Maury Chaykin makes an excellent Nero Wolfe in A&E's new series based on Stout's books. 

The Thinking Man's Mystery

You've got to take Nero Wolfe in context.

Rex Stout invented Wolfe in 1934 in "Fer-de-Lance." Other best-selling detective novels of that era featured central characters who were on the noir side — Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade and their ilk. For the most part, authors were offering up lean and fit, hard-bitten and hardboiled types.

But Stout wasn't one to follow the beaten path.

A quick bio proves the point. Stout was born in Indiana in 1886, the sixth of nine children in a Quaker family. The Stouts soon moved to Wakarusa, Kansas. By the time he was 9, Stout was renowned throughout Kansas as a math prodigy. He went to the University of Kansas — briefly — then enlisted in the Navy and spent the next two years as a warrant officer on President Theodore Roosevelt's yacht. Later, he devised a school banking system that was adopted in 400 localities.

In 1927, he left banking behind and moved to Paris to write serious fiction. He wrote three novels before he dreamed up Nero Wolfe. Stout died at age 88 in 1975. A month later, his 46th Nero Wolfe novel, "A Family Affair," was published.

Nero Wolfe became more popular than Marlowe and Spade, ranking up there with Perry Mason, because Stout wrote against the prevailing type: Whereas Marlowe and Spade are lady-killers, Wolfe is a dedicated misogynist. Moreover, he's a fat gourmet who raises orchids on the roof of the New York brownstone that he never leaves if he can help it. He keeps a French chef. He's sedentary. He's a Renaissance man, with a prodigious memory. And he's the crŠme-de-la-crŠme of cerebral detectives.

Maury Chaykin makes an excellent Nero Wolfe in A&E's new series based on Stout's books. And Timothy Hutton is nicely cast as Goodwin.

Oh, given his druthers, there are things this die-hard Wolfe fan would change. Chaykin is not quite fat enough, Hutton's charm isn't as incandescent as Archie Goodwin's, (Wolfe's legman) and they've set most of the plots so far in the 1950s (which is understandable, since the '50s set a period style that doesn't ring as archaic with younger audiences today as does the 1930s, which is where Wolfe spent a lot of time in Stout's novels). But the soundtrack of the series gets an A+: It's full of hot '30s and '40s club jazz. So do the writers, especially for capturing the exquisite subtleties of the complex relationship between Wolfe and Goodwin, most often expressed in the conversational games they're so fond of — and so good at.

Nero Wolfe fans with too much time on their hands may find minor lapses and omissions inherent in the transfer of a novel to TV to grouse about, but A&E has done a remarkable job of staying true to the core of Stout's unusual detective.

With any luck, younger viewers won over by the series will discover the enjoyable books it's based

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