Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: The Big Store (Wolf J. Flywheel)

Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: The Big Store (Wolf J. Flywheel)

For nearly the first time in a year, it’s Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone!

If you read my column here, or follow me on FB, you know that I am a gargantuan Nero Wolfe fan (points if you got that). It’s my favorite series in any genre. I’ve written a lot of fiction and non-fiction about him, and below, you can find links to the prior forty-four posts here at Black Gate.

I have several stories in progress (maybe I could actually finish one or two!). There is one project I set aside that has been one of the most fun things I’ve written so far. I’m also a huge Marx Brothers fan. While The Big Store is not considered one of their best movies, I like it quite a bit.

I’m deep into a story in which I have Wolf J. Flywheel hire Wolfe for help solving a murder in The Big Store. The story is original, but it uses the characters, and is definitely an homage. You can imagine how Groucho gets on Wolfe’s nerves.

If this works, I might write one with Groucho and Wolfe, based on the Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel radio show. I think I do Groucho and Chico fairly well. Hope you get a chuckle.

The doorbell rang. I put down my coffee and walked out to the hall, waving off Fritz, who had come out of the kitchen. “Allow me. I’ve been staring at the wall for fifteen minutes. I don’t think it’s going to move now that I’ve taken my eye off of it.” I shooed him away.

I looked through the one-way glass to see two men standing on the stoop. Even as a boy in Chillicothe, Ohio, I was never the slack-jawed yokel New Yorkers think we corn-fed Midwesterners are. But I’m pretty sure my mouth was hanging open now. The guy in the front had a ridiculous mustache and dark, bushy eyebrows. Add in the wire rim glasses and cigar, and he was probably the most unique-looking individual to visit the Brownstone.

The other man had curly hair underneath an alpine-style triangular hat that I wouldn’t be caught dead in.

Eyebrows was peering at the glass as if he could see through it with the right angle. Leaving the chain on, I opened the door four inches and said, “Yes?”

“Why can’t I ever get a rich woman to say that to me? Why can’t I get any woman to, for that matter?”

My expression apparently wasn’t a welcoming one. The other man tugged on eyebrows’ shoulder.

“Hey- a boss. I don’t think he like-a that one. Tell him why we’re-a here.”

“Ravelli, quit interrupting me. You’re just the hired help. Well, you would be if I actually paid you. I should give you a piece of my mind right now. Then you’d have one piece for yourself.” He turned back to me. “Is this the office of Nero Wolfe?”

“It is.” I didn’t budge.

He eyebrows shot up. “And are you, err, Archie Goodwin?”

“I am.”

“Allow me to introduce myself.” He reached inside his coat, couldn’t find what I assume was a business card, and withdrew an empty hand. “Ravelli, make a note. Get me a thousand business cards.”

“But boss, you just got a thousand yesterday.”

“Better make it two thousand then.” Back to me. “I am Wolf J. Flywheel, private eye. I’m here to consult with Nero Wolfe.”

This was too good to pass up, whatever tongue lashing I might receive later. I opened up and let them in, holding out my hand for Flywheel’s coat. Before I knew it, his leg was hanging off of my hand. I yanked my arm back and glared at him. He took off his coat, looked at the large walnut coat rack on his right, and tossed his coat at Ravelli. With a bizarre, forward-leaning walk, he darted off and into the kitchen. I left Ravelli to deal with the coats and hurried after Flywheel.

Fritz was at the large table in the middle of the kitchen, examining some melons that had been delivered yesterday. They might still be used for a fruit salad, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Flywheel had stopped a few steps in and was looking at Fritz. “Do you have a dog?”

He answered without thinking. “No, of course not.” And then, “Who are you?”

“Good thing, or you’d be melon-collie.” He waggled his cigar as Fritz picked up a very sharp knife.

I grabbed our guest by the arm and yanked him back out into the hallway. Ravelli had gotten the coats hung, but he still wore his hat. I told Flywheel to follow me and led them into the office. Before Wolfe could look up, Flywheel saw the red chair, lunged over to it and sat down with his legs over one arm. Wolfe glared at him. Ravelli took a yellow chair next to Flywheel, and I went to my desk and sat down.

“Mister Wolfe, this is a work compatriot; that is, a fellow private investigator. Wolf J. Flywheel. And his…associate, Ravelli.”

“Pleased to meet me, aren’t you?”

“Sit up!” thundered Wolfe.

Up went the eyebrows again. “Well. This is is how you treat an invited guest?”

“You were not invited.”

“So this is how you treat an uninvited guest, is it?”

“Who are you and what the deuce do you want?”

“So much for the social niceties. Straight to business, eh? I can see you’re a man who likes to work. No need to be surprised. I’m very observant. I am a detective, you know.”

