Wednesday, January 16, 2013

When the Sidekicks Tell the Story: The Often Irrelevant and Confusing Archie Goodwin

Illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, June 21, 1958 by Austin Briggs

[Wolfe's] brain works better when he is sitting down and mine when I am on my feet. Not that I would dream of comparing mine with his, though I do believe that in one or two respects – Oh, well. 
~ Rex Stout, Plot it Yourself

To recap my “When the Sidekicks Tell the Story” series thus far: Watson is the narrator for Holmes because Watson adds emotional depth to the mind puzzles.  Hastings is the narrator for Poirot mainly for his good-hearted, relatable British familiarity in comparison to the eccentric Belgian.  Wooster is the narrator for Jeeves because it would be uber annoying to have every sentence end with “sir” which would have been the case had Jeeves narrated it himself.  

Archie Goodwin is the narrator for Nero Wolfe for NONE of the above reasons.  No, the true reason Archie is the narrator is because Nero Wolfe NEVER WILLINGLY LEAVES HIS HOUSE.  Therefore without Archie, Wolfe would just sit and read and never solve any cases until he ran out of caviar. 

In the books, Wolfe barely moves.  He is like a still, impassive monument observing everything that happens around him.  Sometimes Archie says “his eyes moved.”  Wow.  Nero Wolfe, the man of action.  But in order to have things move around him—and this necessarily gathering all the usual suspects up in his office, Agatha Christie-style—he has to have Archie to wrangle the suspects, witnesses, and even clients like cattle. 

I know pretty well what my field is. Aside from my primary function as the thorn in the seat of Wolfe's chair to keep him from going to sleep and waking up only for meals, I'm chiefly cut out for two things: to jump and grab something before the other guy can get his paws on it, and to collect pieces of the puzzle for Wolfe to work on. 
~ Rex Stout, The Red Box

Archie in his own right is a detective.  Though not as great at deduction or planning, Archie has the superpower of being able to recite verbatim conversations with suspects.  In addition to prodding Wolfe into working for a living, Archie does all the secretarial work, gathers information, outwits the police (who always think he’s up to something…he must have one of those faces), and bounces unwelcome interlopers from Wolfe’soffice.  
He tends to jump the gun on falling in love, planning to marry any passably looking female from the time he sets eyes on her.  He’s always threatening to quit, or get married, or get Wolfe married.   In retaliation Wolfe tends to conveniently leave Archie out of the main twist in the plot, temporarily hiring a freelance P.I. named Saul Panzer to do the things that would prematurely spoil the ending for the reader. 

Archie’s everyman quality makes up for Wolfe’s misanthropic snobbishness, and where Archie is hotheaded and impulsive, Wolfe’s strategic finesse keeps the duo a step ahead of the villains.  In the end, Wolfe and Archie are in a symbiotic—if sometimes antagonistic—partnership. 
My status and function are whatever a given situation calls for, and the question who decides what it calls for is what occasionally creates an atmosphere in which Wolfe and I are not speaking.
~ Rex Stout, Plot it Yourself

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