Breaking Rules, Part I


Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe appeared in 33 novels and 39 shorter works. He is one of literature’s most perfectly delineated creatures of habit. Some things I know about Nero Wolfe’s household:

  1. Wolfe does not leave the brownstone.
  2. Wolfe is not to be interrupted between 9 and 11 a.m., 4 and 6 p.m. each day, when he is in the plant rooms.
  3. Wolfe will not discuss business over meals.
  4. Food for Wolfe’s table is procured to his specifications.
  5. Wolfe considers it an abomination for anyone to skip a meal.
  6. Archie (assistant), Orrie (operative), Theodore (orchid tender), and Fritz (cook) work for Wolfe.
  7. Archie requires eight hours of sleep to function.
  8. Wolfe does not take Archie seriously when he speaks of getting married.
  9. Wolfe does not shake hands.
  10. Wolfe, being terrified of women, does not converse with them except in fulfilling the requirements of business.
  11. Wolfe does not take cases, except when the bank balance is low and the fee is high.
  12. Wolfe’s clients come to him.
  13. Wolfe’s clients are innocent.
  14. Wolfe does not allow himself to be used.
  15. Wolfe, being a genius, determines the identity of the killer before Archie.
  16. Wolfe does not use his operatives for any job requiring simple manpower. That is left to the police.
  17. Archie and Wolfe maintain a strained relationship with the police, particularly with Inspector Cramer.
  18. Cramer calls Archie by his last name.

I could go on, but that’s enough to make my point. If you’ve read more than one Nero Wolfe story, you should notice something about this list: every one of these rules has been broken. Stout kept his series fresh by never letting the routine become routine. Every single story he wrote happened on the edge of his characters’ normal lives. He never stopped messing with them.

Not a bad piece of advice for any fiction, really.