Celebrating Nero Wolfe and 75 Years of detective brilliance.
Carl Mueller illustration for "Bitter End" by Rex Stout in The American Magazine (November, 1940)
The bestsellers of 1934 included James Hilton’s Goodbye Mr. Chips, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lamb in His Bosom by Caroline Miller, and all 1,224 pages of Hervey Allen’s Anthony Adverse, which Hollywood adapted into a sprawling epic starring Fredric March. But the most notable title of that year may well have been a $2 Farrar & Rinehart hardcover featuring a dust jacket adorned with a pink orchid and the silhouette of a fat man. Rex Stout was 47 years old when he wrote that book titled Fer-de-Lance. He could not have known that 48 Wolfe books were to follow, or that by the time of his death in 1975 his works would be translated into 22 languages and have sold more than 45 million copies. At the 2000 Bouchercon, Stout was nominated as Best Mystery Writer of the Century, along with Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Agatha Christie.
Three-quarters of a century after its release, Fer-de-Lance continues to delight readers. In just a few hundred pages, Stout brilliantly melds traditional English whodunits with hardboiled American gumshoes by personifying each in the form of a character, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, arguably the most memorable detective team after Holmes and Watson. Eccentric genius Wolfe deduces in the style of Sayers and Christie, while his streetwise assistant Archie is a private eye in the tradition of Hammett and Chandler.
According to Otto Penzler, proprietor of New York City’s Mysterious Bookshop and publisher of the Harcourt imprint Otto Penzler Books, Stout “remains to this day the only significant writer who was able to blend perfectly the hardboiled and the softboiled.”
Wolfe, for the uninitiated, is a corpulent aesthete living in a four-story brownstone on Manhattan’s West 35th Street. He indulges in reading, drinking beer, eating haute cuisine (courtesy of his live-in four star cook, Fritz), and cultivating a collection of several thousand orchids (tended to by his full time orchidacean, Theodore). Wolfe’s intellect is staggering, as are his sedentary habits. Because he’s loath to leave the brownstone, he depends on Archie (who has a photographic memory) to gather facts and corral suspects. Along with doing the legwork, Ohio-born Archie shrewdly narrates the stories, does the bookkeeping and drinks copious amounts of milk.
Although Wolfe is a champion of the truth, he makes it clear that he works for money to support his sybaritic lifestyle. Usually Archie has to needle Wolfe into dropping his reading and taking a case. “He doesn’t solve crimes for altruistic reasons; he expects to be paid, and well, because he has a particular skill others do not have,” says Will Thomas, author of the Cyrus Barker and Thomas Llewelyn mysteries and a longtime fan of the Wolfe canon. “He is no amateur, like Lord Peter Wimsey or Miss Marple. Stout has combined the old-fashioned knight errant with the modern businessman who embodied success in post-war America.”
In that sense, Wolfe resembled his creator. In a 1946 interview published in Writers and Writing, Stout quipped, “While I could afford to, I played with words. When I could no longer afford that I wrote for money.” There were other similarities, as Stout’s own mental gifts and idiosyncratic life paved the way for his singular literary creations.
Rex Todhunter Stout was born in Noblesville, Indiana, in 1886, the sixth of nine children in a family of Quaker heritage. He grew up in Kansas, learned to read before age two, and was a four-state spelling bee champion at 11. By that time he’d also read his father’s thousand-volume classical library. He breezed through high school, but was an indifferent collegian.
In 1905 he enlisted in the Navy and spent two years aboard President Theodore Roosevelt’s yacht, the Mayflower, where he made a killing playing cards with ranking officers. After buying his discharge, he studied law for a couple of months and then worked a series of odd jobs, including stints as a bookkeeper, tugboat worker, and tobacco store clerk. In a 1969 interview for Holiday, he stated, “I never had any adventures, but I had a lot of episodes. It was not only good preparation for a writer, but also for life.”
In his 20s and 30s, Stout eventually began to focus on writing, selling short stories and churning out a handful of serialized novels. During that period, he and his brother devised an educational savings program that was marketed to schools. It became an enormous success, and brought Stout the financial freedom to concentrate on literary fiction. In 1929, now living in New York, he wrote How Like a God, a psychological novel about a man obsessed with a seductress whom he murders. Over the next few years, he published four more novels in a similar psychological vein. All received good to mixed reviews, but did not sell well (and are rarely read today).
To make matters worse, Stout lost his fortune when the market crashed. By 1933, he had a family to support—his wife Pola was pregnant and bills needed to be paid. Realizing that his skills lay in storytelling, not “serious” literature, he decided to turn to the more lucrative world of detective stories, a genre he’d enjoyed as a reader. A day after Pola and their baby daughter Barbara returned home from the hospital, Stout began writing Fer-de-Lance. In it, Wolfe manages to link the murders of a poor Italian immigrant and a distinguished college president without setting one foot outside his home. Although it is the first Wolfe story, the characters and tone emerge virtually fully formed. Wolfe’s daily routines are casually revealed: breakfast at eight, two hours with his orchids from nine to 11, office hours from 11 until lunch, then more office hours till four, after which he returns to the plant rooms for two more hours. In an introduction to a 1992 reissue of the book, Loren D. Estleman wrote, “So many references are made to earlier adventures in such an offhand, familiar way by narrator Archie, and his abrasive relationship with his eccentric employer fits them so much like a beloved and well-worn suit of clothes, that the newcomer may be excused the assumption that he has encountered the canon in mid-stride.”
