used_songs: (Archie huh)
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Black Orchids

My edition: Stout, Rex. Black Orchids. 12th ed. New York City: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979. 190. Print.

Overview: Archie Goodwin is sent to the flower show (repeatedly) to scope out Lewis Hewitt’s black orchids. On the day that Nero Wolfe decides he can’t subsist on second hand information anymore and accompanies Archie, a man is murdered. Seeing an opportunity to get the black orchids, Wolfe involves himself in the case.

Like a Married Couple

This book starts out with Archie clowning about his love for a woman, although if you didn’t know him pretty well you might be tempted to take him seriously. He doesn’t just attempt to misdirect and tease Wolfe with comments about getting engaged; it’s as if he’s doing the same with regard to the reader. Archie never drops his ironic pose as he narrates the events of the story; even after he declares that Fred Updegraff deserves Anne Tracy more than he does, he never lets on that it was all a game. He spends the beginning of the book needling Wolfe about Anne Tracy and how he plans to marry her, with comments like, “[Y]ou’re enough of a psychologist to know what it means when a man is compelled to talk about a girl to someone. Preferably, of course, to someone who is sympathetic. You can imagine what it means when I want to talk about her to you.” (Stout 11) I love the playful, teasing tone here. He affects that tone with Wolfe a lot in this book.

It’s notable that in this same conversation, Archie remarks, “I’ve been living in this house with you for over ten years….” (Stout 11) That’s quite a long time for two people to be together and the entire book bears out just how well the two men know each other, how they trust each other and pick up signals from each other. When Wolfe, unsatisfied with Archie’s reports, braves the flower show himself, Archie is the one dancing attendance. He runs interference with the crowd, observes Wolfe closely, takes his overcoat, keeps Wolfe from picking up Hewitt’s cane (and losing his dignity), and is genuinely appalled by Wolfe’s sycophantic behavior toward Hewitt which he terms a “degrading performance.” (Stout 31) When Anne Tracy lies to Wolfe, Archie catches it immediately … and then catches Wolfe catching it.

Later, as Wolfe works at depriving Hewitt of his black orchids, Archie says, “What if I let you down?” (Stout 45). Wolfe immediately responds, “You won’t.” (Stout 45) That is a high degree of confidence. That confidence isn’t misplaced. When Archie thinks there’s a ciphogene leak, he first looks to make sure Wolfe is okay and only then dives for the valve to shut it off.

Women – Unknowable and Perhaps Unwanted

One thing that has always bothered me about the Nero Wolfe books is the cheerful sexism of the two main characters. I’ve always felt decidedly Othered in these novels, despite how much I enjoy them. Women are inscrutable and unknowable, have mysterious thought processes, and are driven by emotion. Archie is carelessly mean as he describes the women at the flower show. He idealizes Anne Tracy based purely on her physical attributes (what is the deal with legs?). As for Rose Lasher, she is painted in the book as an immoral woman and, although Archie doesn’t speak in judgment of her, he treats her roughly and she describes herself in harsh terms. Wolfe describes women as “nannygoats.”

Related to this, there is an instance of the kind of casual racism that Archie is sometimes guilty of, when he jokes about “Hoo Flung Dung.” (Stout 49) Given that Wolfe has, in other books, corrected or at least abhorred that kind of attitude, I guess we’re to remember that Archie is flawed and still a bit of a rough.

I find it difficult to believe that Archie was able to lift Rose Lasher’s handbag without her knowledge and can only assume that she was meant to be stunned by the death of someone who we later find out was very important to her. Speaking of Rose, I do want to say that the most interesting and fully-realized women in these books are the ones who are a little hard-boiled and Rose certainly qualifies. Her crack about Archie being a 10 cent Clark Gable (Stout 63) stings enough that he refers to it several times and the rest of her dialogue is believable and has a natural flow.

Ruthlessness Dressed Up as Drama

This mystery starts off with flowers and Archie mooning over a woman’s legs and ends with Wolfe leading a murderer to execute himself. He stages the scene and then drives the murderer to act out of self-protection. Wolfe and Hewitt’s performance brings the tragic note to the conclusion of the mystery, and Cramer can’t be the only one who is shocked by Wolfe’s insouciance.

