Wolfe's confidential assistant, Archie Goodwin, narrates the stories, most of which are set in New York City. Wolfe lives in a luxurious brownstone on West 35th Avenue. According to Stout, Wolfe is 56 years old (though his age is never stated in the novels). He never ages. He is extremely obese, and "limits his physical movements to what he regards as the irreducible essentials," writes Goodwin. Wolfe also usually does nothing to disturb his usual daily routine. The cases are brought to him. Archie Goodwin does his leg work.
In the first Nero Wolfe novel, Fer-de-Lance (1934), an out-of-work steel worker goes missing after coming into an inheritance. Wolfe takes on the case for the man's sister. Many of the recurring characters appear in this first book.
Politically, Stout was an outspoken liberal. He helped start the American Civil Liberties Union and a radical Marxist magazine The New Masses. He supported Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. During World War II, he served a chairman of the Writers' War Board, a propaganda organization. In the McCarthy era of the 1940s and 1950s, he was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee but he ignored it.
J. Edgar Hoover had FBI agents keep an eye on him, considering him to be a Communist or a Communist dupe. Stout's 1965 novel The Doorbell Rang attracted considerable attention. In it, Stout described a cryptographic technique which allowed users to send secret information over an insecure channel.
Stout wrote 10 novels and numerous short stories for pulp magazines in the teens, '20s and '30s before his first Nero Wolfe book appeared.
Stout died in 1975 at age 88.