The American Magazine purchased serial rights to Fer-de-Lance and published it under the title Point of Death on October 24, 1934. Two days later, the book was released to favorable reviews, and a series was born. Stout delivered his second Wolfe novel, The League of Frightened Men, the following year. As with this and every other Wolfe story, his first draft—written in longhand—was his last. Remarkably, he finished each story in about five weeks. The rest of his time was spent in private and political pursuits at his beloved New York country home, High Meadows, which he had designed.
More books followed in quick succession as Stout’s popularity grew with readers, critics and fellow writers. Stout briefly flirted with two other sleuths—1937’s The Hand in the Glove introduced female detective “Dol” Bonner, while Double for Death (1939) featured Westchester County detective Tecumseh Fox—but these had little impact. During World War II, he wrote US propaganda materials as chairman of the War Writers’ Board. From the end of the war and onward, Stout only composed Wolfe novels and short stories. He achieved incredible consistency—the works were set in the year they were written, but the routines in the brownstone remained invariable. Taken as a whole, he was able to explore human nature in all its complexity, without sacrificing narrative or character.
Several of the story lines were memorable, such as And Be a Villain, the first of three books that pitted Wolfe against criminal mastermind Arnold Zeck. Nonetheless, the plots have always been somewhat beside the point. The real draw is the interplay between Wolfe and Archie, and the aura of the brownstone. “Rex Stout usually doesn’t make a pretense of playing fair with the reader in the Christie sense,” says Ira Matetsky, the leader (or “werowance”) of The Nero Wolfe Society, a group of aficionados affectionately known as The Wolfe Pack. “He is perfectly capable, in a 200-page novel, of having Saul Panzer fly in from Peru on page 193 with missing information. You can argue about the plot. It’s the characters, the dialog, the humor, the ritual, the sense of family that pulls us all in.”
Fellow Wolfe Pack member and author Jane Cleland concurs: “I still feel like I’m friends with the characters,” she says. “I adore them. Wolfe and Archie fit together like ying and yang.”
Cleland usually tucks in a Wolfe homage or two in each of her Josie Prescott antique mysteries. She’s part of a who’s who of writers who have admired Stout’s work—Isaac Asimov, John Lescroart, Lawrence Block, James M. Cain, Donald E. Westlake, Walter Mosley, Stuart Kaminsky, and Susan Conant are among several others. Will Thomas considers his detecting duo of Barker and Llewelyn to be his own tribute to Wolfe and Archie. “I feel that Stout’s influence is widespread among American mystery writers,” Thomas says. “We study him the way an English major studies Shakespeare or Eliot.” And if the creation of Wolfe and Archie weren’t enough, writers have another reason to be grateful to Stout. Long a champion of liberal issues, he was a member of the Author’s League, twice served as president of the Author’s Guild and worked toward securing reprint royalties for writers. He fervently lobbied Congress for copyright reform and was in attendance when President Eisenhower signed the Universal Copyright Convention into law in 1954.
News of Stout’s death in 1975 made the front page of The New York Times. His final novel, A Family Affair, written in his late 80s, had appeared a month before. But Nero Wolfe lives on. In 1977, Boston College English professor John McAleer renewed interest in the author with his exhaustive Rex Stout: A Biography. From the late 1980s to mid-1990s, Robert Goldsborough continued the Wolfe saga with seven novels; the first, Murder in E Minor, initially was written as a gift to his mother, a Stout devotee. In 2000, A&E debuted a television adaptation of Stout’s novels starring Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton—as Wolfe and Archie, respectively—which ran for two seasons. (This wasn’t the sleuth’s first TV appearance; NBC ran 12 episodes of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe in 1981, with William Conrad in the title role. Additionally, there have been Italian and Russian adaptations.)
Right: Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton as Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, respectively, in the A&E series A Nero Wolfe Mystery
Bantam has reissued many of Stout’s mysteries in paperback, although unfortunately others currently remain out of print. Nonetheless, he continues to inspire passionate fans. They know that Wolfe sleeps in yellow pajamas, can tell you about Archie’s preferences in guns and are able to sketch a diagram of the brownstone’s floor plans from memory. Some of the most fervent enthusiasts are members of the The Wolfe Pack. Organized in the 1970s, today the group boasts more than 400 members; central among its activities is the annual Black Orchid Banquet and the presentation of the Nero Wolfe and Black Orchid Novella Awards. (In honor of the 75th anniversary of Fer-de-Lance, the Wolfe Pack will celebrate with a special banquet on the final night of the 2009 Bouchercon, complete with a full menu taken from Too Many Cooks.)
“The fans are devoted fans, they’re not casual fans,” says Otto Penzler, who himself was a founding member of the Wolfe Pack. “I’ve been in business over 30 years now and everybody likes Rex Stout. Young, old, men, women, people who like cozies, people who like hardboiled stuff—everybody. The brownstone is like 22 Baker Street. It’s just like coming home.”
Before his death, Stout told his biographer McAleer that he hoped Wolfe and Archie would live forever. As the countless readers who have joyfully taken that literary journey to West 35th Street can attest, they do.
“Archie called his employer a genius,” says Will Thomas. “The same could be said of his creator.”
Annabelle Mortensen is a librarian and freelance writer living in Chicago.
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Fall Issue #111.