By Anthony Neil SmithThere’s something about the Nero Wolfe novels that really sticks with me. He’s this giant fat guy, a genius, who only “works” as a private eye when he’s nearly broke. So he’s lazy, too. And he’s got this prick Archie working for him, like some sort of chirpy little bird or something, who narrates all of the stories. Lots of talk about books, orchids (Wolfe raises them), beer (Wolfe drinks a lot of it), and crime. Wolfe sends Archie out to investigate. Archie acts like a third-rate Marlowe in a fourth-rate movie, has some sort of “photographic memory” so he can relate his interviews verbatim to Wolfe. And he lives there, which is also pretty weird. Wolfe also has a private chef, as well as three other inferior private dicks he has to use if Archie’s stretched too thin.
Then at the end of the story, everyone gathers in Nero’s study, and after some goddamn convoluted talk about who did what and why, the culprit tries to escape the study, right into the arms of the police waiting in the room next door watching everything through a peephole.
And I love that shit. It’s like the natural progression of my childhood affection for the Three Investigators series. Secret clubhouse? Now it’s a Manhattan brownstone. Fat detective? Was Jupiter Jones, but is now Nero Wolfe.
In an article from 1993, Lawrence Block says that people are forever rereading the Nero Wolfe mysteries not for the plots or suspense, “which are minimal even on first reading”, but instead for “the joy of spending a few hours in the most congenial household in American letters”. He also calls the relationship between the action-oriented Archie and the genius Wolfe “endlessly fascinating”. And I agree. The way these cats live is more interesting than the cases they tackle. It’s as if, by taking a case, they end up being twisted, challenged, and changed by it in a way you don’t see from the usual detectives of crime fiction past. I’m reading the Wolfe books because I want to see how they do what they do more than I care if they solve the damn thing or not.
So as soon as I saw some angry plus-sized women on Doctor Phil more than a handful of years ago, the thought immediately occurred to me—There’s a story here. And a female Nero Wolfe sprang to mind. Octavia came out of the package almost fully realized.
As I was writing the novel, things started getting steamier. Lots of sex. Lots and lots of sex. It was as if sex was taking the place of the usual violence in my noir novels. This was certainly not a noir. It was…I don’t know what it was. But it was fun to write.
Another link to Block that I remembered midway through Choke was his “Chip Harrison” series he’d mentioned in that same 1993 article, his own sex-obsessed Wolfe-like detective and cohort. I’d never read it, but I eventually found a copy for my paperback collection. It wasn’t that I was doing something groundbreaking, anyway. I’m sure there have been plenty attempts at a plus-sized woman detective—Bertha Cool comes to mind—from other authors, and the sex angle had been mined, obviously, so it all came back to Octavia and her “Archie”, a poet and professor named Mick Thooft who was the exact opposite of Archie. Not confident, not too masculine, somewhat touchy-feely and intimidated by women. And yet, he’s the one who has to do the footwork while the brass-knuckled (psychologically) Octavia stays home and watches horror movies, embarrasses and belittles her ever faithful butler Jennings, and tends her greenhouse full of marijuana.
Whatever their differences, these two needed each other. And the result is Choke on Your Lies. Maybe it’ll strike a chord and send you back to the books of the master, Rex Stout. His creation lives on all these years later (check out this clip from the most recent incarnation from A&E), and I salute Mr. Wolfe with my humble (yeah, fuckin’ right) tribute.