Wolfe looked at me, annoyed, but still puzzled at such a specimen. I gave him a ‘You got me’ shrug.

“You already know my name. Your man Jeeves told you. Don’t you pay attention? Some detective you are.”

“Say. What’s a guy gotta do to getta drink around here?” That was Ravelli. Wolfe has said that a guest is a jewel on the cushion of hospitality. Today’s guests were going to stretch that to its limit. Wolfe actually considered offering them nothing, but he couldn’t. It was too much a part of him. He pressed the buzzer to summon Fritz. There was no way he was going to send me off and be in here alone with these two.

Fritz appeared in the doorway. “Yes, sir?”

Wolfe still had control of his voice. “What would you like to drink?”

Ravelli asked for wine. Flywheel said, “Water, my good man. With scotch. Hold the water. And extra scotch.”

Fritz shot a questioning look at Wolfe, who merely nodded. He turned and left without even asking if I wanted anything. He was not pleased I had admitted our irregular guests, which led to the kitchen incursion.

“So, what can I do for you?” That was Flywheel to Wolfe.

“What in blazes are you talking about? I want nothing more of you than to be gone!” Wolfe doesn’t actually yell very often. He has a trick with his voice that makes it unnecessary. But he was having trouble with it this afternoon. He inhaled a bushel of air per nostril, then exhaled.

“If you could bottle that you could rent yourself out as a hot air balloon.”

Oh boy.

“Why are you here, sir?”

“Right now, I’m here because I’m waiting on my drink. You want me to wander off? Then when your cook brings it in, he won’t know what to do with it. What kind of an employer are you?”

I fully expected Wolfe to start making little circles on his chair with his finger, but apparently he had decided this was some kind of challenge of wills. And no one could be as stubborn as Wolfe, as I unfortunately knew.

“Why have you come to see me, Mister Flywheel?”

“Oh. You mean, what am I doing here? Why didn’t you just say so?”

Fritz came in and distributed drinks. Ravelli said thank you and sat back in his chair, sipping his Merlot. Flywheel looked at his scotch, held it up towards Wolfe, said, “To my health” and downed it.

“I see you’re a man who serves the cheap stuff to his guests, but I don’t blame you. I’d do the same thing if I ever offered my guests a drink.”

“Continue.” The war was still on.

“Ravelli, what was the name of that police hooligan? Tall, raspy voice, started stuttering for no reason.”

I leaned forward. This might get even more interesting.

“Yes, boss. It was Jaworski. Or maybe Jennings. It definitely began with a ‘J’.”

“Rowcliffe?” I ventured.

“That’s-a right. Rowcliffe.”


“What about him?” I asked. World peace will never be achieved while Lt. George Rowcliffe and I are both still breathing.

“What about who?”


“Ravelli. Do you know anybody named Rowcliffe?”

“Nope. I do know a Heathcliff. He’s a catty guy works at the bar around the corner from-a the office. He’s a-no good. Wants me to pay before I drink.”

“Good luck with that.” Flywheel rolled his eyes.

He turned to me. “So, you’re looking for a man named Rowcliffe, eh? Did you call me here to hire me to find him? $500 up front, plus $50 a day, plus expenses. I have a lot of expenses. Rent, cigars-”

“My salary.”

“Your sal- Now, hold on a minute Let’s not make up expenses whole cloth for our client, Ravelli. Not even partial cloth.”

“Mister Flywheel.” Wolfe was really going to have to work on his patience. I decided to help a little.

“You referred to Lt. Rowcliffe as a hooligan. Which I’m not going to criticize you for. Are you here for something related to him?”

“Well of course I am. Don’t you listen any better than that other guy does?” The eye roll again.

The war of wills might actually become a race between Wolfe and I to see who lost their patience first. “What do you want to talk to Mister Wolfe about?”

He addressed Wolfe. “I’m sure you’ve heard of me. My reputation proceeds me.” He took the cigar out of his mouth and eyed it. “Much like the smell of this cigar.” I realized he hadn’t lit it yet. Apparently actually smoking cigars wasn’t something visitors to our office did.

“I was called down to Phelps,’ by the owner, the widow Martha Phelps. And don’t you call her ‘Martha.’ She’s not that kind of girl.”

He tried to glare at Wolfe.

“Someone had been stealing from the store. She brought me in to find out how they were doing it. Frankly, that’s something I’d like to know myself for later use.”

I glanced over at Ravelli. He had finished his wine and was, from what I could tell, simply staring at the back of Flywheel’s chair. I’m not sure he was still with us.

“Ravelli and I went down to the store and looked around. We were in the basement, looking for any loose items…I mean clues, and Ravelli found a body.”

“Any idea who it was?” I asked, interested in spite of myself.

“Just what are you implying? I’d never met the man before!”

Flywheel was the conversational equivalent of a roller coaster ride at Coney Island.

