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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?

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