INSPO: Nero Wolfe

INSPO is a series of posts about non-horror topics that could nonetheless be used as inspiration for a horror game. The rest of the series can be found here.

You are headstrong and I am magisterial. Our tolerance of each other is a constantly recurring miracle.

As someone who had a miserable childhood and only acquired an interest in reading as an adult, I have never quite found it in my heart to make room for ‘comfort reading’. I do not curl up with books, revisit old favourites, or escape to comprehensible fictional worlds when the mysteries of the real one start to overwhelm me. I consume culture in order to grow and I cannot grow by dwelling in some fictional happy place.

This being said, I do make an exception for Nero Wolfe, specifically the TV adaptation of the Rex Stout novels that ran between 2001 and 2002. I own two copies of the show and I revisit them every two or three years to my endless and enduring delight.

The Nero Wolfe series began in 1934 with the publication of Fer-de-Lance and ended in 1985 with the posthumous publication of a collection entitled Death Times Three, which included a previously unpublished draft of a novella. The time frame in which Stout was working id important as it straddles the golden age and hardboiled eras of detective fiction. In fact, one could even view the structure of the stories as an attempt to strike a balance between the two literary forms.

Nero Wolfe is a morbidly obese genius of Eastern European origin. A romantic figure in his youth, Wolfe fled his homeland for New York and tried to disentangle himself from the world by immersing himself in his love of books, orchids, and gourmet food. Unfortunately for Wolfe, these passions turned out to be rather expensive as his love of books requires a large house, his love of gourmet food requires a live-in chef and his love of orchids requires a live-in gardener as well as a roof-top greenhouse. As much as Wolfe would like to retreat from the world, the cost of indulging his passions requires him to work and so he puts his genius to work solving crimes.

The final and most significant member of Wolfe’s household is Archie Goodwin, who is effectively his mirror opposite when it comes to temperament. For example, while Wolfe refuses to leave the house, Goodwin is forever out in the field. While Wolfe is over-educated and brusque, Goodwin is charmingly down to earth. Where Wolfe is a self-avowed misogynist who prefers not to have women in his home, Goodwin is a tireless romantic who is forever juggling dates, female friends, and former girlfriends. The differences between the two characters reflect the series’ attempts to work both sides of the literary form: On one side, you have the brilliantly antisocial golden-age detective who sits in an armchair and solves crimes through pure ratiocination. On the other, you have the charming hardboiled cynic who is forever talking himself into and out of trouble but never backs down from a fight.

My intense love of the series hinges on two recurring characteristics, one shallow and the other profound: The shallow thing that draws me into the series is the relationship between Wolfe and Goodwin. While recent adaptations of the Holmes stories have indulged in quite a bit of queerbaiting with regards to the Holmes/Watson relationship, the Wolfe/Goodwin relationship is almost overwhelmingly queer. Holmes and Watson are close friends but their friendship never outstrips what you’d expect from long-term house-mates. Wolfe and Goodwin live together but you would not call them friends… every time they squabble, Wolfe sulks while Goodwin stomps about the place emoting like an operatic soprano. There are even times when he will talk up his relationships with women and his desire to get married, needling Wolfe until jealousy spurs the big man into action. Wolfe’s misogyny is unambiguous and cheerfully admitted but Goodwin’s love of women is just as sexless as Wolfe’s isolation. Goodwin may talk about getting married and he might even flirt with a few clients, but at the end of the day he spends his nights under Wolfe’s roof and his relationships with women all seem to revolve around going to tea-dances. What’s not to love about two deeply closeted gay men sniping at each other but refusing to let go?

The deeper thing that draws me to the stories is the way that the world of the stories acts as a closed emotional economy. As I said, Wolfe has expensive hobbies and the expense of these hobbies require him to work even though Wolfe hates working. Most Wolfe stories begin with Goodwin sighing heavily and looking at an empty safe while Wolfe refuses to make eye-contact, forcing Goodwin to head out and find a client. Given that Wolfe only ever works under suffrage, his involvement in the cases tend to yield to the structure according to which he lives his life. Yes… he will agree to solve a murder, but he will not leave the house, he will not interrupt his meals, and he will not meet with anyone during the hours set aside to tending his rooftop garden. Wolfe leads an intensely structured and ordered life, everything and everyone in his life has a place to occupy and a role to play. This structure is most often used for comic effect as clients and police turn up angrily demanding Wolfe’s attention only for Goodwin to invite them to take a seat and wait for hours until the big man descends from the plant-rooms in his specially-designed heavy duty one-person lift. Wolfe devotes so much time and energy to keeping the outside world at bay that there is something incredibly satisfying about him inviting someone into his neatly ordered world. This dynamic is particularly evident in the seventh novel Over My Dead Body where Wolfe’s long-lost daughter turns up and tries to suck him into some scheme involving the criminal dynasty that are currently in control of Wolfe’s homeland. The daughter acts cold, tries to play Wolfe and makes terrible mistakes only for Wolfe to forgive her and ask her to stay.

