Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe are two great literary geniuses that have less than desirable habits that could well kill them should they jump off the page and into real life like Jasper Fforde’s characters. Holmes is of course the brainchild of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle while Wolfe was spawned by Rex Stout.
With the return of Sherlock Holmes to our television screens and, dare I say it, our hearts, much emphasis has been placed on his recreational use of cocaine and morphine. Shock, horror and gasp! Drugs played a significant role in Victorian England and it was quite easy to go down to your local chemist and purchase heavy duty drugs such as Laudanum (a helpful concoction of alcohol and opium) without a doctor’s prescription. It is important to note that many were unaware of the full addictive nature of drugs such as cocaine and opium and it wasn’t until the Dangerous Drugs Act (1920) was passed that limitations were placed on raw opium, cocaine, heroin and morphine. Holmes’ dabbles in drugs when he is bored and has no cases to pursue, much to the dismay of Dr Watson. He argues that he is not an addict and the fact that he is able to stop drugs whenever a new case presents itself shows great strength of character – more than many people are able to. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a great Romantics poet for example, was heavily addicted to opium and nothing was able to help him break his habit. It is entirely apropos that the UK show Sherlock has replaced the drug taking and pipe smoking with nicotine patches – we still get the sense of Sherlock needing to get that rush but not the social stigma that cocaine usage today invokes. Sherlock’s real addiction is solving seemingly impossible cases and the side effects from being without a case present a greater danger than his recreational drug usage.
Nero Wolfe is an entirely different kettle of fish. The man is morbidly obese and addicted to fine dining and beer. He often only takes on cases to fund his orchid collection and ensure that his chef Fritz can prepare him gourmet treats. Wolfe’s habit of never leaving his brownstone house exacerbates his health condition. Fortunately for him, the end of Prohibition means that he can, and does, indulge in quality beer rather than bootleg he was forced to subsist on. Wolfe’s eating habits take on a ritualised nature – his appointments with clients are arranged around his meal times and he refuses to rush a meal unless there is an emergency. Likewise, there is a set process for drinking and enjoying his beer which he opens using a gold opener gifted to him by a former client. He keeps the bottle caps so he can monitor his intake. In a fit of pique Wolfe decides to abstain from beer until he captures the criminal (Plot It Yourself). Interestingly, he does not say he will stop drinking all alcohol, just beer and such is his genius, he is not likely to have to go without it for long. While Wolfe is the main character in Stout’s novels, it is his sidekick, Archie Goodwin, who is the hero. He pounds the mean streets of New York for Wolfe, has a way with the ladies and consumes milk rather than alcohol. He is the complete antithesis of Wolfe and perhaps that is why Wolfe’s eating habits are so grossly exaggerated. We know that Wolfe’s genius will always shine through but we cheer when Archie has little breakthroughs. Unlike Sherlock, Wolfe is unwilling and most likely unable to control his undesirable little big habit and he comes off weaker for it.
Wolfe for the win.