In 2002, owing to a shift in television in general and A&E specifically towards cheap (in many senses of the word) reality television, A&E canceled A Nero Wolfe Mystery. The program chronicled the adventures of Rex Stout’s most famous detective for two seasons. Perhaps, had this happened now, crowdsourcing and streaming services would have stepped in to offer canceled television programs a new life, as they have done with other beloved series. But this was 2002, and these phenomena didn’t exist yet.
When I first thought about the series recently, I thought that the premature loss of this series may be comparable to the premature cancellation of another series of that era, Firefly, an intriguing science-fiction/western that has since become a cult classic, but got canceled after a mere fourteen episodes, due to the horrific mishandling of the series by Fox. Yet, on reflection, I think the loss of A Nero Wolfe Mystery has had a much deeper and longer-lasting effect on mystery film and television projects.
It’s not just that there was never a continuation of the series. It’s not even that another Nero Wolfe series in the United States remains unlikely. Rather, the cancellation of the series marked an end to films and television programs that tried to capture the spirit of the classic radio and pulp fiction detective stories and faithfully adapt them to the screen.
A Nero Wolfe Mystery was a faithful adaptation, albeit not a perfect or slavish one. I’ve commented on the fact that while the books imagine Nero Wolfe’s plant room as a massive treasure trove of beauty that guests want to explore, A Nero Wolfe Mystery’s presentation of it was underwhelming and cheap. Of course, this was understandable, given how little action occurred in the plant room, and how much more occurred in other locations that were sumptuously decorated. In the books, Stout stated that his assistant Archie was from Ohio, yet in A Nero Wolfe Mystery, Archie (Timothy Hutton) speaks with a very thick New York accent. Others have taken issue with the degree to which Maury Chaykin bellowed as Wolfe.
These are reasonable points, but shouldn’t distract from the fact that this was as faithful an adaptation as you’ll ever find. A TV show or movie can’t simply be a scene-for-scene or word-for-word retelling of a book. Time, budget, and audience attention span won’t allow for it. Rather, a faithful adaptation tries to transmit the essence of the story into the visual medium.
By this measure, the series succeeded admirably. A Nero Wolfe Mystery utilizes the beautifully written dialogue from the Nero Wolfe books generously, preserving key plot points as much as possible. It also captures the complicated nature of the Wolfe-Archie relationship that often feels somewhere between employer-employee and surrogate father-son. The little touches and addition to the televised scripts are either in keeping with the ideas embedded in the Wolfe novels, or feel very compatible with them. The love and respect the entire production team had for the source material shows in every shot.
And, of course, the source material was great. While Rex Stout wrote genre fiction, he created very real well-rounded characters. The TV show brought Archie and Wolfe to the screen warts and all, and audiences embraced them. The success of the TV shows led many viewers to discover the Wolfe novels for the first time, and brought the novels a resurgence of popularity.
Two decades later, I think it’s safe to say we’ll never see a series like A Nero Wolfe Mystery made for a classic mystery character. Adaptations of classic characters and their stories in more recent years have little concern about the source material and little love for them. There’s a desire to sex up adaptations of old stories and add new political points which, whatever their merit, weren’t the original writer’s intention, and feel awkward in the context of the story. In addition, producers will throw in over-the-top Hollywood elements to make the films more popular to the mass market. Even the ITV series Poirot, which began with faithful adaptations of Poirot short stories in the late 1980s, succumbed to these temptations in the final five series.
Many lovers of various detective series eagerly jump at rumors of new adaptations. I tend to greet news of new adaptations with a bit of dread. After decades of classic detective fiction getting the same shabby treatment from the entertainment industry, I can’t help but wonder, “How are they going to ruin this story?”
What type of adaptation would I actually be interested in? I’d love a film or TV show by someone who just loves old mystery stories that have brought generations of readers joy, by someone who wants to find a way to translate that into a visual medium without imposing their own agenda upon it.
I won’t hold my breath, but I will hold on to my DVDs of A Nero Wolfe Mystery. Its original viewers knew it was a great series, but they couldn’t have known that it was the last of its kind.