Tuesday, November 06, 2007


I have just finished reading Fer-De-Lance, the first in the Nero Wolfe series, published in 1934. The author Rex Stout was an interesting character who had spent two years as a warrant officer on President Theodore Roosevelt's yacht.

He later devised a school banking system which was installed in four hundred cities around the country. Retiring from finance a wealthy man he went to Paris and wrote three novels before turning to detective fiction with Fer-De-Lance. He went on writing up to his death in 1975 at the age of 89 leaving behind seventy three Nero Wolfe mysteries for our enjoyment.

Fer-De-Lance was great fun to read as Rex Stout tried to synthesise the English country house mystery with the American hard boiled urban detective story.

Nero Wolfe, the eccentric genius, has as his leg man the tough no nonsense young Archie Goodwin. Archie is a "wise cracking" man about town, who can mix with all classes of society, while Wolfe remains sedentary in the brownstone at West 35th street and does the thinking.

The corpulent Wolfe, or should that be very corpulent at "one seventh of a ton", has a collection of ten thousand orchids, a huge appetite for exotic meals, and drinks twelve bottles of beer a day. He also has a strict routine and this is never altered even for a murderer's confession. The household at West 35th street never changes throughout the series with Theodore Horstmann looking after the orchids, and Fritz Brenner dishing up fantastic meals; while Wolfe's irregular associates Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin, and Orrie Cather do any dirty work required. Wolfe thrives on stability and routine.

"Mr Nero Wolfe? My name is Sarah Barstow ."

"Be seated, " Wolfe said. "You must pardon me; for engineering reasons I arise only for emergencies"

"This is an emergency," she said.

Archie Goodwin is a bit eccentric too as he drinks milk! I can't see Sam Spade drinking milk, or putting up with Wolfe's behaviour.

Wolfe and Archie are certainly not Holmes and Watson, though Archie like Watson is the narrator of the mysteries, and Wolfe is eccentric and brilliant enough to be the American Holmes.

Rex Stout realised that even if some of your plots were weak the presence of overwhelmingly strong and interesting characters brought your readers back time and again.

Fer-De-Lance is definitely slightly dated with Archie calling Wolfe from call boxes, being able to find parking spots on the street in New York, and the vast social and economic gulf between the rich and the poor at the height of the depression. Some things don't change much.

But it is fun and in 1934 it was just the kind of escapism that people wanted to read, with wealthy eccentrics, rich financiers being murdered, golf clubs, aeroplanes, beautiful rich girls, stupid cops and the villain being brought to justice by a genius.
I can see myself returning to this series from time to time for a little light relief.


Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think Rex Stout was also a spelling-bee champion, which would make him a suitable companion for that crossword-puzzle champion Colin Dexter, if I have my British crime writers right.

He may be good for light reading from time to time, but in some of the books, he has a chilling way of taking care of the perpetrator.

Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

8:30 PM  

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