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Of Orchids and Gourmet Food: 5 Books for Fans of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe

Literary homages that'll keep you on the edge of your seat.

books for fans of rex stout's nero wolfe
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  • Photo Credit: Cover from "The Nero Wolfe Files"

Imagine a reclusive Sherlock Holmes and a fast-talking brilliant Watson. That’s Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Wolfe is a genius who can solve cases through deductive reasoning, but never leaves his house. He has a strict schedule; no interruptions during meal times and his twice daily sojourns to his orchid greenhouse. Goodwin’s job is to go out to talk to witnesses and observe crime scenes—basically, all the legwork that he brings to Wolfe. But most importantly, his job is to poke and prod Wolfe into taking and solving cases.

For fans of Nero Wolfe, there are a number of series out in the world that take a page from the character's eccentric book. These stories have two detectives; one serves as the lead detective while the other works as the assistant, who may not be a genius as the lead detective, but is brilliant in their own right. They also tend to be quick-witted and used to taking a punch or two. There’s also some constriction for the lead detective, whether by choice (Nero Wolfe) or health. Many homages also take place in New York City, where most of the Nero Wolfe books take place.

With these key factors in mind, here are five books with the flavor of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe.

Fortune Favors the Dead by Stephen Spotswood

Fortune Favors the Dead

By Stephen Spotswood

This is one of the best nods to Nero Wolfe that I’ve seen where the gender is flipped. In 1940s New York, Lillian Pentecost is the brilliant detective. While she isn't a recluse, she does have multiple sclerosis, which can limit her movements. After Willowjean “Will” Parker, a former circus performer and roustabout, saves her life, Pentecost hires her as her right-hand woman. You’ll get the wise-cracking partner in Parker and a brilliant lead detective with her own sense of justice in Pentecost.

The first book is Parker’s account of the murder case of Abigail Collins. She was killed in the same chair where her husband shot himself a year before. The murder took place just after a séance during a Halloween party. It’s the first of four books so far in the series.

best new books Devil and the Dark Water

The Devil and the Dark Water

By Stuart Turton

While most books on this list will be situated in the first half of the 20th century, this one takes place in 1634. It features the detective duo Samuel Pipps and his bodyguard Arent Hayes. In this story, Pipps has been accused of a capital crime and is held in the hold of a ship to Amsterdam. Before the ship leaves port, there’s a chilling omen: a person with leprosy yells out a warning to the ship before being engulfed in flames. This is not the last of mysterious and chilling events on board; a demon is seen stalking the ship, livestock are dying, and soon people are showing up dead.

Hayes teams up with the ship’s commanding officer, Sara Haan, to figure out what is going on, especially since Pipps is imprisoned. It feels like the Wolfe/Goodwin dynamic, in part because Pipps is physically immobilized yet brilliant; Hayes wants to do well by his boss and does the legwork himself.

viviana valentine gets her man

Viviana Valentine Gets Her Man

By Emily J. Edwards

Taking place in 1950s New York, Viviana Valentine works as a secretary for private detective Tommy Fortuna, who has just been hired by Tallmadge Blackstone to tail his daughter, Tallulah. What should be a simple tail job ends up getting Valentine and Fortuna in hot water. The next day, Valentine shows up to work to find an unknown dead body in the office and no boss.

The police are convinced that Fortuna is the murderer. Clearly, Valentine has to figure out who the dead man is, why he was killed, and the connection to Blackstone. This one has the vibes of Nero Wolfe since it takes place in New York in the mid-20th century. Plus, you’ve got a whip-smart main character in Valentine who can take a punch or two like Goodwin.

make out with murder

Make Out with Murder

By Lawrence Block

While it’s technically the third book in the 1970 Chip Harrison novels, the first two are not mysteries. In this book, Chip Harrison, a 17-year-old young man, finds himself as the legman of New York detective Leo Haig.

While the other books pay homage to Nero Wolfe, critics agree that this book parodies Nero Wolfe, especially in Leo Haig. Instead of orchids, Haig collects tropical fish. He also has a private chef who pretends he can’t speak English and lives atop a brothel. And to top it off, Haig aspires to be invited to eat at Nero Wolfe’s home.

When Harrison’s paramour turns up dead after her sisters mysteriously dying, he ends up investigating with Haig’s help. Sadly, it’s only one of two books of Block’s Haig and Harrison mysteries. 

the chartreuse clue

The Chartreuse Clue

By William F. Love

In the Bishop Regan and Davey Goldman mystery series, Bishop Francis Regan is not your traditional detective; he’s the Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of New York.  His assistant is David Goldman (it cannot be a coincidence how close this is to Goodwin), a former cop who serves as the legman for the wheelchair-bound Bishop Regan. The parallels to Wolfe and Goodwin are evident.

When a Catholic priest is accused of murder, Bishop Regan and Goldman decide to investigate. It’s the first of five books, published in the 1990s.