So here I am, three days late and also, I'm afraid, three dollars short. Some Buried Caesar is widely held to be one of the very best books in the Nero Wolfe canon while I can only scratch at its surface.
That sunny September day was full of surprises. The first one came when, after my swift realization that the sedan was still right side up and the windshield and windows intact, I switched off the ignition and turned to look at the back seat.
And, just that quickly, Some Buried Caesar is off and running.
I have three particular reasons for loving this mystery: it's the novel during which the wonderful Lily Rowan first saunters into view, it contains prime examples of Wolfe and Archie being especially caring while also being thoroughly contentious to cover their emotional tracks, and the entire story is a great example of how to write captivating genre fiction. To me, this is the book in which Rex Stout decisively leaves behind his literary pretensions to enter the series' middle period of briskly paced and plotted, and thereby somewhat improved, mysteries.
Fun at the Gallop
It's always entertaining to see what kind of disaster results when Nero Wolfe is forced out of the brownstone. This time, he's on his way to a county fair in rural upstate New York, there to compete with a craven grower who won't face him, albino orchid to albino orchid, at the shows back in Manhattan. (Cue the theme music from High Noon here.) Unfortunately, the sedan blows a tire and ends up wrapped around a tree.
This accident provides the seeds of an argument about driving that Archie implies he and Wolfe will enjoy for months, one they begin even as they first survey their surroundings. The two of them are stranded at the foot of a pasture, above which Archie notices a house that likely contains a telephone. As matters turn out, this pasture certainly contains a bull, a national champion Guernsey named Hickory Caesar Grindon. When Archie exits the pasture quickly and awkwardly -- for him -- by vaulting over a fence, he earns the half-mocking admiration of one of his onlookers, the visiting femme fatale Lily Rowan. For his part, Wolfe is left stuck on top of a boulder back in the pasture with the bull. The novel is now on page eight.
In the chapters that follow, we meet a self-made millionaire and his household along with a neighboring, rival patrician and his household, both alike in lacking dignity. The prospect of Hickory Caesar Grindon being rendered into the world's most expensive barbeque for the sake of publicizing pratterias -- much like cafeterias but with more Pratt involved -- is raised, and Archie is assigned guard duty so that Wolfe can access a decent mattress. Lily Rowan decides Archie could be fun to vamp in the middle of the night, a murder occurs, and Archie and Wolfe hit it off just as well as you might expect with the local law enforcement authorities. They all arrive at last at the county fair, where Archie is not impressed by the Dingaroola dance and learns the secret of Methodist fricassee and dumplings. By this point, Some Buried Caesar is still only one-third done, with more murders, confusion, confrontations, and the organization of the Crowfield County Prisoner's Union still ahead.
As wonderful as the dialogue in the early Nero Wolfe books are, they do sometimes abruptly stop the action so that either Archie or Wolfe can Explain It All to us. In contrast, during Some Buried Caesar, Stout abandons many of these extended psychological and stylistic riffs in favor of cobbling a succession of brief descriptions into his vivid social backdrops. It's easy to forget, while enjoying his protagonists and his character descriptions, how precise Stout could be at choosing the perfect detail and then moving on quickly to his next choice, bouncing along from detail to detail until the pages seem to click across succeeding witticisms like fingers snapping a beat.
I'd be even more envious than I am if I wasn't so thoroughly entertained.
The Dependably Undependable Narrator Strikes Again. And Again. And Again.
...when Wolfe spoke again, I became aware that I had been rubbing the back of my left hand with the finger tips of my right as I sat staring at various spots on the floor.
"You should realize, Archie, that it is very irritating. Rubbing your hand indefinitely like that."
I said offensively, "You'll get used to it in time..."
I think there's a bit of a bias against first-person voice these days even though quite a few good books only seem to work as well as they do because of their first person narrators. The Nero Wolfe mysteries are pretty obviously numbered among that group.
The other books Stout wrote during this period aren't bad, but they are flatter than Archie's yarns. Not only does Archie's voice hone the edge of descriptions and provide most of the sardonic wit, but Archie's unreliable narration adds layers to his and Wolfe's characterizations that Stout's other series detectives don't seem to have.
