Last week, I mentioned that I wrote over 40,000 words about Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe enduring Stay at Home together. And that the series was inspired by how I felt on the day that Ohio postponed its Primary Voting Day. That scene is below. So, if you’re a Nero Wolfe fan, read on. If not – well, you’re here for my weekly column, so read on anyway! The elevator made its usual groans of protest as it carried Wolfe’s one-seventh of a ton down from the rooftop plant rooms, where he spent two hours in the morning, and two more in the afternoon, with Theodore Horstmann, tending to 10,000 orchids. It was my personal opinion that the elevator needed more than a two hour recovery period period after having to move him from the ground floor to the roof level. Gravity was not its friend. No man ever followed routine like Nero Wolfe. Mycroft Holmes looked like an undisciplined lout compared to my employer. Every morning at 11 AM, he came down from the plant rooms, entered the office, greeted me with “Good morning, Archie,” crossed to his desk, and followed a routine there. So imagine my surprise, sitting at my own desk, when I heard him turn and take two steps down the hall, towards the front door, or the kitchen. I looked up as silence settled in the hall. He had stopped. “Archie, stop this foolishness. Why is the car not ready? Get out here.” While I am by no means a sigher in Wolfe’s class, working for him has made me a pretty good one. I let one out, got to my feet, and went out of the office. It was Election Day: except, it wasn’t. There were only a few things guaranteed to get Nero Wolfe to venture out of his office and undertake a journey into the wild world outside. And Sunday Mass wasn’t one of them. But he had never failed to sally forth to vote since I had come to work for him. He viewed voting as his side of a solemn contract with the government. But this April 28th, 2020, was different. The coronavirus pandemic had started parts of America into shutdown mode the prior month. Those who thought that pre-emptive action was a good thing touted the governor of my old home state, Ohio, as the kind of leader we needed in Washington. Others, who probably would have said we should stay out of World War II, thought that it was too soon. Regardless of which side you were on, by early April, it was clear that America was in trouble. Rumors were that Ft. Knox was switching its gold reserves over to toilet paper, because it was harder to find. I am often confused by my fellow man. The virus caused respiratory problems, which is why it was so dangerous to older folks, like my mom, back in Chillicothe. By the way, she’s fine, thank you for asking. So, did Americans buy up all the supplies of tissues and cough and cold medicine? Nope. They binge-bought toilet paper and water. And guns. If we ever have a diarrhea epidemic, they’ll probably clean out all the Dayquil. Anyways, the whole world was affected. I think the penguins at the South Pole even went into quarantine for a month. Travel bans, social separation, self-isolation, martial law – the world was dealing with it. I wasn’t happy when The Flamingo Room closed down, but just about every place else did in the end, so I guess it didn’t matter much. Life for most of us on the planet changed with the Coronavirus, like it did with World War II. But if there was ever a man who could ‘endure’ government-induced social separation, it was Nero Wolfe. He avoided shaking hands decades before we were told not to. He preferred people to stay on the other side of a closed door; not just six feet away. When the governor shut down all non-essential businesses (pizza is an essential business in New York), I didn’t have any opportunity to badger him to take a case. There weren’t any potential clients. Inspector Cramer of Homicide West stopped in a few times for some help on a particularly tough one. And he kindly let me tag along once or twice. I think he felt sorry for me and knew that if I stayed cooped up nonstop with Wolfe, I’d probably have to kill him. But other than not having to work, life didn’t change too much in the new normal of the pandemic world. Fritz struggled with provisions, but he did amazingly well. Wolfe did realize what Fritz was up against and kept any complaints to himself. I think he knew the possibility of the gentle Swiss chef using a knife on him was real. So, he continued on with his world revolving around him as it usually did. Until this morning. Most experts said that we were on the downswing, or the far part of ‘the curve,’ but people were still dying – Over 15,000 so far. So, gathering in groups of more than 10 was prohibited. A whole lot more than 10 people were going to be standing together in lines to vote. The Secretary of State debated canceling voting day, to be rescheduled later, with a strong urge to vote by mail, but hadn’t pulled the