“Steam Her Off the Envelope”

Nero Wolfe gets a lot of credit for his amazing vocabulary, but it must’ve rubbed off on Archie as well. Archie Goodwin is confident and cocky, especially with Wolfe complimenting his satisfactory performance at least twice in this story, and brash and sarcastic. While his language is more colorful and slangy than Wolfe’s, he uses his fair share of $20 words too. He also uses metaphors freely. He complains that Wolfe has taken his dagger (Stout 45) and says, with regard to Rose Lasher, that Wolfe is trying to “steam her off the envelope.” (Stout 57)

Wolfe’s exaggerations always make me smile. He says of Archie’s initial discovery of the green string which is the key to unraveling this case: “[Archie] calls it a little jerk, but he is exceptionally strong and was in a savage emotional state.” (Stout 45) One point seemed a bit out of character for me. When Wolfe asked Rose Lasher, “Do your folks live there?” (Stout 60) I stopped reading for a moment because I couldn’t imagine Wolfe, the same man who takes Johnny Keems to task for using “contact” as a verb, using the word “folks.”

Inspector Cramer also gets in several good lines, like when he tells the officer who lost track of Rose Lasher, “It’s repulsive, the idea of you thinking.” (Stout 53) His conversation with Wolfe at the end is good as well – his frustration with Wolfe’s methods and his high-handedness. He also gets the last word when he calls the black orchids, the cause of Wolfe’s involvement in this case, drab.

Discussion:

To me, this story is where Archie and Wolfe hit their groove and sound like the characters I’ve internalized. I wonder if this is just me, based on my experience of encountering these books as a kid and reading them in the order in which I found them at used book stores. Do you find Archie and Wolfe to be especially themselves in this book, or is there a different point in the canon that marks that moment for you?

Wolfe never hesitates to make remarks about social class – “People who inherit wealth don’t have to bother to see things. But certainly Mr. Goodwin saw it, and so did I ….” {Stout 45} - which I’ve always put down to Stout’s political leftism. When a likable character like Archie makes sexist or racist remarks, it's jarring. Do the sexism and racism take you out of the story? Do you attribute these to the author and the times, or do you think they’re commentary and that we should be judging these characters, even Wolfe and Archie, to some extent?

The Black Orchid Mystery: Do They Really Exist?

(no subject)

Date: 2010-06-14 09:52 pm (UTC)
centuryplant: A pink Fairy Slipper orchid (Fairy Slipper orchid)
From: [personal profile] centuryplant
I was reading this last night and [personal profile] pameladean asked me which one it was, since the title didn't ring a bell. I said "it's the one where Wolfe is a dick," which cracked her up because of course that doesn't really narrow it down much. But blackmailing Hewitt out of his prized orchids always stuck in my mind as one of Wolfe's worst moments. (If he'd settled for one plant, it would have been easier to take.) I'd forgotten that he also kills a guy, in part to make sure he can keep the orchids. I'm not nearly as sure as Wolfe is that no jury would convict him.

I'm not sure if this one is especially sexist, or if the sexism just struck me more because it's the first Rex Stout I've reread in a long time. What got to me most was the treatment of Rose Lasher, especially the bit about how "one of the nicest things about Fritz [is] that to him anything in a skirt is a lady." Because if he weren't such a prince among men he would of course have treated her like crap, apparently.

On the other hand, I did enjoy Archie trying to convince Wolfe he's going to leave him and get married, knowing perfectly well Wolfe won't buy it. The Archie-Wolfe values are generally good in this one. I love how Archie worries when Wolfe is gone ("He'll fall in a hole. He'll catch cold.") and then easily figures out where Wolfe has gone because he knows him so well. It's interesting how Stout brings in Johnny Keems, the Archie wannabe who totally fails to predict what Wolfe wants, as a contrast. Also: "No one on earth can badger me except Mr. Goodwin"!