“Anyways. Once I was sure I had nothing to do with him, the police were called. This Heathcliff Rowcliffe person came from the Homicide division. That may be the only department I’m not familiar with.”

Ravelli said, “Good thing they no send the bunco squad, eh boss?”

“Uh, yeah. Not that I know them, either.”

“Whaddya mean? You’ve talked to them so many times they-”

“Yes, yes. Let’s not bore these two fine fellows. Quiet.”

“This Rowcliffe, who I’d never met, was most rude. I had half a mind to punch him in the nose.”

“You don’t got no half a mind, boss.”

“I said, ‘Quiet,’ you.”

“He seemed to think I knew something about the dead man. I, who am pure as the driven snow. A veritable font of honesty. A moral compass.”

He stood up in front of Wolfe. “A man you could trust if you gave a hundred dollars to. Wanna see me prove that?” he asked, suggestively.


“Oh. Well. If you change your mind, let me know.” He sat back down.


Eventually, Flywheel said that he wanted to hire Wolfe to ‘help him’ find out who the dead man was and what he was doing there. I was pretty sure Flywheel had planted himself in the middle to keep as much money paid out as possible. I think Wolfe agreed just to get rid of our visitors. And me. He sent me off with them to the scene of the crime. He may even have gotten up and bolted the door himself to make sure those two stayed on the outside. I’d never seen anyone have that kind of effect on him. Which I understood, since I’d never met anyone like them.

We walked a block and caught a taxi to Phelps,’ which is also known simply as ‘The Big Store.’ I always thought that was a silly nickname, but I have to admit, nobody ever forgot it. And there was never any confusion which store you were talking about when you called it that. I guess it wasn’t such a dumb idea after all.

We got out on the sidewalk in front and Flywheel began reaching in and out of his pockets. I don’t think he had any more money in them than he did business cards. “Pay the man, Ravelli.”

“Pay him with-a what? You no pay me. How am I gonna pay him?”

Flywheel glanced at me sidelong. “I don’t know why I keep him around. If I paid him, his salary would constitute a fraud.”

Ravelli said, “Any salary you paid me would be a fraud on me, all right.”

Flywheel went through a pocket patting routine now. “This is so embarrassing. I must have sent my wallet out for ironing. Could you….?” He tilted his head towards the cabbie, who didn’t look amused.

Making a mental note to find a way that I could indirectly bill the store, as getting it directly out of Flywheel was as unlikely as NYU beating Yale at football, I paid off the hackie, and he pulled away in a hurry. I think he was afraid Flywheel would want to get back in his cab.

The two led me through the front doors and into the clatter of a midtown department store. People moved down aisles and between racks and counters full of things to spend their hard-earned money on. Flywheel greeted someone with almost every step. It didn’t appear any of them knew him, but that didn’t seem to bother him in the least. Ravelli followed along, grabbing a scarf from a counter and tying it around his neck.

An elevator took us upstairs and we got off at the offices. “Tip him, Ravelli.”

He told the elevator boy, “Here’s a tip. Take Lazy Lil in the fifth at Yonkers.”

I shook my head at the boy as the door closed.

Flywheel started towards a door in the far wall, but detoured to a desk on the left where a pretty blonde, still in my acceptable age range, was pecking at a typewriter, using the two finger method. He sat on her desk and took her hands.

“Daphne, stop that typing. What will become of these lovely hands if you flail away at the keys with them? You’ll ruin them, and then I won’t want you to run them through my hair.”

She didn’t pull them away, but said, “I don’t want to run my fingers through your hair, Mister Flywheel.”

“Oh, you don’t, huh? Then I’ll run mine through yours.”

I cleared my throat and he turned away from her. “What do you want, Goodman? Can’t you see I’m busy?”

“Let’s see Miss Phelps.”

“I’ve seen her. I’d rather look at this.” He grinned slyly at the young woman.



He got off the desk and marched over to the door. “No need to announce me, Daphne darling. I’ll just let myself in.” Which he tried to do, but it was locked.

“This is an outrage. Ravelli, give me the key!”

“I don’t have-a key to Miss Phelps’ office, boss.”

“Of course you don’t, you cad. Why would that fine woman, my future bride-” He looked at Daphne and winked – “give a reprobate like you a key? The mere thought.”

He kicked the door and rattled the handle. It was quite a ruckus.

After a few moments, the door opened and distinguished-looking man with a thin brown mustache, wearing a suit he probably bought off the rack downstairs, stood, blocking the way.

“Grover. I should have known. Trying to lock me out of my office, eh?”

“This isn’t your office, Flywheel. You aren’t even an employee of the store.”

“Oh. So that’s your defense, eh? Step aside, you scoundrel.”

