The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Joy of Reading & the Discovery of a New Author (Nero Wolfe Edition)

I’ve been a big reader since I was perhaps seven years old. In grade one, I actually had remedial English: I’d been taught both whole word and phonics and it had screwed me up. Once I learned to actually read, I fell in love with it; trudging to the library, taking out the maximum, and luxuriating in other worlds and other lives.

I always find the strivers, attempting to read a book a week or a month funny. No real reader considers those numbers anything but pathetic, but it’s not a matter of willpower, or discipline, or any of that nonsense. A real reader reads because they want to, because they love it, and one always finds time for what one truly loves because it isn’t a chore.

As a kid and teenager, I read mostly fiction. It’s a bit hard to say how much, but I remember a period where I went to the public library once a week, took out the max (12), also was reading books from the school library and would read some of my father’s thrillers. Twenty, at least, I’d guess.

Computers were bad for my reading, and the internet worse. Though I never did stop reading, I just slowed down. About five years ago, I got back into it fairly seriously, though I probably average seven to eight books a week now. In some periods, I read mostly non-fiction, but lately I’ve been on a fiction binge.

As any dedicated reader will know, one of the best feelings is when  you find a new author or series, or hopefully both, which you love. As you grow older, this becomes a rarer and rarer event, since when young, you have all the fiction of history to draw from.

Most recently, a couple weeks ago I stumbled across Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books. I’d seen the TV show in the 80s, but never read the books, and the show struck my young self as stuffy and boring.

But the books: Ah, they’re not stuffy at all, or they’re stuffy in just the right way and proportion.

As most readers probably know, Wolfe is the fat genius who never wants to leave his house and who wraps up the cases by getting everyone together and revealing the murderer, while Archie Goodwin is his legman.

Archie’s the viewpoint character. First person. He’s a perfect 30s gumshoe. Brave, funny, charming, and scrappy. He’s smart, but not a genius, as he often points out to Wolfe, but he’s the sort of viewpoint character I love spending time as, and given how popular the Wolfe books were, I know I’m not alone.

The mysteries themselves are good enough, but they aren’t the sharpest around. The draw of the books isn’t so much “Whodonit?” but spending time with Archie, Wolfe, and other characters like the always irascible Inspector Cramer (who I always suspect of deliberately pulling Wolfe’s chain to manipulate him), Saul Panzer, the second best detective in New York, Fritz, the live-in chef, and so on.

The books, in their own weird way, are suffused with love. For all they constantly rag on each other, Archie and Nero are dedicated to each other, and Wolfe will do things for Archie he’d do for almost no one else, though both pretend otherwise. And the spread of affection is far wider — to the other residents of the house and the wider “family” of returning characters, and even many of the clients.

The Wolfe novels are cozies, then: Some bad things happen, even very bad things, but they’re a visit to a very comfortable world where the emotional relationships between the core characters are certain, and one knows that Wolfe and Archie will act according to their own code and honor.

I’m down to five books out of fourty-six in the series I’m reading (Stout wrote 33 novels and 41 shorter works) and feeling a bit sad; it’s rare to find a good long series. I’ll never really say goodbye to Archie and Wolfe, though, because the strength of the books is the place, characters, and writing. The feeling. Whodunit isn’t really the point, visiting old friends is, so I’m sure for as long as I live they’ll join the rotation of books who are old friends, read every few years for the pleasure of return.

Are there any series of books you love, that you return to time and again?



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  1. Stirling S Newberry

    Nero Wolfe is a blast – surprised that you had not discovered them.

  2. Dan D.

    Guy Gavriel Kay writes beautiful characters with depth and motivations and then pits them against one another to create high drama where you cannot pick a desired winner. He used to do Tolkien style fantasy but his latter books tone magical elements down to just a dab, a bit of mystery or a small edge for a beloved character to win with but no Gandalf or Sauron type to consume the human parts of the story. They’re also frequently retellings of actual world history like early Byzantium or the Christian reconquest of Spain (albeit with a bit of magic).

  3. Bill H.

    The series by Patrick O’Brian from which the movie Master and Commander was derived. I have read them all they way through some seven times, or it may be eight now.

  4. Joan

    The Merlin Trilogy by Mary Stewart. (The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment)

  5. Z

    Read Fer-De-Lance, will read more. Surprised how amoral Nero is in that story, not disappointed, but just surprised because I’d imagine most authors would have thought it would have decreased the character’s and the book series’ attractiveness to readers. It made me more interested in him though.

