James Bond meets Nero Wolfe

This was also posted on Artistic License Renewed.

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 flashy 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, 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’ – M waved at the meagre little bloom in the tooth-glass -‘that’s the real thing. That’s an Autumn Lady’s Tresses – spiranthes spiralis, not that I care particularly. Flowers in England as late as October and should be under the ground by now. But I got this forced-late specimen from a man I know – assistant to a chap called Summerhayes who’s the orchid king at Kew. My friend’s experimenting with cultures of a fungus which oddly enough is a parasite on a lot of orchids, but, at the same time, gets eaten by the orchid and acts as its staple diet. Mycorhiza it’s called.’ M gave another of his rare smiles. ‘But you needn’t write it down. Just wanted to take a leaf out of this fellow Nero Wolfe’s book. However’ – M brushed the topic aside – ‘can’t expect you to get excited about these things. Now then.’

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?

Further Reading:

Spy author Gayle Lynds’ speech on “Nero Wolfe, Spy”

The fan site for the Wolfe Pack

I’ve been working on a podcast rereading the Nero Wolfe novels with my co-host Reyna Griffin. Join us here.

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