He pushed past Grover, and Ravelli followed his boss into the room. I came in last, nodding to Grover but not speaking. He closed the door behind us.

Flywheel went over to the big desk, where a matronly-looking woman was standing.

“Martha, my vision of loveliness, your prince charming has arrived.” He took her gloved hand, kissed it, made a face, examined her hand and said, “You really need to use some moisturizer, my turtle dove.”

She tittered. I am not a fan of titterers. “Oh, Mister Flywheel. Stop.”

“Yes, Flywheel. Stop.” That was Grover, who had moved to join them. I stayed where I was and looked the room over. It was a good office. The desk was organized but showed that work was done there. The walls were lined with shelves containing catalogs, books related to the business, and sample items that were sold in the store. Ravelli was taking some items from the shelves, looking at them, and then inconspicuously sliding a few into his pockets.

“Are you okay, my future bank account? Was that mean old Mister Grover bothering you?”

“Really.” Grover turned to me and introduced himself as the store manager. I told him who I was and why I was there. He didn’t offer to shake. I couldn’t really blame him, as I doubted that he liked anybody associated with Flywheel.

“I’m so glad you’re here, Mister Flywheel. That horrid policeman just left.”

“It’s a good thing he’s gone, or I’d throw him out on his ear. Might be tough to make him land on one ear, though.”

“Who is that man?”

Flywheel waved at me dismissively. “That’s just Goodman. He wants to learn how to be a detective, so I’ve taken him under my wing.”

“It’s Goodwin, Miss Phelps. Archie Goodwin. I work for Nero Wolfe. He’s…consulting with Mister Flywheel on your affair.”

Flywheel swung around. “How dare you sir! There is no affair going on in this office. I’d slap you and challenge you to a duel if I was wearing gloves. Good thing I’m not wearing gloves.”

“I gotta pair you can have, boss.”

“Are you talking again, Ravelli? I should have hired that odd fellow that didn’t speak. You know who I mean.”


“He certainly was strange, there’s no arguing that.”

Steering a conversation involving Flywheel was probably what it felt like to trying to wrestle control of an out-of-control airplane. But the sooner I solved this case, the sooner I could say goodbye to this pair.

I said in a professional tone, “What did Lt. Rowcliffe want, ma’am?”

Stay at Home

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: Stay at Home Days 14 and 15
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home Days 16 and 17
Nero Wolfe’s Browsnstone: Stay at Home – Days 18 and 19
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home – Days 20 and 21
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home – Days 22 and 23
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home – Days 24 and 25
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home – Day 26
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home – Day 27
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home – Days 28 and 29
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home – Day 30
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home – Day 31
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home – Days 32 and 33
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home – Days 34 and 35
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home – Day 36
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home – Day 37
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home – Day 38
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home – Day 39
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home – Days 40 & 41
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home – Days 42 & 43
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home – Days 45 & 46
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home – Days 50 and 52
Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone: Stay at Home – Day 55

Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone

Meet Nero Wolfe
The R-Rated Nero Wolfe
Radio & Screen Wolfe
A&E’s ‘A Nero Wolfe Mystery’
The Lost 1959 Pilot
The Mets in “Please Pass the Guilt”
A Matter of Identity (original story)
Death of a Doxy; and Koufax or Mays?
Hercule Poirot Visits Nero Wolfe
I Know that Actor!

3 Good Reasons

3 Good Reasons – ‘Not Quite Dead Enough’
3 Good Reasons – ‘Murder is Corny’
3 Good Reasons – ‘Immune to Murder’
3 Good Reason – ‘Booby Trap’

The Greenstreet Chronicles (Pastiches based on the Radio Show)

Stamped for Murder

The Careworn Cuff – Part One
The Careworn Cuff – Part Two
The Careworn Cuff – Part Three

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Bob Byrne’s ‘A (Black) Gat in the Hand’ made its Black Gate debut in 2018 and has returned every summer since.

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 is a member of the Praed Street Irregulars, founded (the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’) and blogs about Holmes and other mystery matters at Almost Holmes.

He organized Black Gate’s award-nominated ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series, as well as the award-winning ‘Hither Came Conan’ series. Which is now part of THE DEFINITIVE guide to Conan. He also organized 2023’s ‘Talking Tolkien.’

He has contributed stories to The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories – Parts III, IV, V, VI, XXI, and XXXIII.

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.

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K. Jespersen

🤣👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻 Splendid fun and excellent marxmanship! You definitely have the patter nailed, with change-ups happening precisely where expected or necessary. Poor Wolfe, in the beginning, but perhaps poor Flywheel if he were ever to set foot in the office again.

(A “Firefly” appears during the drinks. Perhaps an autocarrot for Flywheel, or perhaps just a reference I don’t recognize.)

Must be difficult to plot this one out without grinning like a maniac the entire time.

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