There are some books that you turn to when your nerves are jangled, when worries press heavily on you or when everything suddenly seems too hard. I think of them as “comfort reads.” No doubt everyone has a different book, but for me it’s the collected Sherlock Holmes. I’m not sure whether it is the orderliness and logic of the solutions, the sense that Holmes and Watson exist in their own little time bubble on Baker Street where nothing ever changes, or the fact that I have been reading and rereading them for years – whatever it is, it works like nothing else to soothe and calm me.
But to my surprise, I recently found another author who has the same effect. Rex Stout is an amazingly prolific and amazingly successful author of the past who has now faded into near-obscurity. His mysteries featuring the obese Nero Wolfe and the wisecracking Archie are my new addiction, and I now take every opportunity to visit that New York brownstone filled with familiar characters, from Fritz the chef to Theodore the orchid man. Happily, as Stout wrote 72 in the series, there are plenty of opportunities.
Let me be clear – the plots are varied, occasionally verging on silly (the special golf club devised to fire a splinter into the wielder’s heart was something of a lowlight). It’s not about the plot. Like all comfort reads, it’s fundamentally about the characters. Both Wolfe and Archie are a product of their time in having quite appalling attitudes towards women, but otherwise they are both fascinating nuanced characters. Wolfe in particular is a study in contradictions, so obese he can barely move but possessed of huge mental agility, wise but at the same time sometimes petty, and generally inclined to favour orchids over people. In contrast, Archie is charming, fun, and owes a lot of his “jaundiced private detective” shtick to Philip Marlowe. The other thing which anchors the books is the relationship between these two. Their mutual attitude verges on dislike much of the time, but Stout makes clear that both harbour a deep affection towards the other (if both would probably die rather than admit it).
But they key to a comfort read is predictability. You know that the characters are not going to grow, they are not going to evolve, they will never move out of that comfortable brownstone. Loose ends will always be tied up neatly. Archie will have fun along the way, and drink large amounts of milk (something I’ve never quite understood). Wolfe will be irritable then finally solve the case, with help from Archie. It’s like visiting a place you’ve been many times before, but always enjoy, and enjoy more because you know what to expect.
Ultimately, a comfort read doesn’t have to be great literature. There is a place for books which make you feel warm and cosy inside and convince you that the world isn’t such a bad place after all. And that is what both Conan Doyle and Stout do.