Every year I make the same reading resolution, and every year I break it: to not start any new book series before I finish the ones I’m already working on. This includes but is not limited to the Amelia Peabody mysteries, all books by P.G Wodehouse, various YA books that seemed like one-off novels until the last page when it read “Such and such characters will return in ________.” The worse repeat offenders of my ruined resolutions are Agatha Christie novels and Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries. Not that I’m complaining; these mysteries, either in paper or audio book form, are among my favorite reads. However, since there are so very many of them, I have given up trying to read them in order.
This had proved problematic for two reasons. First, sometimes Poirot or Wolfe refers to an incident in the past which is actually in a previous novel which I may or may not have read yet. This is not as problematic for me personally, since chances are by the time I get around to reading that other mystery I will have forgotten the “clue from the future” and besides, these mentions rarely spoil the climax of the whodunit.
More problematic is when I read the last book of a series and it spoils an aspect of the books that have gone before. Much like trying to watch any of the earlier Newhart episodes after seeing the historic ending, it’s hard to go back “home,” as it were, by reading any previous books.
I will not spoil it at all. I will say that as with all the Nero Wolfe novels I’ve read, there is a murder involved. Because Nero Wolfe himself is a brilliant detective who avoids any detective work until he is strapped for cash for his expensive tastes of food and orchids, almost all of his cases hit close to home—usually it’s a client who has come to him, he’s turned them down, and then said non-client turns up dead. Sometimes the prospective client is murdered in Wolfe’s own office. Either way, usually it’s a matter of pride, or money, or a matter of annoying the police, that forces Wolfe to finally take action by sending out his trusty foot-soldier Archie Goodwin to pound the pavement, gather the clues, and round up the witnesses into his office so he can proclaim the solution.
As A Family Affair suggests by its title, the reason Wolfe and Archie find themselves in embroiled in this particular case is because of that first reason: it hits painfully close to home.
Since I’d ruined the ending of the series for myself, I took comfort by reading the Rex Stout’s first installment, Fer de Lance. It was a strange debut: Archie the narrator seems a little more subdued than he would prove in later adventures, less womanizing (perhaps a good thing), and Wolfe is less misogynist (again, a good thing). It was strange to see the little changes Stout would later make to his core of characters—Archie calls good ol’ orchid tender Theodore “Old Horstmann,” and continually quotes Saul Panzer (“As Saul Panzer always says…” although in later books I’ve never heard Saul begin a sentence with “Baby.”) It was also strange that Stout takes the attitude of it not being the beginning of a series. Archie speaks in medias res, as if the readers already know all these characters.
The mystery itself isn’t the best-plotted, but it shows plenty of the potential that would later in Prisoner’s Base, The Golden Spiders, Murder by the Book, The Red Box Mystery, and The Doorbell Rang. It also involves one of my favorite but rare aspects of the stories, when Wolfe himself is not only inconvenienced, but actually endangered himself. I love how Archie goes all mother-hen on him, and how Wolfe is shown to be human and vulnerable, yet somehow less perturbed by threat of death than he is about Prohibition, aphids, having to ride in a car, or crying women.