Monday, September 3, 2018

Rex Stout’s Black Orchids

Black Orchids is one of Rex Stout’s early Nero Wolfe novellas. The novellas came about when Stout discovered a lucrative slick magazine market for short format mysteries. He could churn them out quickly and they could later be collected two, three or four to a volume in book form. The book publication versions were usually slightly longer than the magazine versions. Between 1940 and 1963 Stout wrote forty-one Wolfe novellas. Black Orchids was the longest of them. It appeared in The American Magazine in 1941 and in book form (paired with Cordially Invited to Meet Death) in 1942.

Archie Goodwin is not an overly happy man at the beginning of the story. He knew that Wolfe would expect him to go to the flower show but he hadn’t anticipated having to spend four consecutive days there. There is some consolation though - one of the exhibits features a rustic tableau that includes a rather pretty female. An actual human female. Archie has nothing against flowers but his interest in human females is considerably more keen. The reason he has to be there for four days is a simple one. A rival orchid fancier has three black orchids on display. Nero Wolfe is consumed by curiosity and by envy. In fact it gets so bad that Wolfe breaks his number one rule. He leaves the house. He has to see those black orchids.

He and Archie see more than orchids. They see murder. In fact everyone at the flower show sees the murder but seeing a murder and actually seeing a murder are two different things (which becomes obvious when you read the story).

Finding out who killed Harry is easy but that doesn’t solve the murder (which also becomes obvious when you read the story).

Obviously a novella is going to have plotting on the same complex scale as a novel. And there are those (including some of his biggest fans) who maintain that you don’t read Rex Stout for his plotting anyway. There may be something in that although personally I’ve generally found Stout’s plots to be quite satisfactory. Black Orchids in fact has a pretty nifty little plot.

What no-one will deny is that the biggest attraction of the Nero Wolfe stories is that they feature two of the most engaging and fascinating characters in all of detective fiction. Nero Wolfe is not just an eccentric. He is a bizarre exotic. Everything about him is on the grand scale - his waistline, his passion for orchids, his deductive genius, his greed and his childishness. In spite of all this the reader never feels tempted to despise him or to dislike him. Nero Wolfe is Nero Wolfe and if you accept him as such you grow to love him. Archie Goodwin is his chief assistant and his Dr Watson. Wolfe is aristocratic in temperament and tastes, highly educated and fastidious. Archie’s education was gained on the streets but he’s shrewd and perceptive. The interplay between these two is always a delight.

They’re both in good form in Black Orchids. We get to see the best and the worst of Wolfe’s character, with a breathtaking example of Wolfe’s avarice, and his petulant childish envy.

One thing that really struck me was the interesting similarities to the Perry Mason stories of Erle Stanley Gardner. Both Perry Mason and Nero Wolfe are suspicious of authority, and for very similar reasons. It’s not that the police or the D.A. are necessarily crooks. On the whole in the Perry Mason and Nero Wolfe stories the police are essentially honest. But the balance of power lies too strongly in favour of the police and the D.A. and they rely to a large extent on intimidating or misleading witnesses and suspects into saying things that legally they don’t have to. The danger is not corrupt cops - it’s over-zealous cops and District Attorneys.

Both Perry Mason and Nero Wolfe know that it’s very often wise to keep witnesses away from the police. For Perry Mason this is not all that difficult. Being a lawyer has its advantages. For Nero Wolfe it’s more risky, private investigators have some legal privileges but not many, but Wolfe knows the law pretty well and he has money and contacts and the police know that he is prepared to get lawyered up if he needs to.

It’s not that Mason or Wolfe are lacking in respect for law and order, they’re both quite happy to see the guilty punished, it’s just that they have a lot more respect for the rights of witnesses and suspects. And of course in both cases the motivation is partly idealistic and partly self-serving. They put their own clients’ interests first, although they would argue that it is an essential part of a healthy criminal justice system that lawyers and private investigators should do this. Wolfe gives the impression of being motivated entirely by money but it’s fairly clear that he genuinely dislikes official bullying. It’s interesting that both Mason and Wolfe are quite openly avaricious. In both cases it acts as a useful safeguard against self-righteousness.

Black Orchids serves as a pretty good illustration of Wolfe’s approach to the duties of a private investigator. The key is to tell the police as little as possible. He ends up with several key witnesses stashed away in his own house so that the cops can’t find them. A private investigator acts in his client’s interests which does not necessarily involve solving crimes and delivering the guilty to punishment. That’s the job of the police. If acting in the client’s interests means identifying the guilty than that’s fine (and almost invariably Wolfe’s cases do require him to do this because otherwise there wouldn’t really be a mystery story). Wolfe doesn’t lie to the police (that would be foolish) but he tells them only what suits him for them to know, and he doesn’t actively obstruct police investigations (although he may do so passively).

Black Orchids is also a good example of Wolfe’s methods of dealing with witnesses. Information has to be extracted from witnesses. He can’t use all the methods available to the police but he can use all kinds of psychological manipulation, he can threaten to turn them over to the cops if they don’t tell him what he wants to know, he can mislead them and tempt them and cajole them. Maybe its not much more honourable that the methods used but the cops but we get the impression that Stout sees these methods as being more dangerous when used by the police with the powers of the state behind them.

It’s mostly the complete absence of self-righteousness on the part of Nero Wolfe (and Archie Goodwin too) that makes the Wolfe stories so appealing. He’s not an anti-hero but he is an unheroic hero. It’s his unheroic nature that, oddly enough, makes him a hero.

Black Orchids is splendid entertainment. Highly recommended.


  1. I'm glad you liked Black Orchids and your description of Wolfe as an unheroic hero, which is what makes him a hero, is very apt. I remember a comment from someone, somewhere, who went as far as saying Stout created a very believable superhero in Wolfe rather than a detective character. I would not go as far as that, but Wolfe is definitely one of those believable, larger-than-life characters.

    If you want another good pair of novellas, I recommend the two from Not Quite Dead Enough. Stout, Wolfe and Archie at their best.

    1. If you want another good pair of novellas, I recommend the two from Not Quite Dead Enough. Stout, Wolfe and Archie at their best.

      So far I've had good luck with the novellas. I've read three and they've all been good (with The Zero Clue being the best of them).