Meet and Greet:
Fer-de-Lance on Page and Screen
by Matthew R. Bradley


   The Nero Wolfe series comprises 46 books published during Rex Stout’s lifetime (1886-1975), from Fer-de-Lance (1934) to A Family Affair (1975), plus spin-offs featuring his supporting characters Dol Bonner and Inspector Cramer, The Hand in the Glove (1937) and Red Threads (1939), respectively. The few domestic screen adaptations include two failed pilots: “Count the Man Down” (1959), with Kurt Kasznar and William Shatner as “legman” Archie Goodwin, and an adaptation of The Doorbell Rang (1965) with Thayer David — who died before it aired — as Nero Wolfe (1979). Series did eventuate, starring William Conrad/Lee Horsley (1981) and Maury Chaykin/Timothy Hutton (2001-2002).

   Interestingly, however, Fer-de-Lance and the second novel, The League of Frightened Men (1935), were quickly filmed by Columbia with Lionel Stander (miscast, in Stout’s and my opinion) as Archie. Impeccably filling the title role of Meet Nero Wolfe (1936), the great Edward Arnold was replaced by Walter Connolly — originally envisioned in the part by the studio, although Stout would have preferred Charles Laughton — when Arnold declined to re-up for The League of Frightened Men (1937). David Vineyard admirably analyzed the strengths and, more pointedly, weaknesses of the onscreen League here in a 2020 review so I will, with some relief, turn back to Wolfe’s literary and cinematic debut.

   I say this with no authority whatsoever, but suspect that few series have had conventions as numerous and specific as Wolfe’s, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing — with the rules so firmly established, it’s even more fun when you occasionally break them (more on that and the Conrad series in a future post). Stout wastes no time laying them down when we, well, meet Nero Wolfe; an abridgement appeared, as “Point of Death,” in The American Magazine in November 1934. Fer-de-Lance opens, as usual, on New York’s West 35th Street, in “the old brownstone less than a block from the Hudson River where Wolfe had lived for twenty years and where I had been with him a third of that,” per narrator Archie.

   A man of gargantuan girth, appetite, and intellect, Wolfe never (well, hardly ever) leaves the brownstone, wherein also reside those who service his obsessions: food and orchids. Gourmet Swiss cook Fritz Brenner doubles as butler/majordomo; Theodore Horstmann presides over the plant-rooms where Wolfe spends 9:00-11:00 and 4:00-6:00 daily in his unvarying routine, arising at 8:00, breakfasting with the newspapers in his second-floor bedroom, and descending to the office at 11:00. Wolfe sometimes hires outside help in the form of “the three ’teers” — Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin, and Orrie Cather — and Fred sets this plot in motion when, on behalf of wife Fanny, he brings Maria Maffei to Wolfe.

   Her brother, immigrant metal-worker Carlo, vanished after receiving a threatening phone call at his rooming-house, where maid Anna Fiore recalls his cutting an article out of the Times about the sudden death of Peter Oliver Barstow. The Holland University president had keeled over while golfing with son Lawrence and friends E.D. and Manuel Kimball at the Green Meadow Club near Pleasantville, his death ruled as coronary thrombosis by eminent Dr. Nathaniel Bradford. In short order, Wolfe dispatches Archie to White Plains with an offer to bet Westchester County D.A. Fletcher M. Anderson $10,000 that, if it is exhumed, Barstow’s body will reveal poison and “a short, sharp, thin needle” in his belly.

   He has deduced that Carlo, found stabbed, was hired, and then silenced after a blackmail attempt, to make a club  — switched for Barstow’s driver — that would shoot a needle from the handle on impact. When it is found, Ellen Barstow offers $50,000 for her husband’s killer in an ad that her daughter Sarah asks Wolfe to disregard on behalf of the family and Bradford; they were trying to shield Ellen, whose mental instability had led her to take a shot at him months earlier. To Sarah’s relief, circumstantial evidence rules Ellen out, but the absence of any apparent motive remains baffling until Wolfe questions the caddies to learn that on the first tee, with his off looking for a ball, Barstow borrowed E.D.’s driver.

   The real target, grain-trader Kimball admits that while living in the Argentine, he’d killed his wife and her lover as his two-year-old son played on the floor, returning 26 years later for Manuel, an aviator and now the obvious suspect. Visiting Wolfe, he rejects the theory about the not-yet-found driver and demands retraction of the warning that E.D.’s life is in danger, but an ad of Wolfe’s own confirms that a plane was seen landing in a pasture near Hawthorne, enabling Carlo’s murder. Q.E.D. when Wolfe, having been lured upstairs on a pretext, and learned that snake venom killed Barstow, finds the titular South American reptile in his desk drawer full of beer-bottle caps, aptly smashing its head with some suds.

   Some series take a while to get up to speed, but this isn’t one of them — the characters and dynamics, Archie’s perfect narration and repartee with Wolfe, all spring full-grown from Stout’s brow, and revisiting this after 40+ years, I found myself laughing aloud at regular intervals. Per Wolfe, “it would be futile for a man to labor at establishing a reputation for oddity if he were ready at the slightest provocation to revert to normal action.” He utters his favorite exclamation (“Pfui!”); only the gathering of interested parties in his office for him to do his ’splainin’, soon a commonplace, is missing as Manuel, confronted with the proof that a faux hold-up has elicited from Anna, kills himself and E.D. in a plane crash…

   Written by Howard J. Green, Bruce Manning, and Joseph Anthony, Meet Nero Wolfe was directed by Herbert J. Biberman, later one of the blacklisted, HUAC-defying “Hollywood Ten”; Maria (now Marie Maringola) was played by Rita Cansino, better known under her subsequent stage name, Hayworth. It opens with the foursome among Emanuel Jeremiah (E.J.) (Walter Kingsford) and Manuel (Russell Hardie) Kimball, Professor Edgar Barstow (Boyd Irwin, Sr.), and Claude Roberts (Victor Jory), engaged to his daughter, Ellen (Joan Perry). We also see Carlo (Juan Torena) apparently poisoned after he cuts out the article, plus the sorry spectacle of would-be wife Mazie Gray (Dennie Moore) harassing Archie.

