Posts Tagged ‘Annotation by Michael W. Hinkle on Nero Wolfe’s 1939 novel – Over My Dead Body’

This is the ninth in a series of annotations on writing from award-winning author, Michael W. Hinkle. A graduate of the University of Oklahoma Law School, Michael practiced twenty-five years as a trial lawyer in state and federal courts throughout the United States. Michael’s reputation and success led to his being listed as one of the best lawyers in America. Since retiring in 2005, his exceptional work as a nationally-read columnist and author have gained him wide notoriety.


Annotation on Nero Wolfe’s 1939 novel, Over My Dead Body

Over My Dead Body is a Nero Wolfe novel published by Rex Stout in 1939 crafted very much from the Sherlock Holmes mold. The story chronicles the detective skills of Nero Wolfe as seen through the eyes of Archie Goodwin, his assistant and self-described “confidential secretary.” Stout’s work is notable for the snappy dialogue, the sophisticated plot and the interesting characters. Each member of the cast is endowed with a distinct, full-bodied personality – especially Wolfe and Godwin, the first-person narrator.

For example, we are informed, throughout the book, of Wolf’s eccentric habits. He is fascinated by orchids and cultivates thousands of them in a glassed in area on the roof of his residence. He spends the morning from 9 o’clock to 11 o’clock attending these orchids and never goes down to his office before 11 o’clock. Prior to that time, he is never available for conference. Promptly at 11:00, an assistant delivers a “beer tray.” Chapter 1.

He is very fat and has an enormous appetite. He never discusses or thinks about business while he eats. From four in the afternoon until six in the evening, he returns to his orchids. Chapter 2. Adjacent to his office is a camouflaged listening station with “peepholes” which allow Goodwin to overhear what goes on when Wolf pretends to dismiss him from a “supposedly private” conversation. Chapter 6

Wolf has a fascinating back story. At 25, he was a secret agent for the Austrian government. During World War I, he fought against the Germans and the Austrians. Following the war, he lived temporarily in Montenegro. He was jailed for a time in Yugoslavia and released under pressure from the American government.

He claims he never leaves his residence except in extraordinary circumstances and, indeed, does not leave in the course of the novel. Chapter 12.

In regard to work, Archie comments, at one point, “He never puts off till tomorrow what I can do today.” Chapter 10

No matter what obligations he assumes relative to defending someone’s interests, he is always primarily concerned with “My own. Always my own.” He turns down a $10,000 retainer. The insistent client promises that, in the event he finds the assignment distasteful, he can simply return the money. “No sir. To return that amount of money would ruin my digestion for a week.” Chapter 15

Confronting a man trying to interfere with Archie’s instructions to bring a woman to Wolfe’s office, Archie tells him, “Whatever Nero Wolfe wants, he gets or he has a tantrum and I get fired.” Chapter 16

At the end of the book, when he discovers that his purported client is a murderer, he arranges for her to leave his house under the nose of the chief of homicide. Once she’s gone, he exposes her and furnishes the means of identification. The chief explodes, “And she is – and by God, you had one of my men take her and turn her loose –“

“I did. What else could I do? She was sitting here in my office, thinking she was my client, under my protection. I didn’t agree to catch the murderer for you, I agreed to disclose the identity and the motive.”

Moments later, the murderess returns to his home and lunges at Wolfe with a dagger. He kills her in self-defense–with an empty beer bottle. Before he provided the means for her departure, however, he arranged to have an envelope placed into her hand with a one sentence message, “… saying that she was not my client, and, under the terms as stated, never had been.” A nice exclamation point highlighting his commitment to ethical proprieties. Chapter 19

Stout has created an eccentric character whose unusual behavior adds appeal to the interesting workings of a brilliant mind.

Michael W. Hinkle

Michael W. Hinkle


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