If there wasn't a pattern to the way that Archie lies, elides, and evades, reading about his untruths might just be maddening. Instead, the consistent ways in he tells his tales serve to hint at certain truths without his ever having to be explicit about them, which I find makes his character much more engaging than either a straightforwardly described personality or an unsolvable enigma of characterization would be. I find having to work to learn about someone increases their interest to me, but I also enjoy feeling as if there is a destination at the end of my trip.
"...I was supposed to be keeping an eye on that bull, wasn't I? That was my job, wasn't it? And I sat over by the roadside smoking cigarettes while he killed a man..."
On the surface layer of the narration in Some Buried Caesar, Archie seemingly tells the truth whenever he describes physical events either to his readers or to Wolfe, as well as when he repeats what he or others said. That doesn't mean he won't leave out details, of course, and often what he chooses to leave out is as significant as what he leaves in. Here, for example, he's not mentioning that he was sitting and smoking with the newly-met and already disturbing Lily Rowan. (I'll touch on a possible meaning of that later.)
"...And now you have the nerve to say the bull didn't kill him. What are you trying to do, work up a case because business has been so bad?"
"No. I am trying to make you stop rubbing the back of your hand so I can finish this chapter before going to bed.
One layer down, Archie seemingly feels free to lie like a rug to anyone, including us, about both his and other's -- especially Wolfe's -- past deeds, motivations, and opinions. This is certainly the case whenever those deeds or motivations might hint at some urge or behavior that doesn't accord with Archie's being the perfect mid-twentieth century male, one who walks down Manhattan's mean streets emotionally alone, armored against all vulnerability by cynicism and smart-assed stoicism. Wolfe does a variant of this routine as well, with witty Epicureanism substituting for the smart-assed stoicism and a self-image as a powerful, selfish aesthete taking the place of Archie's invulnerable, tough guy role. It's no wonder each of them tolerates the other one's lies. They're partners in the same game, even if they are scoring slightly different points.
(As a side note, there's one female in the series who also constantly uses a variation of this gambit: Lily Rowan. But, again, I'll get to her further on.)
I'm explaining that [the first murder] was not due to your negligence and would have occurred no matter where you were, only I presume the circumstances would have been differently arranged. I was not guilty of sophistry. I might suggest a thousand dangers to your self-respect, but a failure on the job tonight would not be one. You didn't fail..."
Even deeper within the narration, beneath all the distracting verbal fireworks and taradiddles, the reader (and Archie's intimates) are confronted again by those honestly described words and actions. Just as what Archie consistently leaves out gives readers clues to what might be important to him, what he repeatedly chooses to describe honestly, even as he lies about motives and opinions, outlines truths that he somehow seems to want to tell without admitting to what he's doing. For example, here in Some Buried Caesar, this guy who likes to go on about his independence from his boss describes in detail a conversation about how much that boss approves of him. The choice to repeatedly include such descriptions is excellent evidence of Archie's actual emotional dependence on Wolfe's good opinion, and on Wolfe.
Is Archie consciously aware of how much he gives away? Or is it just that his revealing choices of what he describes honestly scratch some internal itch that he doesn't quite comprehend? I don't know. But it is interesting how often Archie favors either people who are completely honest or who lie in the same complex way that he does.
[Bert] looked at me. "Could you come downstairs? Mr. Osgood is down there and wants to see you."
I told him I would be right down. After he had gone and his footsteps had faded away, Wolfe said, "You might confine yourself to direct evidence. That you rubbed your hand and I endeavored to make you stop is our affair."
I told him I regarded it as such and left him to his book.
It's always seemed to me that Archie is fairly reliably unreliable. I've frequently been amused by how many readers take Archie's expository self evaluations as the sole, true descriptions of his character and ignore what he actually does and says during the books, even though he is, as first person narrator, supposedly choosing what he describes. When you come right down to it, he isn't much of a liar at all...unless the reader wants him to be.
To Archie Goodwin, she's pretty much always going to be The Woman.
Mind you, all these layers and layers of lies and truth, of witness and narrator and witness again, make it very hard to sort out exactly what is going on with Archie Goodwin and women. That's kind of a pity because Lily Rowan, who's a big part of Some Buried Caesar, is a multifaceted character who has immediately complex interactions with both Archie and Wolfe.