Randomly -- the name Rose Lasher amuses me because it sounds like the name of one of the orchid monsters in World of Warcraft.

Also, my copy of this book, a Pyramid edition from the 70s, has particularly awful back cover copy: "Picture Nero Wolfe maddened by lust—Fatso would do anything to get those orchids." Ugh.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-06-19 06:37 pm (UTC)
dorinda: Vintage orange crate label, "Dorinda" brand (Dorinda_label)
From: [personal profile] dorinda
I did enjoy Archie trying to convince Wolfe he's going to leave him and get married, knowing perfectly well Wolfe won't buy it.

Me too. I find it really interesting, given the way Archie does it so often and so relentlessly, and given how obviously it is actually about the relationship between Wolfe and Archie. Archie even refers to how often he wields this particular device, right after he reminds Wolfe that they've been living together for more than ten years:

Sooner or later one of my threats to get married will turn out not to be a gag. How are you going to know? How do you know this isn't it?

It's like Archie has to do it, like he can't stop himself--it's one way to get reactions from Wolfe, in particular certain *kinds* of reactions, and on a certain emotional and even erotic level. I mean, in this book we have Archie going on and on about the erotics of Anne's bare leg and about how all the men are panting after her--and then he PUTS HIS LEG ON WOLFE'S DESK.:
I lifted a leg to the corner of the desk and pulled my trouser leg up to the knee. "In your mind's eye, strip off the shoe and sock and garter and apply your knowledge of cross-pollination. ..."

So Archie's procedure there is: 1) rhapsodize about how sexy it is for Anne Tracy to take off her shoes and stockings and show her bare legs and feet; 2) put his own leg right up in Wolfe's grill and demand that Wolfe undress said leg with his eyes. MMM-HMMM. Archie, your psychosexual subconscious is forever a wonderland. :D

I love how Archie worries when Wolfe is gone ("He'll fall in a hole. He'll catch cold.")

Me too! I always love it. For one thing, whenever it happens it generally runs riiiight along the multifaceted crack between surface and depths that characterizes the Unreliable Narrator. So here, for instance, we have Archie using seemingly sarcastic lines like "Our little Nero, I thought, out on such a night and no coat"--but from the increasing intensity of his actions and his poorly-suppressed emotions, plus the very visible effort he puts into sounding flip, his worries are actually revealed as not sarcastic at all. It honestly bothers (worries, even frightens) him a great deal, when they're away from home and Wolfe is off without him. And it's constantly revealed not to have a logical basis, given how undeniably competent Wolfe is...he has his phobias and his panics, but thus far in the books it isn't that without Archie Wolfe falls down and curls into a ball (or even goes thirsty for beer *g*).

It's interesting how Stout brings in Johnny Keems, the Archie wannabe who totally fails to predict what Wolfe wants, as a contrast.

More me-too-ing. *g* I admit, I really enjoy the scene where Wolfe rips Johnny a new one, smacking him down on every front (not even sending him to the kitchen, but sending him from the house entirely!), and specifically 1) praising Archie (in front of Johnny and Archie both) and 2) stating unequivocally that Archie need have no fear of Johnny edging him out. We know Archie *does* have that fear, we've seen it before--and now it's clear that Wolfe knows it about Archie too, and feels this is a good time to remind Archie that it's groundless. This is one of those scenes in which Wolfe or Archie communicates with the other one by talking to a third party, and I always find them endearing and very telling.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-06-19 08:41 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] ama_nesciri
"It's like Archie has to do it, like he can't stop himself--it's one way to get reactions from Wolfe, in particular certain *kinds* of reactions, and on a certain emotional and even erotic level..."

>> I totally agree with this; I'd never thought of it this way before! Archie really puts a huge amount of his 'mental focus' on Wolfe; except for dates, dancing, movies and ballgames he seems otherwise fixated on Wolfe and conversing with him, and getting reactions.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-06-19 08:45 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] ama_nesciri
I was surprised went for ALL the black orchids--and at the end Hewitt is happy he got to play 'actor' on the roof! And then he and Wolfe are friends--it's too bad we don't get to see them turn from adversaries/orchid competitors/'Wolfe just blackmailed me for these rare ones' into friends.

