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From: Alex David Groce <Alex_Groce@gs246.sp.cs.cmu.edu>
Subject: Re: (urth) Gene Wolfe's favorite Nero Wolfe novels
Date: Wed, 15 Aug 2001 19:22:48 

Hmmm..  Wolfe's taste in Nero Wolfe sounds a lot like mine.  I don't
think I've read BEFORE MIDNIGHT or TOO MANY WOMEN, though.

I started a writeup on Wolfe & genre mystery (commenting on _PANDORA:
BY HOLLY HOLLANDER) and sent a draft to Jonathan, but got sidetracked
rather heavily (and my thesis expanding from comments by the narrator
in IGJ was demolished by RTW).

For what it's worth, though, here's the start of that draft (unedited
and rather annoyingly gushing):

The Mysteries of Gene Wolfe

	It is likely that every serious reader of Gene Wolfe has, at
some point, stopped and considered the disturbing question: "Am I
being led down the garden path?"  Wolfe's labyrinthine puzzles and
especially his sometimes highly opaque short stories ("Parkroads" and
"A Solar Labyrinth" are particularly suggestive but puzzling) can be
frustrating.  Still, a great number of us are willing to put forth
serious effort to "solve" the numerous mysteries presented in most of
Wolfe's fiction.  What keeps Wolfe's readers digging for clues?
	The extraordinary quality of the prose and the dazzling
invention and insight certainly contribute; we are willing to work for
the stories because the rewards are so large and because the quality
of the writing makes the effort itself enjoyable.  However, the
general confidence that the mysteries presented are, indeed, solvable
is a product, in part, of an underlying approach in Wolfe's work: Gene
Wolfe uses the methods of the detective fiction genre to convince us
that there is, indeed, a light at the end of the tunnel.
I.  "Slaves of Silver" and "The Rubber Bend"

	One of the most obvious indications that Wolfe is a fan of the
genre is that he has produced a number of stories and one novel that
are indisputably detective fiction.  Wolfe's most explicitly
science-fictional works often undermine, reconfigure, or reverse the
standard tropes of the genre; his detective stories are generally more
conventional, and less significant ("The Detective of Dreams" is a
major exception).
	The simplest of these works are the two pastiches found in
STOREYS FROM THE OLD HOTEL, "Slaves of Silver" and "The Rubber Bend."
The first is a fairly standard Sherlock Holmes pastiche with the
particular tweak being that the Watson figure, Westing, is a robot.
The title is possibly taken from "Silver Blaze" (one of the most
famous Holmes stories, thanks to the "curious incident of the dog in
the night-time"), and the story features a meeting between Westing and
March B. Street (Wolfe's Holmes) that, as in Doyle's A STUDY IN
SCARLET, results from the doctor's search for lodgings.
	"The Rubber Bend" is more convincing as evidence of Wolfe's
interest in the genre--as Wolfe points out in his introduction to
STOREYS FROM THE OLD HOTEL, almost every writer seems compelled to
write a Sherlock Holmes pastiche at some point.  The sequel brings in
Wolfe's "favorite private eye" [1], Nero Wolfe.  Rex Stout's Nero
Wolfe mysteries are perennial favorites of the genre's fans, but
considerably less well-known than Doyle's works.  The title derives
from Stout's 1936 book THE RUBBER BAND (originally titled TO KILL
AGAIN), the third Nero Wolfe mystery.  Like "Slaves of Silver," "The
Rubber Bend" is a fairly minor, though quite enjoyable work,
consisting of a number of puns and amusing concepts stretched across
the standard framework of the science-fictional detective story.
Structurally, these stories are very similar to the bulk of the
Sherlock Holmes short stories, with robots and time-travel replacing
Victorian elements.
	Wolfe dreamt of writing a series of these pastiches [1] and in
an online chat session reflected that writing a Father Brown pastiche
would not be a bad idea [2]; although no further direct pastiches have
appeared, the idea, as we will see, shaped one of his most significant


