“The avoidance of idiocy should be the primary and constant concern of every intelligent person.” —Nero Wolfe

A “just because” present from my wife appeared on the dining room table at dinner the other evening.

From the size and feel of the package, I deduced the contents to be a softcover book. Having a number of favorite authors, the mystery at hand was which author penned the book inside.

With the wisdom of 35 years of marriage, my wife knows my reading habits, so when I opened the mystery present she did not disappoint as I slid out the 16th and latest Nero Wolfe detective mystery by Robert Goldsborough, “Trouble at the Brownstone.”

For more than 40 years I have been a Nero Wolfe devotee, as my groaning bookcase can attest, lined with the 72 Nero Wolfe detective mysteries penned by Wolfe creator Rex Stout from 1934-’74, and the 16 authored since 1986 by successor Goldsborough, a career Chicago journalist.

I knew one thing right off the bat as I fingered the newest Wolfe page-turner in my hand — I should be prepared to stay up all night. After diving into a Nero Wolfe mystery, I very well know I won’t be able to put it down once I start. Something of the literary version of “you can’t eat just one” Jays potato chips, with Wolfe I just can’t read just one chapter. It’s a cover-to-cover read in a marathon session.

My late Grandpa Mac introduced me to the world of Nero Wolfe when I was 16. For me it was love at first sight for Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels — intelligent, witty and engaging full immersion jump-in-feet-first whodunits featuring two of the most lasting “Odd Couple” heroes of the mystery genre across 86 years and 100 million copies: the wildly eccentric, orchid-growing, beer-drinking, book-loving and resolutely reclusive private detective Nero Wolfe, and his tough, witty, wise-cracking and unflappable confidential assistant Archie Goodwin, genius Wolfe’s eyes and ears gumshoe detective on the gritty mean streets of the Big Apple.

Grandpa Mac ran something of a private lending library for me out of his paperback-filled Closet O’ Wonders, introducing me to Wolfe, Goodwin and the community of supporting characters that centered around Wolfe’s West 35th Street brownstone home in midtown Manhattan — chef extraordinaire Fritz Brenner, orchid-tender Theodore Horstman, Inspector Cramer and Sergeant Purley Stebbens of New York Homicide, New York Gazette editor Lon Cohen, Goodwin love interest Lily Rowan, and day-rate freelance operatives Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin and Orrie Cather. 

As a proverbial fly on the wall in Wolfe’s office with every book, I round out the cast of characters.

At heart, I’m a character-driven guy. Give me a bunch of characters I love and I’ll follow them through plot holes large and small. Over four decades of reading — and rereading and rereading — the Nero Wolfe cast of characters have leapt to life off the pulp fiction pages as familiar old friends.

As my rubber wrist bracelet in Wolfe’s favored yellow inquires, “WWWD.” What would Wolfe do? I suppose, as Wolfe often advised Archie, I should “act in the light of experience as guided by intelligence.”

On a trip to New York City a few years ago, I found myself sauntering the streets of the Big Apple like the plucky Goodwin, the series’ narrator and my favorite wannabe corpus character, in search of the 1996 historical marker placed by the Wolfe Pack fan club at 454 West 35th Street to mark the site of Wolfe’s fictional brownstone. The visit was equal part homage to Stout, Grandpa Mac and my love for the Wolfe series. A framed “selfie” records the moment for posterity. I have visited the brownstone.

Beginning with Stout’s introductory 1934 “Fer-de-Lance” borrowed from?Grandpa Mac, I’ve been hooked on the series ever since. Nero Wolfe was the first adult fiction series that I ever read as I left behind juvenile mystery fare like Encylopedia Brown and The Hardy Boys. And while I’ve dabbled in mystery series by other authors over the past four decades, I’ve always come back home to Wolfe and his comforting brownstone. Cracking open a well-worn and well-read Wolfe mystery is always a welcome visit with old friends.

As Wolfe noted in “Too Many Cooks” — “To me the relationship of host and guest is sacred. The guest is a jewel resting on the cushion of hospitality.”

And I’ve always enjoyed being a jewel on Wolfe’s cushion of hospitality, earning a seat on the prestigious red leather chair in Wolfe’s office on yet another visit to the old brownstone.

After Grandpa Mac’s passing in 1984 during my college years, I painstakingly, over a dozen years in the pre-internet days, gathered together Stout’s entire Wolfe corpus as I scoured flea markets, garage sales, new and used book stores and antique shops, each new Wolfe find treasured and eagerly read upon my return home.

Off and on in more recent years, I’ve been penning my own Wolfe mystery with the encouragement of a local writer’s group. Perhaps my Wolfe book will take its own place on my bookshelf someday — and on the shelves  of bookstores and libraries nationwide alongside the Wolfe novels of Stout and Goldsborough. Who knows?

All for just a little more time in and around the old brownstone in the company of old literary friends.

That would be, as Wolfe would proclaim as he poured a fresh, foamy bottle of beer in his office, “most satisfactory.”