Monday, December 31, 2018

Raymond Chandler and a Meditation on Nero Wolfe and His Orchids

I’ve begun reading The Big Sleep Annotated (annotations by Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson, and Anthony Dean Rizzuto; hereafter HJR), and it’s fascinating so far.  In fact, it has answered a question for me—why did Nero Wolfe grow (and hybridize) orchids?  As HJR point out (p. 21),

One of the many symbols of wealth and decadence adorning the Sternwood residence.  Orchid-collecting fever swept England and America at the turn of the twentieth century.  Edward Doheny Sr.’s home [near downtown LA]…sported a Tiffany-glass-and-steel-domed conservatory that housed southern California’s first major orchid collection: more than five thousand specimens collected by Doheny’s wife Estelle.  In literature the flowers acquired associations of decay and disease…[They go on to elaborate.]

So Stout would certainly have known of the fascination of the rich with orchids, and of the association of orchids with decadence.  And Wolfe is clearly a man who has, in general, the tastes associated with wealth (but not, particularly, decadence)—an impressive residence; a resident world-class chef; and (generally) refined tastes (leaving the beer aside [1]).  And raising orchids.

HJR then quote from Chandler’s 1936 story “The Curtain,” a passage that found its way pretty directly into The Big Sleep:

The air steamed.  The walls and ceiling of the greenhouse dripped.  In the half light enormous tropical plants spread their blooms and branches over the place and the smell of them was almost as overwhelming as the smell of boiling alcohol.

The butler, who was old and thin and very straight and white-haired, held branches of the plants back for me to pass, and we came to an opening in the middle of the place.  A large Turkish rug was spread down on the hexagonal flagstones.  In the middle of the rug, in a wheelchair, a very old man sat with the traveling rug around his body and watches us come.

Nothing in his face lived but his eyes.  Black eyes, deep-set, shining, untouchable.  The rest of the face was the leaden mask of death, sunken temples, a sharp nose, outward turning earlobes, a mouth that was a thin white slit.  He was wrapped partly in a reddish an very shabby bathrobe and partly in the rug.  His hands had purple fingernails and were clasped loosely, motionless on the rug.  He had a few scattered wisps of white hair on his skull.

We don’t get this bit, though in “The Curtain.”  We get this from TBS, which begins with General Sternwood speaking:

“You are looking at a very dull survival of a rather gaudy life, a cripple, paralyzed in both legs, and with only half of a lower belly.  There’s very little that I can eat and my sleep is so close to waking that it is hardly worth the name.  I seem to exist largely on heat…and the orchids are the excuse for the heat.  Do you like orchids?

“Not particularly,” I said…

They are nasty things.  Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men.  And their perfume has the rotten sweetness of a prostitute.”

Wolfe never discussed (as I recall) his motivation for raising orchids.  But he does refer in one of the books to keeping an old woman on the roof and torturing her daily.  And we can make of that what we will.

[1] I have always thought that Stout made Wolfe into a beer-drinker in order to avoid the need to incorporate fine wine into the stories.  These days, with small-batch artisanal craft beer, yo can’t really get around it even with beer.

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