Reflections about Rex Stout

Our first conference as mystery writers was Bouchercon 2017, in Toronto.  Imagine a hotel filled with nearly two thousand people with no thought on their mind except murder.  It was a wonder my wife and I could sleep.  I made her take the side of the bed closest to the door.

It was at this conference where we also attended our first dinner with the Wolfe Pack—a society dedicated to the memory of Nero Wolfe, the famous detective created by Rex Stout.  During that dinner, we literally had to sing for our supper and our table was coerced into creating a Christmas carol based on Rex Stout’s creation.  Not having read a single one of his mysteries before then, it was a challenging task.  When we got back to our island off the coast of Maine, I decided to acquaint myself with Mr. Wolfe to better prepare myself for future dinner parties.

Before I begin, I’d like to recognize the Wolfe Pack as an excellent source of information on this subject.  Rex Stout was a mathematics prodigy.  Along with his brother, Robert, he invented a banking system used by more than 400 schools across the nation to promote thrift among school age children.   Royalties from this venture made it possible for him to retire from the business world and focus on writing full time.  Stout won the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award in 1959.  He is best known for the Nero Wolfe series of books, although the first was not published until Stout was nearly 50 years old.  Between then and his death at the age of 88, he wrote more than seventy mysteries featuring the brilliant, corpulent detective.  Wolfe was known for his ability to solve complicated murders from his desk, while drinking copious quantities of beer.

The legwork was done by his assistant, Archie Goodwin, as the famous detective rarely left his apartment in Manhattan.  According to Archie’s Corner (Wolfe Pack website), Dame Agatha Christie was a huge fan of Rex Stout.  When she went to the bookstore hunting for the latest Archie Goodwin novel, the clerk tried to correct her and explain it was known as the Nero Wolfe series.  Christie responded by saying, “Nonsense!  Everybody knows that Archie does all the work.”

My first introduction was The League of Frightened Men, in which Wolfe is quoted as saying, “To assert dignity is to lose it.”  I enjoyed it enough that while doing research on American practices and language during WWII, I also read Not Quite Dead Enough, where Archie explains the best way to work with his boss.  “They’ve handled him wrong…he wouldn’t call on the King of China, even if there was one.  The only thing he’s got is brains, and the only way to go is to take things to him: facts, problems, people…”

The following quote from Ross McDonald perhaps best summarizes the work of Rex Stout, “With great wit and cunning, he devised a form which combined the traditional virtues of Sherlock Holmes and the English school with the fast-moving vernacular narrative of Dashiell Hammett.” [1]

Stout provides Archie as the foil for Wolfe, much the same way Doyle teams Watson with Holmes.  The key difference is that while his employer may be the genius, it’s Archie who steals the show, with lines like the following from Not Quite Dead Enough, “I looked at my watch and it was 10:40.  An hour later I looked again and it was 10:55.”  In spite of the fact Archie prefers to drink milk, he emerges as the character we’d most like to have a beer with, not Wolfe.   The sentiment is probably best summarized by Archie himself, in the same story, “He was gazing at Wolfe with a certain expression…It reminded me of what so many out-of-town folks say about New York: that they love to visit the place, but you couldn’t pay them to live there.”

Interestingly, although the brownstone occupied by Wolfe and his assistant occasionally change addresses from one story to the next (although it never quite manages to leave New York), the characters themselves remain immutable.  “Those stories have ignored time for thirty-nine years,” Stout told his authorized biographer John McAleer. “Any reader who can’t or won’t do the same should skip them. I didn’t age the characters because I didn’t want to. That would have made it cumbersome and would seem to have centered attention on the characters rather than the stories.” [2]

One of the most commonly quoted pieces of advice for aspiring writers is to write.  Less common but probably just as important—read.  You could do a lot worse than to pick up, or download, a copy of an Archie Goodwin novel (everybody knows he does all the work) 😉.

[1] McAleer, John, Rex Stout: A Biography. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1977, p. 242

[2] McAleer, John J. (1983). Royal Decree: Conversations with Rex Stout. Ashton, Maryland: Pontes Press. OCLC 11051942.

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