Tuesday, November 18, 2014

My keynote speech for the Bouchercon Nero Wolfe Banquet


Rex Stout has long been one of my favorite authors, and it was an honor to be able to give the keynote speech at the Bouchercon Nero Wolfe Banquet, and meet Mr. Stout's daughter, Rebecca Stout Bradbury. The dinner itself was a fun and lively affair. The toasts that were offered were imaginative and well-researched by true Wolfeans, and Weronance (emcee) Ira Matetsky kept things moving quickly with the wit of a Catskills comedian. 

Below is the keynote speech that I gave--and nobody pelted me with dinner rolls! (of course, they were all eaten by the time I gave my speech!!)

The Curious Case of Mr. Katz, Mr. Wolfe, and Two Archies

I’ve been invited to talk here tonight because of my Julius Katz mysteries which Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine have been publishing. Even if you didn’t know that Julius’s assistant in these stories is named Archie, it should be no surprise given the name of my detective that these mysteries are an unabashed pastiche of Nero Wolfe. My talk tonight will be comparing Julius Katz  with Wolfe and my Archie with Archie Goodwin. I don’t expect for us to glean any great insights from my talk, but I hope these comparisons help illuminate some of the qualities that we enjoy so much from Stout’s Nero Wolfe books.

I am by no means a Wolfean scholar, but I have spent 100s of highly enjoyable hours visiting Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. I first discovered Nero Wolfe as a teenager when I bought a dog-eared copy of Fer-de-Lance from a used bookstore. What hooked  me was the ingenuity and cleverness of Stout’s writing, but what drove me to keep searching out more of the Nero Wolfe books was how much I enjoyed spending time with the characters, even Lieutenant Rowcliff. I’d like to offer the following quote from Donald Westlake, which sums up my own feelings:

“I go there to see my old friends and watch Archie be archly secretive about his sex life and hear Wolfe say, ‘Pfui.’”

By the time I entered college I had read maybe a quarter of the Wolfe books, and I soon discovered that my university’s library had a full collection. My grades suffered my first year as I couldn’t help myself from devouring all the rest of the books in the series. What made this especially a treat—and maybe some of you might’ve had a similar experience—was discovering notes left in the margins by other Wolfe fans.  Since college I’ve reread my favorite Wolfe books at different times, have read everything else I’ve been able to find from Stout, and loved the A&E series starring Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton. I mention this so people here understand that while I’m not a Nero Wolfe expert, I am a fan, and while there are few writers who can match Stout’s talent, and I’m certainly not claiming to be one of them,  it was nonetheless  important to me to take great care in trying to duplicate for my Julius Katz series the enjoyment that I experienced reading all those Nero Wolfe books.

Now to the subject at hand. Both Julius and Wolfe live in brownstones, Wolfe’s is located at West 35th Street in Manhattan, Julius’s in the Beacon Hill section of Boston.  Both detectives are brilliant, display some eccentricities, and have lazy tendencies where they prefer other pursuits than being actively engaged as a detective. Both have expensive lifestyles. Both have discerning palates where they not only enjoy, but demand fine food. Wolfe’s beverage of choice is beer, Julius’s wine. Both are gracious hosts. Both enjoy the comfort of their homes. Both have strict requirements in how they choose to live their lives, Wolfe more so than Julius. Both live refined lifestyles, again more so with Wolfe than with Julius. Wolfe’s hobby is orchids, Julius’s is collecting wines. Both have a nemesis on the police force named Cramer. In Nero Wolfe’s case, it’s Inspector Cramer, in Julius’s case, it’s Detective Mark Cramer. Both Cramers often suspect that the private detective in question is pulling a fast one on them, and withholding critical information. Both Cramers also begrudgingly respect the private detective in question. Both Wolfe and Julius at times hire freelance detectives. In Wolfe’s case, these detectives are Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin and Orrie Cather. In Julius’s case, they’re Saul Penzer, Tom Durkin, and Willie Cather. Both Wolfe and Julius have assistants named Archie.
Now for some differences. Wolfe is in his mid-fifties and weighs one-seventh of a ton. Unless he’s in training to kill Germans in World War II, his idea of exercise is throwing darts. Julius is 42, weighs less than one-eleventh of a ton, is handsome, very fit, holds a fifth  degree black belt in Shaolin Kung Fu, and spends two hours every morning engaged in rigorous exercise. While Wolfe might be occasionally charmed by a woman, he has no intention of becoming involved with one, or ever letting a woman live under his roof. Julius is a notorious womanizer—or was until he meets Lily Rosten in the first of the Julius Katz stories—and becomes smitten by her, and dates her throughout the rest of the stories, at least so far. Wolfe rarely leaves his home, and while Julius has cultivated a similar image, he often leaves his home to dine at fine restaurants and to gamble, but like Wolfe, prefers not to leave his home for anything work-related. Wolfe employs a chef, Fritz Brenner, Julius does his own cooking. Finally, Julius’s true passions are very different than Wolfe’s; namely: Lily Rosten, wine, and gambling—he’s an expert poker player, and will often use bluffs and his skill at reading a player’s tell in his detective work.

Now for the two Archie’s in question. Archie Goodwin, along with being Nero Wolfe’s assistant, also performs a number of other tasks, including doing Wolfe’s bookkeeping and banking, typing Wolfe’s correspondences, and keeping the germination and other records for Wolfe’s orchids. His primary job, though, is detective work, and he’s very good at it. Tough, tenacious, and a keen observer who has the ability to report conversations verbatim, Goodwin is more than capable, although he accepts that Wolfe is the genius, and that his job is to assist, and occasionally to pester when Wolfe needs prodding. Goodwin is also fiercely loyal to Wolfe. In many ways Julius’s Archie is very similar to Archie Goodwin. He’s fiercely loyal to Julius, and pesters Julius when he feels it’s necessary. Along with being Julius’s assistant, he performs a number of other tasks, including being Julius’s accountant, wine purchaser, secretary, and all around man Friday. Just as Goodwin will collect information for Wolfe, Julius’s Archie does the same, except instead of going out into the field to do this and flashing shoe leather, Julius’s Archie collects the information over the Internet, usually by hacking into computer sites. One way in which they’re very different, is that Julius’s Archie isn’t human. Instead this Archie is a two-inch rectangle piece of advanced technology complete with audio and visual circuitry and a self-adapting neuron network. All the great 20th century detective novels, including the complete Nero Wolfe works, were loaded into his knowledge base leaving this Archie with the heart and soul of a hardboiled private eye. Since Julius wears him as a tie clip, he has a very different self-image of himself than say Goodwin—picturing himself as only five foot tall, which is his distance from the ground when Julius is standing.

Other than having an image of himself as a human, Archie is very self-aware, and understands that Julius named him Archie as an inside-joke—that he is destined to also being the second banana, always to be one step behind his boss in solving a case, and this brings up yet another way in which Julius’s Archie is very different than Goodwin—he badly wants to beat Julius to the punch in solving a case, and believes if he observes Julius in action enough times, he can keep refining his adaptive reasoning module and knowledge base so that he can accomplish this.

One final way that Julius’s Archie is very different than Goodwin is that when Goodwin is pestering Wolfe, there’s not much Wolfe can do about it, except to threaten to fire him, which I can’t remember ever happening. Julius, though, always has the option of turning his Archie off.

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