So, last year, as the Pandemic settled in like an unwanted relative who just came for a week and is still tying up the bathroom, I did a series of posts for the FB Page of the Nero Wolfe fan club, The Wolfe Pack. I speculated on what Stay at Home would be like for Archie, living in the Brownstone with Nero Wolfe, Fritz Brenner, and Theodore Hortsmann. I have already reposted days one through thirteen. Here are days fourteen (April 4) and fifteen (April 5). It helps if you read the series in order, so I’ve included links to the earlier entries. I enjoy channeling Archie more than any other writing which I do.
DAY FOURTEEN – 2020 Stay at Home (SaH)
Okay – it’s been two weeks and things are starting to get a little…close, around here. I’m the only one of us who spent a lot of time away from the brownstone, so I’m feeling the strain the most. Of course, I’m the one who goes out for ‘essential’ errands, like taking Wolfe’s laundry to the cleaners. And I try to take a walk at least every other day. Fresh air, stretching my legs, and seeing other human beings – properly social distanced – has been the best medicine.
Fritz hasn’t needed help with the food provisions yet, though I’ve offered. And I have enjoyed watching Bogart movies with him. Last night we saw To Have and Have Not. He liked the suspense and the adventure, and I’d say that he was rather smitten with Lauren Bacall. I admired her spunk when she poked fun at Dolores Moran’s flirting with Bogie. Reminded me of a certain blonde I know. I told him the story that the movie came out of a bet. Ernest Hemingway bet Howard Hawks that the director couldn’t make a good movie out of his worst novel. So Hawks changed a few things around, cast Bogart, and made that film. For my money, Hawks won the bet hands down.
Tonight, I think we’ll watch They Drive by Night. I have a sneaking suspicion Fritz will be hooked by Ida Lupino’s courtroom scene.
I check on the daily pandemic numbers, but too many people are ghoulishly fixated on them. I know that the worst is still to come, and that’s enough each morning. I have donated blood, and I plan on continuing with that once a week. I figure somebody needs it, and it gets me out of the house for a few hours.
While I’ve felt the lack of other social connections, the beer supply is still strong, so Wolfe’s world remains largely unchanged. He has breakfast in his room, followed by the morning session with Theodore and the plants. As far as I can tell, they’ve gotten along since Wolfe’s ridiculous outburst. Then at 11, it’s down to the office, where he and I are coexisting until lunch without too much trouble.
Lunch, after-lunch time in the office, second plant session, more office time, dinner, then the evening in the office. His daily routine is actually better for him, because there’s no work interrupting his reading and crossword puzzles. He shows no sign of boredom.
Fritz’s days are also largely unchanged. He only goes out for groceries once a week now. He realizes that a lot of people out there aren’t that concerned, and that he should minimize his exposure to them, even if he is being careful. I know he worries that Wolfe and I will end up at war, and he does his best to keep me at an even keel. Yesterday, as I was sitting in the front room reading the latest issue of The Atlantic, he brought in some homemade biscuits, with my favorite, his blackberry jam. And a pitcher of milk. Fritz is a good man.
I am still paying the bills, and soon there will have to be a discussion about the state of the bank balance. We’ll see how the genius deals with it. Selling off some stocks doesn’t seem like much of an option. Grabbing a case from the news has worked in the past, but the times they are a changin’.
I saw a news article about a woman who went into a grocery store and purposely coughed on $30,000 worth of food. They had to throw it all away, of course. For some reason, that reminded me of Bess Huddleston. Somebody had murdered her by putting tetanus ‘germs’ in a bottle in her medicine cabinet. Could someone anonymously murder by Covid19? The life span of the virus would be a significant obstacle.
I remember a couple anthrax scares over the years, when someone had coated something with anthrax and then usually, mailed it to someone. The anthrax could be deadly. It had a much longer life than Covid19. Which isn’t exactly something to be thankful for.