	"Is this a historical novel?" Holly Hollander imagines the
reader asking, on the first page of the Foreword to PANDORA BY HOLLY
HOLLANDER.  "Nope," she answers.  Instead, it is a detective novel.
	One of Gene Wolfe's best novels, PEACE, forces the reader to
discover what genre it belongs to (only when it becomes apparent that
PEACE is a ghost story do many of the pieces click into place).
PANDORA BY HOLLY HOLLANDER doesn't explicitly state that it is a
mystery story in the very beginning, but the first chapter ends with
the appearance of a mysterious box, reminiscent of the introduction of
a MacGuffin in many mysteries.  This is a particularly common
beginning for mysteries targeted at a younger audience--a large number
of the Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, or Three Investigators mysteries
revolve around (and take their title from) a mysterious object,
especially one with hidden or secret contents.
	By page 17 (of the Orb edition) the genre of the story should
be clear, barring a Lupine removal of the rug under the reader's feet:
a mysterious stranger on the bus turns out to be "ALADDIN BLUE,
Criminologist."  No such reversal of expectations is forthcoming;
PANDORA BY HOLLY HOLLANDER is, whatever else it may be, a detective
	It does break with convention in one interesting sense.
PANDORA's narration by a would-be cynical teenaged girl would seem to
place it in the category of a Young Adult Mystery.  PANDORA seems to
be a first-person version of a Nancy Drew mystery, modernized with the
sensibilities of Holden Caulfield and the inclusion of topics not
found in the classic adolescent mysteries, such as murder and sex.
However, in both the older and more recent YA Mysteries, the
adolescent protagonist almost invariably solves the mystery.  Adult
helpers are sometimes present, but only in a secondary role--in fact,
the adults are often used to emphasize the resourcefulness of the
young detectives, in that older, more experienced sleuths fail where
the protagonists succeed.  In PANDORA, though, as the title of chapter
23 ("How Blue Did the Job") makes clear, it is the adult detective
(another limping Gene Wolfe hero) who solves the mystery.  Holly
Hollander is another Dr. Westing, a Watson figure with little role in
the actual detection.  Aladdin Blue is really "on the case" before he
meets Holly, and so she cannot even be said to have brought him onto
the scene.
	PANDORA BY HOLLY HOLLANDER has a curious place among Gene
Wolfe's novels.  It is probably the least read and discussed (other
than the early and, Wolfe must hope, forgotten, OPERATION ARES).  It
is not badly written, and includes some clever Chicago-related inside
jokes ("Barton" is presumably Barrington, where Wolfe lives), but
despite vague hints of hidden meanings, it appears to be a very
straightforward tale for Gene Wolfe.  Some readers have suggested an
underlying allegory of kinds of love [3], but the evidence is weak,
and the allegory, even if present, isn't very compelling.  The points
Aladdin Blue makes about myth when discussing the box with Holly are
fairly pedestrian shadows of themes explored elsewhere to great effect
by Wolfe.  Most damningly, if this is just a mystery, the mystery
itself is quite predictable--many readers will guess that Holly's
mother is the culprit midway through the book.
	The book's existence does demonstrate Gene Wolfe's interest in
the detective fiction genre; he took the time to write a murder
mystery.  Holly's thoughts about detection in chapter 13 ("How Me and
Blue Deduced") appear likely to be those of Wolfe as well.  Holly
mentions Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe, commenting that when people
read mysteries "they pick detectives they like best by peculiarities."
She elaborates: "Nero Wolfe's fat, three points; Sherlock Holmes
shoots dope, that's seven."  One might add "Holly Hollander is a
teenage girl, two points; Aladdin Blue has a bum leg, that's six."
More importanly, she gives what would seem to be Gene Wolfe's approach
to detection: "look at the clues and think, now who would do that?"
This is not very radical or unusual, but Wolfe's work in general
invites the reader to apply this approach to fiction.
	In his introduction to Lafferty's EPISODES OF THE ARGO, Wolfe
discusses readers who refuse to read with the proper investigative
attitude: "I have had them tell me (for example) that they were
completely baffled when a scene they had read was described
differently, later in the story, by one of the characters who took
part in it; because I had not told them, 'This man's lying,' it had
never occurred to them that he might be."  Though Wolfe does not
explicitly state it in so many words, the idea here is one of fiction
not simply as a given story, but as a collection of clues or evidence.
Rather than passively accepting a given narrative, the Wolfe reader is
expected to make logical connections and to consider "who would do
that?"  This idea of fiction as the clues to a mystery is presumably
key to understanding why so many of Wolfe's works are "explained" in
prefatory matter or a postscript.  PANDORA BY HOLLY HOLLANDER mentions
Wolfe's editor, David Hartwell, and explains how Gene Wolfe's name
came to be on Holly's story (with suitable improvement by Wolfe, of
course).  The Latro books are presented as Wolfe's translations of
ancient Greek scrolls; Severian's narrative is, again, Wolfe's
translation of a found artifact.  Even stories that do not give an
explanation for why Gene Wolfe is presenting this "evidence" to us are
often similarly documentary: "Seven American Nights" is wrapped in a
framing device that transforms the story itself into a piece of
evidence collected by a "detective" in reporting to his client.

(more to come, hunting for the "one must by lying quote" and
considering if I want to move the discussion that's about to follow)

Rough Outline:

I.  The Professionals (Explicit Detective Fiction):

      1.  "Slaves of Silver" / "The Rubber Bend"
              Wolfe as detective fiction fan
              Wolfe as Carolyn Keene
      3.  "Cherry Jubilee"
      4.  "The Detective of Dreams"
              "Let us now proclaim the mystery of faith"
      5.  FREE LIVE FREE
              (not sure if this belongs here)

II.  The Amateurs

      1.  PEACE
              "Solving" the mystery of stories
      2.  "Alien Stones"
              The mystery of the alien
              A possible exception to the rule
      4.  The Soldier Books
              Mysteries of the ancient world (and memory as a puzzle)
              Severian as detective
              Silk as Father Brown; the priest as detective
              Horn as detective; "there are those who enjoy
              mysteries for their own sake; I try to eliminate mystery
              whenever possible" (paraphrase, don't have the book with me
              at the moment);  IGJ's mysteries

III.  The Wolfe Reader as Detective

IV.  Theological Significance
      (A glass darkly)

[1]  Wolfe, Gene.  STOREYS FROM THE OLD HOTEL.  New York:  Tor.  1988.  xiii.

[2]  http://www.scifi.com/transcripts/gwolfe.txt


"And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." John 8:32
Alex David Groce (agroce+@cs.cmu.edu)
Ph.D. Student, Carnegie Mellon University - Computer Science Department
8112 Wean Hall (412)-268-3066

*More Wolfe info & archive of this list at http://www.urth.net/urth/

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