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Rex Stout's eccentric sleuth Nero Wolfe is brought to life in A&E's "The Golden Spiders."

Recluse Sleuth

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If you've never read any of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe mysteries, here's your chance to meet one of the most unusual and finely drawn characters in detective fiction.

If you have read any of the 70 or so books that Stout wrote between the mid-'30s and 1975, when he died — and if you treasured each and every one, as most Stout/Wolfe fans do — here's your chance to see your favorites come alive.

In the eyes of this Wolfe/Stout fan, there's very little to complain about in A&E's two-hour movie version of "The Golden Spiders."

The most difficult character to translate from the page to the screen would have to be Wolfe himself. As Archie Goodwin, his factotum and the narrator of the books, describes him, Wolfe is a master sleuth and a recluse who never leaves his brownstone on West 35th Street in Manhattan. Such immobility would make life difficult for a detective were it not for Goodwin's aid, along with the assistance of Wolfe's other deputies, Orrie Cather, Saul Panzer and Fred Durkin.

A serious orchid fancier who devotes the top floor of his house to their propagation and cultivation, Wolfe is also fanatical about meals — not surprising, since he weighs, as Goodwin always puts it, a seventh of a ton. Wolfe and his chef, Fritz, consult intensely on food and often disagree on the best preparation and presentation of the day's victuals. Rarely is business allowed to interrupt a meal, and punctuality is prime. Wolfe breakfasts in his room at 8, lunches at the stroke of 12:30 and dines at 6:30 sharp. Discussion of business at the table is forbidden.

Wolfe hates to work, and is only moved to exercise his brilliant deductive skills when his bank account is either dangerously low or overdrawn.

In 20th-century detective fiction, he is by far one of the most remarkable, eccentric and mesmerizing protagonists.

As I read Stout's books I always pictured Orson Welles as Wolfe, but given that Welles isn't available, director Bill Duke made a wise choice in casting the largely unknown Canadian actor Maury Chaykin. While not as bulky as might have been hoped, Chaykin has mastered two distinguishing mannerisms that punctuate Stout's description of Wolfe: his tendency to purse his lips in thought and his ability to say "phooey" without looking foolish.

Goodwin is another casting difficulty that Duke managed well when he picked Oscar-winner Timothy Hutton to play Wolfe's legman. It's the ultimate accolade to say both actors have captured the essence of Stout's key characters.

Production designer Lindsey Hermer-Bell deserves a nod of respect as well. Much of Stout's novels unfold inside Wolfe's house, and fans will instantly recognize that Hermer-Bell has reproduced it impeccably.

"The Golden Spiders" is cause for Stout devotees to rejoice. For those who have not heretofore met Wolfe and Goodwin, and vicariously entered the brownstone on 35th Street, it is an opportunity to be seized

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