Nero Wolfe is a private detective in New York City, either Montenegrin by birth or an American of Montengrin extraction, whose cases in the 1930s through 1970s were chronicled by his assistant Archie Goodwin and the latter's literary agent Rex Stout. A brilliant eccentric, the obese orchid-breeder rarely did any gathering of evidence on his own, or even left his house or varied his personal timetable; rather he left that to Archie and other private detectives whom he patronised, Wolfe then deducing the solution from what he would be told after the fact. In certain respects, therefore, Nero Wolfe bases some resemblence to Mycroft Holmes.
Although his date of birth is traditionally identified as 1891, the evidence of the Claudius Lyon stories by Loren D. Estleman, and the text of an email from Archie published in the London Times on 26 April 2008, is that Wolfe is still living and working in New York today.
The Nero Wolfe Corpus and the Higher Criticism
In the July 1954 edition of Harper's Magazine, Bernard DeVoto dedicated his regular column "The Easy Chair" to an essay entitled "Alias Nero Wolfe". To what extent the essay is tongue-in-cheek is unclear, for DeVoto, in his capacity as "a member of the American Historical Asociation in good standing", launches an attack on "the frivalous speculation tricked out to look like scholarship with which the Holmes cult defrauds the reading public"; specifically, upon an unnamed member of the Baker Street Irregulars who was proposing the theory that Nero Wolfe was the son of Mycroft Holmes. DeVoto goes on to analyse the information about Wolfe's life known to the reading public at that time, and proposes a few theories to explain (apparently intentional) discrepancies in the stories. He also notes that Archie's background is described inconsistently, and raises the possibility - albeit only to refute it as absurd - that Archie is some relative of Wolfe's, such as a cousin or nephew or brother.
Intense speculation developed as to the identity of Wolfe's father, and on 14 June 1955 Stout wrote to the editor of the Baker Street Journal, stating that
"As the literary agent of Archie Goodwin, I am of course privy to many details of Nero Wolfe's past which to the general public... must remain moot for some time. If and when it becomes permissible for me to disclose any of those details, your distinguished journal would be a most appropriate medium for the disclosure. The constraint on my loyalty to my client makes it impossible for me to say any more now."
Subsequently, Dr. John D. Clark responded to DeVoto's original essay in an article in the Baker Street Journal for January 1956 entitled "Some Notes Relating to a Preliminary Investigation Into the Paternity of Nero Wolfe" that proposed that Wolfe was the product of an affair between Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler during the period following "The Final Problem" when Holmes was travelling through Europe and Asia under an assumed name subsequent to faking his death. Ellery Queen contributed an article "The Great O-E Theory" in his/their book In the Queen's Parlor in 1957 that noted a similarity of names between "Sherlock Holmes" and "Nero Wolfe".
But by far the greatest proponent of the theory that Holmes was father of Wolfe was William S. Baring-Gould, who makes much of it in his biographies Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street (1962) and Nero Wolfe of West 35th Street (1969). He directly quotes from DeVoto and Clark, and from Rex Stout's letter, and extends the theory to the extent that he suggests Irene Adler gave birth to twins, with the second child identified as Marko Vukcic (Wolfe's best friend, certainly his closest friend in New York, who had been his childhood companion in Montenegro), who had been murdered (see The Black Mountain) a few months before Harper's Magazine began all the speculation. Further, Baring-Gould raised the possibility that the womanizing Vukcic had been Archie's biological father.
Philip José Farmer contributes little to the debate in his 1972 biography Tarzan Alive, but agrees the likely paternity of Wolfe as being that which John D. Clark describes (this makes Wolfe a Wold Newton Family member. However, there is an outside possibility that Farmer may have possessed additional knowledge about the background of Wolfe and Archie, since Michael Croteau, the webmaster of www.pjfarmer.com, is on record as saying that he had encouraged Mr. Farmer on several occasions to chronicle how Wolfe and Archie came to meet in the first place.
Archie Goodwin did not comment upon any of these theories until the publication in 1981 of Julian Symons's (probably 1979) interview with him ("In Which Archie Goodwin Remembers" in The Great Detectives: Seven Original Investigations), wherein he states - regarding details of Wolfe's past -
"I wasn't there and I don't know. I can certify that he had young relatives in Belgrade, because I used to type letters to them. But you've read the works and know the things people have sad. One theory is that Marko wasn't Wolfe's friend but his twin brother, and that they were born in Trenton, New Jersey, and went out to Montenegro when they were very small. There's also a view that Wolfe was the illegitimate son of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler. If you ask me, most of those ideas range from way out to plain crazy, but I don't know. No more does anybody."
In 1979, Archie put together some notes and reminiscences, edited by Ken Darby after the latter had tracked him down) as The Brownstone House of Nero Wolfe as told by Archie Goodwin (1981). This book flatly-contradicts everything Archie told Symons about Wolfe's past and his own past, and what had happened to both of them since Rex Stout's death, and is also utterly inconsistent with the Robert Goldsborough continuation novels. In this book, Archie praises John D. Clark as
"a man of enormous perspiacity who, by brilliant deduction and unwavering research, has propounded an hypothesis about Wolfe and his antecedents that is so near the truth as to be uncanny."
It may be worth noting that nowhere does Archie comment on the theories about his own antecedents.
Leading Wold Newton scholar Win Scott Eckert has for the most part followed Baring-Gould, identifying Nero Wolfe's baptismal names as "John Hamish Adler", and agreeing that Archie must be Wolfe's nephew. This information also appears in Brad Mengel's lengthy discussion of Sherlock Holmes's family tree Watching the Detectives, although his article comes with a health-warning for the unwary Farmerian:
"not every work about Sherlock Holmes is true and a number of Holmes' relatives have had their identities used to mock the Great Detective. It is also possible that some of the people who claim to be descended from Sherlock Holmes may be lying."