What Brown Did for Rex Stout

Last time I looked at the mysterious, sexy and dangerous Natasha Romanov, a.k.a. The Black Widow and how the color black can do a lot for a character. This time out, I take a look at a larger than life character: Nero Wolfe.

When reading Rex Stout’s novels about the great detective, Nero Wolfe, several characteristics jump out at the reader. The sheer size of the character, is one. According to loyal sidekick Archie Goodwin, Wolfe weighs in at “one seventh of a ton,” (That’s 19 stone for you Brits, or 285 pounds in American.) Wolfe’s unwillingness to venture forth from his West 35th Street brownstone is another. Wolfe’s beer drinking habit is another.

But these are mere distractions. The discerning reader will notice something seemingly small in Stout’s descriptions of Wolfe, yet critical from a color standpoint: Wolfe always wears brown. Usually it’s a brown suit, with a cream or pale yellow shirt and a brown tie. The color brown is key to the character. Brown represents steadfastness and dependability, both desirable traits to have in a private investigator. Brown is also considered to be an “earthy” color, and is associated with honesty. An earthy sleuth would most certainly have an excellent understanding of mankind and its foibles.

The pale yellow is another tell. Yellow is the color of cowardice and/or deceit. As a detective, Wolfe must be able to spot deceit and use it as a tool to catch criminals unawares. On the flip side, Wolfe also suffered from agoraphobia; he hated to leave his comfortable home. (He was especially afraid of travel by train, as seen in Too Many Cooks.) Stout uses this “cowardly” trait to his advantage, creating a very deep and varied character.

Stout’s use of brown and yellow for Nero Wolfe tells us that the character is true to his word and his desire for justice, no matter how many deceptive mind games he plays with suspects and police alike. The reader, while tittering at the great detective’s foibles, ultimate trusts the character to solve the mystery in the end.

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