    The book reminded me in some ways of a series I read as a kid: The Three Investigators. The Robert Arthur written books in that series were by far the best ones. Once he passed away, the series went down with him.


  6. Ian Welsh

    Loved the Mary Stewart Merlin books, and reread the first two every few years.

  7. paintedjaguar

    C. S. Forester’s Hornblower books of course, those never get old. Or as an alternative, Bernard Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe series. Both of which have had very nice TV adaptations, by the way.

    When I first ran across a few young booktubers on YT, I was taken aback at their tremulous attitudes toward reading longer books, as if it was some mountain or obstacle course to overcome. Then I found out that often when they said “reading” they actually meant listening to an audiobook. Then I realized that some of these “audiobooks” were more like abridged radio plays…

  8. NR

    Terry Pratchett. His Discworld books are amazing. He’s one of the rare authors that can actually do absurdism well, keeping it grounded in real people and real life ideas. He’s also one of the best satirists I’ve ever read, and he’s great at using fiction to talk about real issues, like he does with his boots theory about how it actually costs more to be poor.

    The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.

    Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.

    But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

    This was the Captain Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ theory of socioeconomic unfairness.

    He really was an expert wordsmith, too. RIP Sir Terry.

  9. marku52

    Raymond Chandler. Love the depiction of the cynical LA he lived in, and Phlip Marlowe’s legendary snark has made it into our household vernacular.

  10. DMC

    Second Raymond Chandler, it’s really his ability to craft a paragraph that just never gets old. Gene Wolfe, whose prose was inspired by Proust and whose fantasy/sci-fi hybrids are the absolute high point of literary sci-fi. James Ellroy, who’s fiction is like the bastard offspring of Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane. William Faulkner, because he never disappoints. Flannery O’Connor, because she combines the macabre and keen observation of the 1950’s South with high hilarity. Phillip K. Dick, for being “our own Jorge Luis Borges” as Ursala K. Legion put it. L.F. Celine for being able to make the most original prose while embracing horror and making it REALLY funny.

  11. Mary Bennett

    I second the recommendation of Raymond Chandler. Other series to which I return are the Maigret novels of Simenon, the Patrick O’Brien seafaring novels, Andrea Camillieri’s series set in Sicily, and Walter Mosley’s series set in post WWII Los Angeles.

    If you can find them, the Marseilles Trilogy by Izzo is brilliant.

  12. someofparts

    Well, you asked about new writers we have discovered, so I’m going to mention Barry Eisler. Besides good writing and engaging stories, Eisler is notable because he once worked for the CIA and his descriptions of our current surveillance capabilities are more up-to-date (and disturbing) than one gets elsewhere. I started with God’s Eye View and am looking forward to reading more of his work as time and money allow.

  13. During 2020 lockdown here in the UK I listened to the complete ‘New Adventures of Nero Wolfe’ radio show. First broadcast in 1950.

    Really recommend them if you find yourself with hankering for more Wolfe once you finish up the book series. The show is noted in the history of US radio, for being one of the first dramas to stress characterisation over plot (like the source material).

    IMO the only thing that lets the show down as a ‘complete work’ is that legman Archie Goodwin is played by several actors across the 25 surviving episodes, which somewhat undermined the strong characterisation.

    They are all available individually on at the link below, or as a complete torrent/zip (just search for them)

    30mins long! Perfect of a walk to the shops or some light entertainment whilst doing housework!

  14. BaryonicBeing

    Your description of some of the characters and overarching elements of the Nero Wolfe series reminds me of Charles Sheffield’s Cold As Ice books: All whodunits, one of the main protagonists is a very obese genius who never leaves his home and has a knack for solving mysteries, and everyone involved is generally a good person. The plots mostly revolve around dealing with the legacy of a genocidal war that killed half the solar system’s population, and the super weapons left hidden in its wake. My recollection beyond that is fuzzy, since I last read them 20 years ago, but it might be worth picking up the first book, Cold As Ice.

  15. Jim Harmon

    Barry Malzberg, writing under the pseudonym Mike Barry, produced a masterful Lone Wolf series about New York cop Burt Wulff who decided to try to single-handedly kill the illegal-drug machine.

    The series was a take-off of Don Pendleton’s entertaining but somewhat ludicrous Executioner series featuring ex-Green Beret Mack Bolan as a destroyer of Mafia thugs and Mideast terrorists.

    Pendleton glorified his protagonist, while Malzberg portrayed his hero as seriously disturbed. Author Ed Gorman published an inteview with Malzberg in which they go into some depth about Burt Wulff and the 70s drug scene.

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