the Wolfe Pack – http://www.nerowolfe.org/
6 thoughts on “The Name’s Wolfe, Nero Wolfe: Rex Stout’s Influence on Ian Fleming”
Nero Wolfe “largely forgotten”? Not by me! I have 26 volumes of Wolfe’s adventures (and one of Rex Stout’s other detective hero Tecumseh Fox) and in fact found one I hadn’t read – ‘Crime and Again’ – only last week. Mind you, I am so old, I remember reading OHMSS when it first came out and being delighted to find that my admiration for Nero Wolfe and Rex Stout was shared by M and 007. Fleming and Stout would have been an odd couple as Stout was fiercely left-wing and very prolific. When pressed by an American publisher to write a couple of conventional thrillers in between the Bond books, Fleming retorted “You seem to think I am Rex Stout !” And surely the dream team would have been Bond and the wise-cracking Archie Goodwin, rather than Bond and Wolfe. For someone with such a long career, the quality of Stout’s work rarely dropped. His last (I think) novel where Wolfe takes on the FBI – and wins – is superb.
I’m glad you still are keeping the Wolfe flame alive! I think the fact that he’s somewhat fallen out of favor is a shame. I’ve been working my way through the books in order and have really been enjoying them. Stout reminds me a bit of some of the author’s you talked about in your book. A huge presence while actively producing novels but much diminished popularity after their death.
Wolfe has fared better than others, especially after the tv show, but I worry about him picking up new readers as his original readership continues to age.
I would have loved to read Archie’s assessment of Bond and perhaps see Bond’s attempt to horn in on Lily Rowan.
Did you ever read Red Threads? Stout gave Inspector Cramer his own spin off novel so I bet if Fleming had truly been interested, Stout just might have gone for it.
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Deighton’s Bernard Samson, perhaps. I can’t see Marlowe with Bond at all, though I do know Chandler admired the books and had a rapport with Fleming.
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