This kind of closed emotional system is also apparent in Wolfe’s professional life as Goodwin sometimes finds himself needing support from a trio of independent detectives that Wolfe sometimes hires on a case-by-case basis. Referred to in the series as the ‘Teers, these outside detectives feel like aspects of Goodwin in much the same way as Goodwin feels like a reflection of Wolfe. The first of the three is Saul Panzer, a detective whose skill rivals that of Goodwin’s to the point where Goodwin frequently gets jealous whenever Wolfe decides to hire him. Least of the three is Fred Durkin, a working-class detective whose lack of skill and charisma are in opposite relation to his loyalty. Sat in the middle is Orrie Cather, a handsome and charismatic detective who imagines himself as Goodwin’s replacement despite the fact that he lacks Goodwin’s professionalism and self-control. Indeed, there is one notable story in which Cather gets himself in trouble because he gets too deeply involved with the wrong girl and winds up getting accused of murder. This would suggest that Cather’s inferiority to Goodwin might be down to his heterosexuality and his refusal to draw the line at dancing.

As fabulous as the stories, the TV series, and the old radio plays may be, the purpose of this piece is to explore Nero Wolfe as an inspiration for running games and the series, for me at least, inspires two different sets of ideas:

Firstly, as I have mentioned before, I am a big fan of games that encourage the players to devote time and resources to building up some sort of home base. That can be a castle that the group rebuilds in a fantasy game, a transport ship that the group upgrades as part of an on-going science-fiction game, or a gang that expands alongside the group’s success as in Blades in the Dark. Aside from being really cool, I think it helps to forge a bond between players and setting that makes everything feel a lot more real and dramatically important. The players are emotionally invested in the setting because they have literally invested money and/or XPs into some object in the setting.

While most of Wolfe’s adventures happen because he has spent all his money on rare orchids and can’t afford the next mortgage payment, a number of them come to revolve around Wolfe trying to maintain the integrity of his closed emotional economy. For example, there is an novel in which Wolfe’s gardener is forced to return home to care for an ailing parent. Left with neither a gardener nor a clear indication as to when his existing gardener will return, Wolfe tries to poach an orchid specialist from a wealthy family from upstate New York. Too impatient for either phones or telegrams, Wolfe dons his tricorn hat (!) and compels Goodwin to drive him through the winter night only to arrive upstate and discover that his new gardener has been implicated in a murder. There are stories about expanding what the protagonist has and there are stories about the protagonist trying to hold on to what they have. This is the latter kind of story and it does an awesome job not only of exploring what the in-house gardener does, but also how important his presence is to Wolfe.

A different take to a similar dramatic set-up is explored in Georges Lautner’s classic French film noir Les Tontons Flingeurs. The story revolves around the boss of a large French gang designating an old friend to be his successor. The old friend comes out of retirement and moves to Paris only to discover that the old boss’s lieutenants are in no mood for a change of management. The film is structured around a series of set-pieces in which the new boss either wins over, dominates, or dispatches the lieutenants and so gradually takes charge of the entire business. Again, the idea of fighting for something that is yours opens up dramatic possibilities that are simply not present when fighting for something that belongs to someone else.

Secondly, Wolfe is a fascinating literary character as he spends most of his time sat at home. Sure, he does occasionally leave the house and people do come to him for discussions but, on a purely dramatic level, Wolfe is equal parts comic relief and dissolver of plot difficulties as most adventures involve Goodwin and Co gathering clues only for the resulting clues to make no sense until Wolfe sits down, closes his eyes, works his lips in and out, and produces an explanation that ties everything together.

I find this interesting on a couple of levels. Firstly, it reminds me very much of the pilot and original pitch for the West Wing in that the President was originally supposed to be nothing more than a background presence as the focus was supposed to rest on the staffers rather than the president himself. Obviously, things did not work out that way with the West Wing but you can imagine a series in which political staffers run around, work on ideas and deal with issues before presenting them to the president who would then make The Decision. Indeed, one of the most trenchant critiques of the West Wing and the impact it had on political culture is that the series fetishized process and if the person making the decisions sits in the background then you have a series that is as close as you can get to ideological neutrality as the characters have no responsibility for either the consequences of their ideas or the kinds of ideas that come to dominate the agenda.

Drag this idea into the context of gaming and I am reminded of systems like Jenna Moran’s Nobilis or Jared Sorensen’s InSpectres where the players create their characters and then work together to create another entity in the world. In Nobilis, the entity is the group’s home dimension, in InSpectres, the entity is the company that happens to employ the player characters. I like the idea of a game inspired by Nero Wolfe in which the players assume the role of Archie Goodwin and the Teers; they go out, they gather clues, they fight bad-guys and they encounter monsters and conspiracies right up until the moment where they get stuck. At which point, the group returns home, presents the clues to their morbidly obese boss detective, and have him pull all of the clues into a coherent shape that sets up the adventure’s conclusion.

While I suspect that the effect might be a bit like Paul Czege’s My Life With Master, I am also reminded of the supposed problem of plot bottlenecks in Call of Cthulhu that Trail of Cthulhu’s investigation mechanics are supposed to resolve. One of the recurring motifs in the Nero Wolfe stories is that while Goodwin is a superlative detective, he is nowhere near as talented as Wolfe simply because Wolfe is a genius whose ability to solve riddles and unravel mysteries is nothing short of supernatural. I like the idea of players assuming the roles of talented-but-human detectives collecting clues but needing a pinch of mechanical genius to get them to the final conclusion. The challenge of this kind of game is having an NPC plot-resolver without said NPC feeling like a kind of Mary Sue or GMPC. I think having the players design their own genius and having the interventions of said genius be governed by mechanics would help to side-step that problem.

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