I finally managed to finish off Fer-de-Lance and The League of Frightened Men, the first two Nero Wolfe books. It was interesting to read these two not long after finishing the two final Wolfe books, just to see how things changed over some forty years.
Actually, not that much. The Wolfeverse is already almost entirely established in the very first chapter of Fer-de-Lance. Archie has already been living in the brownstone for seven years, and Wolfe has been hiring Saul, Fred, and Orrie to help out for quite awhile. In fact, the only major characters not there from the start are Inspector Cramer (who shows up in League) and Lon Cohen. There are some minor differences in the basic setup. Purlie Stebbens shows up off-camera in Fer-de-Lance, but rather than being an antagonist, he's flashing his badge around to help Archie talk to some suspects. Cramer is similarly non-antagonistic in League. Fritz acts more in the capacity of butler and valet, as well as being the cook. And the chairs in Wolfe's office are just identified as chairs, without distinguishing colors or levels of importance.
The biggest differences are in the characters of Archie and, especially, Wolfe. Archie is not nearly as likable as he is later in the series. At this point Archie is a typical man of the thirties, with all the prejudices that implies. Slurs come easily to his lips. Fortunately, Wolfe does scold him about this. Wolfe himself is much less a caricature than he is in later books. Most of the conventions are there, but they aren't nearly as rigid as they will become later. His basic daily routine is already established, but it's portrayed as more eccentric than obsessive. For example, he seems perfectly fine with having someone other than Archie drive him somewhere. One thing that is totally different is that he's far more comfortable around women in these books than he is later in the series. There is no hint of his later distaste for dealing with women. Now I'm wondering how that came about.
As far as the books themselves, I suspect that if Fer-de-Lance had been my first encounter with Wolfe, I might not have come back. The initial mystery is fine, but turns out to be a gigantic red herring about two thirds of the way through, and it becomes obvious to everyone who the killer is. The rest of the book is a rather unsatisfying procedural which ends with Wolfe abetting a murder (because some truly warped sense of justice), and the killer committing suicide. The whole thing is just distasteful.
The League of Frightened Men, OTOH, is excellent, and probably a much better introduction to the series. In a sense, it's the opposite of Fer-de-Lance in that it starts as a procedural, and becomes a mystery later on. The villain of the piece is very much Wolfe's match, and there are plenty of twists and turns. Highly recommended.