plug on electronic voting machines until early this morning. After the morning papers had gone out. Wolfe had spent his two hours with the orchids, blissfully unaware that he would not be voting today. I joined him in the hallway by the big walnut coat rack. “You can take your coat off sir, we’re not going out to vote.” He glared at me. “Have you lost your wits? Of course we’re voting. I have explained to you that voting is a sacred compact between citizens and their government. It is-“ I waved a hand and cut him off. “Yes, yes, you explained it at dinner last night for almost two hours. And over the past week, you’ve explained why the Electoral College is an antiquated mechanism, why we vote when we do in November, which is also an outdated notion, and about how that Alexander Hamilton was a travesty, since it was about a royalist traitor who wanted an executive for life. Yes to all of that.” I took a breath and continued. “But due to this pandemic that you are determined to ignore, and the health risk packing thousands and thousands of New Yorkers together to stand in lines, the election was called off for today. I called Lon Cohen and he said the muckety mucks are trying to put a new plan in place.” Nero Wolfe knows more words than anybody I’ve ever met, and it’s a rare occasion when he can’t come up with even one of them. But he just stood there, making motions with his mouth, but no sounds came out. He really was flabbergasted. Finally, all the parts connected. “Impossible!” “No sir, extremely possible. I know you view this pandemic as some kind of social experiment to be observed and commented upon, but it’s real to most of us mere mortals. The powers that be decided that it’s too dangerous for the voters, and for the poll workers, to all congregate in such large numbers. Therefore, no voting. Therefore, no car waiting out front for you.” He was furious. Wolfe’s massive ego could not comprehend that someone could take away his right to vote. Even if just temporarily. Taking off his coat and going into the office would mean accepting this outrage, and he wasn’t ready for that yet. Fritz had emerged halfway from the kitchen and was watching us without saying anything, or coming closer. Smart man. “I don’t know how long you want to stand here, but I’m going back to my desk. Not that I’ve got any work to do there.” I turned and left him standing there. “Archie, call Mister Parker. I will file suit to prevent this travesty of injustice. Our democracy is not subject to the whim of tyrants in their public offices. Why, going back to the Magna Carta, people have stood up to despots to secure their rights.” I sat in my chair and let him wind down. He came into the office, went to his desk and sat in the only chair that he really fits in. He hadn’t brought down the day’s orchid, since he thought he was going to vote. He looked confusedly at the vase on his desk, full of water but with no flower in it. “Now look. I know this has you unbalanced, but it’s not like we’ll never get to vote and that guy at the White House now will become Goofball for Life. They’re just trying to keep more folks from getting infected.” I actually felt sorry for him. The burst of anger had passed and he looked lost. He had already forgotten about calling Parker. He just sat and stared at the oversized globe. I left him to sort out his feelings on his own. I was sure it would form the basis of tonight’s dinner discussion. Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home – Days 1 and 2 Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home- Days 3 and 4 Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home- Days 5, 6, and 7 Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home- Days 8, 9, and 10 Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home- Days 11, 12, and 13
Bob Byrne’s ‘A (Black) Gat in the Hand’ was a regular Monday morning hardboiled pulp column from May through December, 2018 and again from August through December, 2019. It returned in June, 2020. His ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column ran every Monday morning at Black Gate from March, 2014 through March, 2017 (still making an occasional return appearance!). He organized ‘Hither Came Conan,’ as well as Black Gate’s award-nominated ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series. He is a member of the Praed Street Irregulars, founded www.SolarPons.com (the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’) and blogs about Holmes and other mystery matters at Almost Holmes. That’s also the name of his podcast. He has contributed stories to The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories – Parts III, IV, V, VI and XXI. He has written introductions for Steeger Books, and appeared in several magazines, including Black Mask, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, The Strand Magazine, and Sherlock Magazine.