   For some reason, the names of Ellen and Sarah (Nana Bryant) have been switched, while Fritz has been supplanted by Scandinavian chef Olaf, a typical role for John Qualen, part of John Ford’s stock company. Arnold’s joviality as Wolfe — whom Mazie dismisses as a “beer-guzzling orchid-grower” — is the one discordant note as both his physicality and the script stick closely to Stout’s characterization. No sooner has the maid (Martha Tibbetts) identified the article than Wolfe intuits both murders, but when the m.o. he posits results in the exhumation, Det. Lt. O’Grady (Gene Morgan) takes credit, so Wolfe sends Archie to get in writing the offer that Dr. Bradford (Frank Conroy) counsels Sarah to withdraw.

   As everyone converges on Wolfe to threaten legal action, Roberts fabricates an excuse to avoid the imminent Manuel, later explaining that he’d been fired as the golf instructor at a Buenos Aires club for allegedly stealing money from E.J.’s locker. The luncheon with caddies Bill (William Anderson), Johnny (William “Billy” Benedict), and Tommy (Roy Borzage) is marred by unwelcome “comic” relief as Mike (George Offerman, Jr.), who’d been fetching E.J.’s visor from the clubhouse, steals frankfurters from Archie’s plate. On learning that his chauffeur was killed by the bite of a fer-de-lance — whose venom did in the others, as well — in his car, E.J. decides that Wolfe’s theory is not “twaddle” after all.

   E.J. requests Wolfe’s protection, and Roberts, persuaded to relate his sordid history, adds that Ellen was born in South America and came to the U.S. as a baby, signalling a drastic detour from Stout’s story. E.J. was acquitted of his wife’s murder, believed to have been committed by Sarah’s first husband, Henderson, who vanished that day; she believes that an entity named Hamansa controls her life, and that E.J. killed Henderson. This provides Wolfe with a half-dozen people who had possible motives to kill E.J., so Archie winds up playing Monopoly with the Kimballs while guarding him, and after they narrowly avoid a burst of machine-gun fire, Wolfe orders him to round up, and bring in, the usual suspects.

   E.J., Manuel, Ellen, Sarah, Roberts, and Bradford are assembled as reluctant houseguests, ostensibly for protection, though we later learn that it was Marie, firing blanks at Wolfe’s behest. Wolfe receives a package containing a “bomb” that will actually release poisoned gas if submerged in water as a precaution, and after neutralizing it he uses it to smoke out Manuel, who accidentally killed their chauffeur as well as Barstow while trying to avenge his mother. If you’ll forgive a mixed metaphor, Hamansa is a red herring out of left field, and at the close, Archie unthinkably marries the insufferable Mazie — but Wolfe turns out to have an ulterior motive for his wedding gift, a cruise to Paris on the S.S. Île de France.

   Mind you, this is the man who, in The League of Frightened Gentlemen, relates, “I’m funny about women. I’ve seen dozens of them I wouldn’t mind marrying, but I’ve never been pulled so hard I lost my balance”; mercifully, there is neither sign nor mention of Mazie (or of Olaf) in the screen version, directed by Alfred E. Green. Guy Endore, who scripted with Eugene Solow, is notable — at least in my circles — as the author of The Werewolf of Paris (1933), filmed as Hammer’s The Curse of the Werewolf (1961), and as a scenarist on Mark of the Vampire, Mad Love (both 1935), and The Devil Doll (1936). The novel was serialized in six issues of The Saturday Evening Post (from June 15 to July 20 of 1935) as The Frightened Men.

   Featuring an actual excursion by Wolfe, it concerns Paul Chapin, who wrote Devil Take the Hindmost as his quasi-confession for murdering one of the “League of Atonement,” who crippled his leg in a hazing accident. Two die in apparent accidents or suicides, the rest terrified by anonymous verses. Onscreen, after psychologist Prof. Andrew Hibbard (Leonard Mudie) vanishes, taxi driver Pitney Scott (Victor Kilian) opts out when banker Ferdinand Bowen (Walter Kingsford), Dr. Loring A. Burton (Kenneth Hunter), architect Augustus Farrell (Charles Irwin), journalist Michael Ayers (Jameson Thomas), attorney Nicholas Cabot (Ien Wulf), and florist Alexander Drummond (Jonathan Hale) hire Wolfe.

   The novel introduces Wolfe’s frequent but mutually respectful sparring partner, Inspector Cramer (whose assistant, Sgt. Purley Stebbins, was invoked but unseen in Fer-de-Lance); Wolfe’s friend and neighbor, Dr. Vollmer; and his sometime freelance hirees Del Bascom and Johnny Keems. As David relates, League is more faithful than Meet Nero Wolfe, yet despite old reliable Eduardo Ciannelli as Chapin, Connolly’s not-at-all-housebound, beer-eschewing Wolfe compounded Stander’s presence. Nana Bryant and Kingsford returned in new roles, the former as Agnes Burton, anticipating the Chaykin series, which — unlike Conrad’s — used only Stout material with a repertory cast as killers, suspects, and victims.

   Only after more than 40 years and Stout’s death would Wolfe reappear on U.S. screens…

            — Copyright © 2023 by Matthew R. Bradley.

   Editions cited:

Fer-de-Lance: Pyramid (1964)
The League of Frightened Men: Pyramid (1963)

   Online sources: