As with most things American literature, it all begins with Edgar Allan Poe. In 1841, Poe unleashed on an unsuspecting world “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” arguably the world’s first modern detective tale. The end result was a sensational story that coupled outrageous acts of violence (never forget that the murder victims are one nearly decapitated mother and a daughter whose corpse is stuffed up a chimney) with an even more shocking conclusion. Most importantly, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” bequeathed to mystery lovers C. Auguste Dupin, Poe’s mysterious Parisian detective and an expert on what Poe called “ratiocination,” or the scientific application of logic and reason to criminal investigations. The story’s opening, which is told to us from the perspective of an unnamed narrator who acts as Dupin’s chronicler, or rather his Boswell years before Dr. Watson would provide the same service to Sherlock Holmes, points us towards the very same detective-as-eccentric-genius prototype that is still with us today.
This young gentleman was of an excellent—indeed of an illustrious family, but, by a variety of untoward events, had been reduced to such poverty that the energy of his character succumbed beneath it, and he ceased to bestir himself in the world, or to care, for the retrieval of his fortunes. By courtesy of his creditors, there still remained in his possession a small remnant of his patrimony…
Economically independent and free from any social or occupational obligations, Dupin is a true freelancer and special operative who choses only to work when the case suits him or when the French police approach him with a particularly vexing problem. Most of the time, Dupin sits in his darkened study either reading or contemplating. In 1842’s “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt,” Dupin combines his two favorite activities—not moving and investigations—in one tale. “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt” which is Poe’s blatant re-telling of the Mary Rogers case (which remains unsolved), presents a case from start to finish from the vantage point of a seated detective. Dupin solves the murder without ever having to leave his cloistered existence. Many, many years later, other detectives would pick up this M.O., and for some reason, most of them have been American.
The incongruity of mostly motionless detectives in American literature should be obvious. After all, as a country, America has always been about motion. From westward expansion to our unparalleled car culture, Americans can’t seem to sit still. Historically, our detective fiction has mirrored this reality, with tough-talking P.I.s always on the move between flophouses and swanky mansions built by dirty oil money. Reading Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald is tantamount to reading a bloodstained map that dances between darkened city streets and sleazy suburbs.
While the hardboiled style of detective fiction is rightly celebrated as one of America’s greatest literary inventions, the stationary detective trope is just as American, but is too often neglected. Of course, the most famous and famously slothful detective is no mystery. Introduced in 1934’s Fer-de-Lance, Nero Wolfe is best known for his many daily routines (he takes his breakfast in his bedroom, but does not stir or conduct business until 11 A.M.; he does not shake hands; he always spends two hours every morning tending to his plants, especially his orchids), but more than anything else he’s known as the detective who rarely leaves his brownstone apartment. On occasion, Wolfe is forced to leave his domicile, but he’s never happy about the arrangement. Who could blame him? With a setup like his, which includes a live-in Swiss cook, an “orchid nurse,” and an exceptionally active gumshoe named Archie Goodwin, it’s not hard to see why Wolfe is usually so reluctant to leave.
More than anything else, Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels (of which there are a whopping 33) are about the charms of domesticity, household rituals, and a world wherein most crimes are essentially bloodless. It’s hard to read Nero Wolfe and not want to become him—a wealthy, brilliant detective who is on a permanent staycation. What a life!