Concentrating on Lily Rowan as seen by Archie, rather than as described by Archie, is really rather unfair. She's a fascinating character when measured entirely by her own behavior: honest, unpretentious, self-indulgent, witty, and dangerous. She really deserved her own book, and I'm peeved she never got it. Nonetheless, this time around I'm still going to beg Lily's pardon and use her primarily as a crowbar to pry at the larger problem that persists during the entire series about Archie Goodwin's attitude toward women.
On the narrative surface, all is easy. For Archie Goodwin, women are either " lumps" or attractive. Further sub-classifications are made on the strictly aesthetical basis of the details of good looks and behavior, most of those decisions being instinctive and not needing either defense or explanation since there's no disputing taste, etcetera.
However, once again Archie's stated opinions are alternately reinforced and contradicted by what he actually does and chooses to describe. Very roughly speaking, on the basis of his actions rather than his words, I tentatively view Archie's categories of women as being those who are lumps to him, those he dislikes, those who amuse him, those who immediately fascinate and delight him, and those who immediately fascinate and annoy him. These five categories seem to encompass both the women to whom he is attracted and the women who are too old or too plain to interest him sexually.
For the most part, Archie casually dates and dances with attractive women who amuse him. We've met a couple of them already in the first few books; they barely seem to chip his polish. Later in canon -- in Murder by the Book, for example -- he'll meet attractive women who fascinate and delight him. He tends to end up keeping his distance from them or be separated from them by circumstance. In any case, they're roughly the female Fritzes of his life, the paragons of honesty and affection. However, it's the final category, women who start by both fascinating and annoying Archie, who seem to end up mattering the most to him. Lily Rowan certainly supports this rule of thumb.
It makes for some rough reading now and then. Try this:
I wanted to slap her because her tone, and the look in her eyes going over me, made me feel like a potato she was peeling.
I was wondering which would be more satisfactory, to slap her and then kiss her, or to kiss her and then slap her.
Archie also spends a lot of time, both in this book and later ones, describing how, when Lily makes it clear what she wants, he is immune to her preferences, immune he says, even as he forces her to bend to his.
"...Then you can have cocktails and dinner with me."
"My pulse remains steady."
And so forth, through many more extreme examples. It's rather repulsive at times. And yet...
"An unbeatable combination," Wolfe murmured. I could have kicked him
In all ordinary circumstances, Wolfe's cocky and unlimited conceit prevents the development of any of the tender sentiments, such as compassion for instance...
It seems canonical that Archie Goodwin can be very rough when offering opinions about any of those who he describes in other places as able to get past his guard and make him behave in ways that indicate they might matter to him, especially if the people in question also present themselves as somehow untouchable, are also somehow liars.
At the same time Archie feels tempted to slap Lily, they are quite obviously negotiating as equals over beginning a relationship -- "I'm lucky I don't have to let the economic part enter into it," she says -- even while making with the bright chatter. Within two days, he will easily and spontaneously recruit her both to seriously prank Wolfe and to claim she'll commit perjury about something critical that has to do with Archie's job, the job he never pretends doesn't matter.
Lily strikes me as annoying Archie so much because she is so much like him, which makes her someone he has to deal with as a person coping with a person rather than as Mr. Smooth condescending to accept the worship of yet another frail who wants to dance with him. This makes her dangerous to him. Nonetheless, much as he complains, Archie thrives on danger. Even in this first book, Lily has the potential to return, to matter, to alter both Archie and the course of the series.
And All The Rest...
Now I'm looking at my copy of Some Buried Caesar while despairing a little. All these words, and there is so much on which I haven't even touched. There are more wonderful scenes between Archie and Wolfe, interesting byplay with supporting characters that says some sophisticated things about the class system during the thirties, lots of low-down and funny lines I haven't even mentioned, the whole question as to whether or not the plot has a serious glitch, fascinating interactions with the cops which make me want to go on about Stout's middle-way attitude toward authorities, many more points to be made from the book about typical female pulp archetypes of the time and how Lily Rowan plays both with and against them...
I have to stop at some point, though, before the eleventh of May becomes the twelfth in the same way the ninth became the tenth and then the eleventh. So now I have to throw the question over to all of you. What did you think of, and possibly love about, Some Buried Caesar?