Back during one particularly slow period when the bank account had been flush and Wolfe had zero interest in working, I started jotting down notes for a mystery story. Folks seemed to like the accounts I wrote up about Wolfe’s cases well enough, and I thought about making up a crime, whole cloth. I didn’t get too far – I can tell a lie with the best of them, but writing fiction isn’t the same thing. I did spend some time thinking up a crime that, at its core, Wolfe would dislike. I decided on murder by the book.
Which my readers may recognize, as my publisher used that for the title for one of our cases.
Some villain – Wolfe would call him a ‘miscreant’ – was coating library books with a contact poison. I was leaning towards arsenic, though that felt rather Victorian. I considered anthrax, and a few synthetic substances, as well. So people were getting sick, and some were dying, from reading library books.
Which is not the murder weapon too many detectives, including myself, would think of. I know a few people who lick their finger each time before they turn a page. A coating of, say, arsenic, in the upper corner of pages, would probably not be healthy for those folks. Or anthrax dusted on back covers, for example. I knew that the idea of using books to kill their readers would horrify Wolfe. Not that he got his from the library, but it was the concept.
Lon called to chat. The paper was keeping him as busy as usual. Lon’s office was only two doors down from the publisher’s, and there weren’t many important things that didn’t pass by his desk. He told me to think about reconvening the poker game this Thursday. He really wanted to play again. I told him no dice. It was getting worse out there, and we could go another week, or month, without getting together to play cards. He knew better. Which he acknowledged before hanging up.
I know these notes seem to be all over the place today. Things are starting to feel…disconnected. Maybe I needed to find an online poker site where four of us could get together and play.
And maybe I would call Purley tomorrow and see what he was working on. Talking crime would be a return to normal.
I needed to find some purpose during the day. I could look for things to fill up my time, but I needed more than that. The cold case experiment did not work out as hoped, and the file was back down in the basement. I would keep trying to figure something out.
DAY FIFTEEN – 2020 Stay at Home (SaH)
I’ve mentioned that in normal times, Sunday is different from the rest of the week. Wolfe does not have set times to visit the plant rooms – he may not even go up at all; Theodore often goes to visit his sister; and Fritz is largely ‘off duty.’ I often find someplace else to be, including weekends at Lily’s country place, The Glade. But during this lockdown, unnecessary travel is off limits. Instead of taking a break from each other, it’s one more day together, though our time is still our own.
Wolfe and Fritz took to the kitchen together to experiment with different recipes. Maybe they were preparing for ‘having to do without’ when some ingredients won’t be available soon. Theodore stayed up on the roof, which was fine with me. With Wolfe in the kitchen, I spent time in the office, reading newspapers and reading a couple chapters of Max Allen Collins’ book about Al Capone and Eliot Ness. If Robert Mitchum and Kevin Costner are your idea of that whole Untouchables thing, you might want to give that book a try.
I shot some pool in the basement. My game was getting pretty sharp. Maybe I could start hustling some of the poker gang on weekends, when life returned to normal. Orrie had been pretty good with a cue. Orrie. Yeah. We all knew he had some blurry lines when it came to women, but it sure went deeper than that. If I’d looked hard enough, I guess I would have seen it. But who wants to look for that in a friend? Or at least close working associate. Cripes.
I settled in the front room and watched a replay of Game Seven of the 1986 World Series. That was the game after Bill Buckner’s famous error. Baseball is a sport of great trivia, and that game seven is no exception. Dennis ‘Oil Can’ Boyd, who was a bit…eh, eccentric, was scheduled to start for Boston. But it poured and the field at Shea wasn’t playable. Rain out. The next day, the Sox decided to go with Bruce Hurst, who had been pitching out of his head. You could say that Boyd took it hard.
He went back down into the visitor’s clubhouse for awhile. When a coach finally went to look for him, he found that Boyd had gotten hammered. He definitely wasn’t going to be available to work out of the pen. They locked him in the manager’s office and left him there for the whole game. You gotta love our National Pastime.