I find Wolfe's choice of trying to coerce criminals to commit suicide to be really interesting and odd. I wonder if it in part is temporal and part from his life in WWI? I am also surprised Archie doesn't seem to really have a strong view either way as to its morality but since he chooses to be swept along in the genius' wake I guess he really does agree (without feeling comfortable enough to say he does etc.)

(no subject)

Date: 2010-06-19 07:06 pm (UTC)
dorinda: Animated image of Jim kissing Plato on the temple, from a screen test for "Rebel Without a Cause" (JimPlato_animated)
From: [personal profile] dorinda
Archie says, “What if I let you down?” (Stout 45). Wolfe immediately responds, “You won’t.”

Aw. And directly after that line, Wolfe goes on to say: "And I wish to say that your performance this afternoon has been satisfactory. Completely satisfactory throughout." Other books are more clear and emphatic about what those specific words mean, coming from Wolfe, and especially how very much they mean to Archie. Hearing how Wolfe uses them here--I mean, it's like a giant olive branch, a reassurance and a comfort and a bit of ego-stroking, all in one.

Her crack about Archie being a 10 cent Clark Gable

I think it's interesting that Archie denies being Gableish and instead insists on Gary Cooper. Modern readers might remember Cooper's style as a hard-faced, deadpan, weatherbeaten, even stiff kind of masculinity, as in High Noon (1952). But this is 1941, and Cooper's persona was still in flux. His original portrayal in the 1920s strongly positioned him as sensitive, beautiful (even to an androgynous degree), and exquisitely high-fashion in dress. Not until the mid-1930s did the studios begin to gradually refashion his image into a harder-edged kind of masculinity. There's an interesting Flash slide show of the evolution of Cooper's publicity photographs here.

I think that Archie's preference for Cooper over Gable could have many potential interpretations, of course (including possibly that he simply finds Cooper more handsome and therefore a better representative), but I can't help but also find Cooper's shifting star portrayal an interesting fit to the ways Archie grapples with his own sense of masculinity.

To me, this story is where Archie and Wolfe hit their groove and sound like the characters I’ve internalized. I wonder if this is just me

For what it's worth, I don't find it true for me. They've sounded 'like themselves' to me for some time now. But of course I know it's an inherently subjective measure.

Wolfe never hesitates to make remarks about social class

That's for sure, and he's perennially on the side of the poor and disempowered against the rich (especially the specific categories of the inherited rich and the corporate rich). It wasn't until this latest re-read that I noticed a little more explicit mention of Archie's leftist politics, as well. In the scene where Johnny gets his smackdown (69), when Archie finds out that Anne makes $20/week and has to pay back $10:
"Good God," I blurted, "You need a union. ...I mean a labor union. Twenty bucks a week!"
Johnny looked annoyed. He's a conservative.

So in that scene where Johnny is negatively contrasted with Archie in other respects by Wolfe, he's also contrasted here. Archie advocates a labor union as recourse for a poor person getting ripped off, and Johnny, "a conservative", doesn't care for it.

(no subject)

Date: 2010-06-19 08:36 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] ama_nesciri
That's fascinating about Gary Cooper! I just went and looked at those photos. What an interesting choice for Archie to make. And I like your thoughts/breakdown of what Wolfe was doing with his 'satisfactory' talk--the four descriptions are perfect and I think really express what Wolfe actually 'means/successfully conveys' as opposed to 'says verbatim.' =)

(no subject)

Date: 2015-07-12 04:03 pm (UTC)
dorinda: Randolph Scott smiles at Cary Grant. (Randolph_Cary)
From: [personal profile] dorinda
For anyone who might read this in the future--I can't edit the comment, but the link to the Cooper slideshow has changed: http://wcftr.commarts.wisc.edu/exhibits/photos-and-flat-graphics-slide-shows/gary-cooper-personal-name-file

(no subject)

Date: 2010-06-19 07:46 pm (UTC)
From: [personal profile] ama_nesciri
"Archie remarks, “I’ve been living in this house with you for over ten years….”"
>>I am always surprised at how often Archie mentions how long he's lived with Wolfe, not only in narration but in his 'real life'. It really seems (to me) to belie his tough, Midwest masculine image--the fact that he always mentions 'living with you in this house' instead of something less personal, like 'working for you' etc leads me to think this.


"Nero Wolfe gets a lot of credit for his amazing vocabulary, but it must’ve rubbed off on Archie as well. Archie Goodwin is confident and cocky, especially with Wolfe complimenting his satisfactory performance at least twice in this story, and brash and sarcastic. While his language is more colorful and slangy than Wolfe’s, he uses his fair share of $20 words too."

>>I always find it interesting how Archie can pull out a really impressive metaphor or word. It makes you wonder just how much he actually knows--in one early book I think he mentions laying on a couch downstairs and reading, but later on does not mention this. I almost wonder if he's censoring himself after the first few books. I also find it interesting that it's so central to his identity as a person that he always mentions what his leather case (from Wolfe) is, and how it's so fancy. You would think that type of 'fancy' gift would embarrass him, or that he would be embarrassed showing others that Wolfe gave him it and he likes it, but how Archie acts always defys my expectations.

In this vein I am always shocked that Wolfe and Archie are so progressive, actually. I see a lack of sexism and racism as opposed to other literature and movies from the early era (30s-40s etc). I think maybe that's part of Archie's desire to reassure the reader and himself that he's a 'real' man, because overt/cruel sexism/racism/violence isn't really too much a part of how he expresses himself. I've seen most Wolfeans (if that's the word) say that Archie's a thug, especially early on, but I've never felt this way. I personally think the different in cultural and temporal milieu is simply different from our own. Now if Archie lived today I think he would act progressively for our time period, but in his own period I see him as an exemplar man.

I think Stout set him up to be one, actually. I think many of the other characters' behaviors often end up showing Archie in a good light, ie. Orrie's womanizing, Johnny Keems behavior, even the others who come to the office. His violent reactions are typically (I think) restricted to people attacking Wolfe or insulting him, and his instinctive reaction to so 'deal' with those who disrespect Wolfe I always saw as being a way he could express loyalty and love in that relationship. I think both of them are heavily conscripted/bound in the ways they can express respect or love for each other. (Not just by the time period, but also by Wolfe's Montenegrian background and Archie's old fashioned Midwest background.)

What I really want to know is what really happened when they met and realized they were perfect for each other as both boss/secretary, star/assistant, genius/admirer, pseudo-father/son, semi-ancient Greek style BFFs and/or heterosexual life partners. That would explain so much for me! I especially want to know if their early relationship dealt with Wolfe's relapses and whether they were more serious/upsetting than Archie shows. I would love to know how Archie changes people and how flattering/negative his characterization of them is. And of course, their reactions would be v. interesting. I also wonder if there's any exaggeration re: Archie and girls, or Wolfe's 'American' cultural credentials/behavior, same for Fritz etc.

You know I've always found it odd that Wolfe makes those comments about how strong Archie is. It's almost like a compliment plus some masculine reassurance-praise, imho. I've been thinking for a while about gender in Wolfe-- but in terms of what if Wolfe were a woman? Or if Archie were? I see Ina Garten as Wolfe in this case, but for Archie I don't know. Anyway all this made me think, women are so often praised for their beauty, figure etc--but to compliment a man usually focuses on different 'virtues' etc. I find it interesting that Wolfe says Archie spends too much on his clothes and doesn't seem to compliment his outfits but throws a fit at the purple shirts Lily gives Archie, and does compliment Archie's strength. It to me is perhaps also a way of complimenting Archie's looks/physicality/figure without going into territory that a Midwest Archie might find 'lavender'.

=) Anyway I found your thoughts v. interesting!! Thank you for the post!

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