I had a thought for next Sunday. I was going to make lunch. More on that later.
I gave the office a wipe down, with Fritz’s help. Wolfe was upstairs in the plant rooms and I think Fritz wanted to do something, but without the boss around. They’d had a lengthy session in the kitchen. We did a pretty thorough job on the room.
I was sitting at my desk, drinking some of Fritz’ excellent coffee, when Wolfe came in around 9:00. He had been in his room – I don’t know for what.
He settled in with the London Times’ Sunday crossword, which is his favorite. I had tried it once or twice over the years and it required a bigger vocabulary than a lad from Chillicothe, Ohio, had. At least, bigger than this one had.
I told him that I was going to call Inspector Cramer tomorrow morning and see if he needed a hand with anything. I didn’t want to forget how to be a private eye. Wolfe merely grunted. I thought about telling him that the Governor was banning all direct deliveries to homes and all food needed to be purchased at grocers and supermarkets, but there wasn’t anywhere to go with that.
“Deaths in the state went down yesterday, from 630 to 594. The new total is 4,159. Over a third of the U.S. cases are in New York, and nearly half of the deaths.”
“Okay. I just thought you might be interested in the biggest event going on everywhere in the world. The pandemic that has me cooped up here with you.”
He looked up, but didn’t put down his pen. Wolfe always used a pen for crossword puzzles. He said that using a pencil was an admission of defeat. “I don’t recall asking you for an update on the situation during dinner, Archie.”
I wasn’t going to be put off that easily. “No, you did not. I’m just making conversation, like we often do here in the evening.”
“I see. Have you received any news about Bill Gore?”
After not seeing his name in the obituary column for two days, which I took as a good sign, I had called the hospital. They weren’t giving out that kind of information over the phone, but I used my charm to wheedle out of a nurse that he was still alive, though in the ICU, on a respirator. I passed that on to Wolfe.
He looked at me, waiting for me to continue.
“All right, I get it. You don’t want to talk. You want to do your puzzle. That’s fine. I will leave you to it and entertain myself elsewhere. And now, I decamp.”
He waited until I was out of the room before resuming the puzzle. He wanted to be sure I wasn’t going to pull a Columbo at the door. If you don’t know what that means, you need to go watch a couple episodes – what, with all this spare time. Columbo was a rumpled, seemingly goofy, police detective.
When he was walking away from the not-yet collared villain, he would stop, turn, and say, “Oh, just one more thing.” And he would ask some question that seemed inconsequential, but which helped him catch the bad guy. It probably happened in every episode. Before you go watch an old episode, go to BlackGate.com and read a post Bob Byrne did there about the show. Byrne is one of my favorite bloggers. You should check him out.
I asked Fritz what he was in the mood to watch for movie night. He said he wanted to see a western. And he wanted to see something with John Wayne. I loved the way he said ‘Le Dook.’
He named off five or six that he had seen before, which included the usual suspects. I thought about Stagecoach, but he also said he wanted color tonight, not black and white. So we settled in to watch my favorite Wayne movie, Rio Bravo. Fritz was thrilled when he saw Dean Martin’s name. I’ve heard him listening to his music down in the basement.
When Fritz is absorbed in a movie, he’s very expressive. He makes faces, leans forward, hunches his shoulders, sighs at romance, and even clenches his fists sometimes. Based on his movements, he definitely liked this one. And for our snack, it was his homemade toast bread, in three varieties: garlic, cheese, and anchovy. Fritz was a good choice for a movie companion.
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
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone:
3 Good Reasons
The Greenstreet Chronicles (Pastiches based on the Radio Show)
Bob Byrne’s ‘A (Black) Gat in the Hand’ made it’s Black Gate debut in the summer of 2018 and returned in 2019 and 2020. Bet on a 2021 sighting.
His ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column ran every Monday morning at Black Gate from March, 2014 through March, 2017. And he irregularly posts on Rex Stout’s gargantuan detective in ‘Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone.’
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.
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.