Thursday, 1 December 2011

Rex Stout, the Slim King

Rex Stout was a thin, wiry man, not especially tall. But if you want his second name to be as appropriate as his first, you just need to think of his great detective, Nero Wolfe. If Rex is the King (as he is), then Wolfe is the fat, orchid loving, home loving, word loving gourmet who, says his sidekick Archie Goodwin, is the greatest detective in the world.

I first heard of Nero Wolfe when, aged about thirteen, I was playing a game of hangman during History class with my friend Anne Sterling. I had been winning consistently, until Anne came up with a name I’d never heard of before. ‘Nero Wolfe? Who’s he?’ I asked indignantly. I’d certainly started something. I heard all about Wolfe for the rest of the class, and the next day Anne brought me in Before Midnight, so that I could borrow it and see for myself.  Since then I haven’t looked back. (See how much we learn in school!)

I suppose Before Midnight is still one of my favourite Rex Stout’s. The title alone, with its evocative suggestion of thrills and danger, makes it attractive to any thriller reader. Then it has the added pleasure of a set of word puzzles within the overall mystery, always a great bonus. (Think of the cipher letter in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Have his Carcase, for instance.) Before Midnight centres round a perfume competition, where the competitors have to identify the famous women referred to in twenty verses, one issued each week; with prize money of one million dollars.

                        ‘Though Caesar fought to give me power
And I had Antony in my grasp,
My bosom, in the fatal hour,
Welcomed the fatal asp,’

Archie quotes, and goes on to say, ‘Of course that was pie…’

And since it’s naturally ‘pie’ (easy) for all you guys, I won’t annoy you by giving you the answer.  But that was the first verse, and they got much harder quickly. A delightful book, and not only because of its plot. The real pleasure of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books lies in the atmosphere – thirties, forties, and onwards, in New York – and in the two main characters, Wolfe and Archie. Over the series of books, these two characters develop, and Rex Stout’s readers grow to rejoice in them and in their wit, their give-and-take discussions, and their occasional rows. They become our friends, and the type of friends, at that, whom we don’t often find.

Nero Wolfe himself is an interesting character, very enjoyable to read about. He never leaves his house on business – he has Archie for that. He is well read and his table talk is witty and clever. He is straightforwardly out for money, but at the same time he draws a line – he won't cheat anyone or go back on his word. He's a character who I love to read about. But Archie is the real centre of the books, both in the relationship we as readers build up with him and in the actual space he takes up in each story.

On my weekly bus journeys, during my teenage years, into the centre of Belfast to spend my pocket money, I began to look out for Rex Stout books, and before long I’d collected every one which was available at that time in paperback.  Recently I returned to the chase. A shop had opened in Dublin called Murder Ink which sold imported American detective stories, and on a trip to Dublin I acquired several. After that I added a few every time I was there.  I found that I already owned most of the full-length books, but that didn’t matter. Rex Stout wrote a great number of ‘long shorts,’ three of which made up a normal length book, and I became an addict of these just as much as of his longer work. In fact, Not Quite Dead and Black Orchids are among my current favourites.  Moving on to Amazon second hand sellers, I worked at completing my collection, and recently acquired Where There’s A Will. I now have all the Nero Wolfe books. Rex Stout wrote between 60 and 70 books. Some of these are his earlier romantic fiction – not quite so good, but still readable – but the vast majority are detective stories, whether in the Wolfe series or not.   He also wrote about another detective called Fox, and a female, Dol Bonner, so if anyone is looking for a Christmas present for me, the few books about those detectives would be very acceptable!

And talking about his female detective, Rex Stout is a strange mixture in his attitude to women. In the Dol Bonner books, and in Mountain Cats and Red Threads (non Wolfe books) where the puzzle is solved by a woman, he seems to support women as being intelligent and equal to men.  But Wolfe himself hates women – mostly – and Archie starts off in the early books, like Fer-de-Lance, as a complete male chauvinist pig; and even in the last book, A Family Affair, he is very opposed to the feminist character, Lucile Ducos.

It’s true that he develops during the course of the books, especially after meeting Lily Rowen, into a rather less chauvinistic person. Lily Rowan is an excellent character, and under her influence Archie stops thinking of women as sex objects inferior to men in every other way. Archie first meets Lily in Some Buried Caesar (one of the best books, in my opinion) when he hurtles over a high fence to escape from a bull, and hears a voice greeting him, ‘Bravo, Escamillo!’ (Escamillo was a well known bull fighter in those days.) Archie is naturally peeved with anyone who could make a joke like that when he had so narrowly escaped being killed.   Lily, however, can handle Archie with great ease, and over the course of the series takes complete control of him. But he still has his flaws.

So why do I like Archie Goodwin so much, and enjoy reading about him? Hard to say. Archie is the suave, sophisticated young man typical of the twenties/thirties, Fred Astaire or Humphrey Bogart, witty, debonair, brave and cool,but soft hearted and chivalrous, attractive to women, and admirable in nearly every way. His attitude to women is, alas, typical of his era, when in films the hero often spanked the heroine with a hairbrush with no sexual innuendo involved, except inasmuch as it showed that he could deal with her. Perhaps my enjoyment of Archie reflects a flaw in me. Well, if it does, I don’t care – I still like him a lot and rereading these books is still one of my favourite relaxations.

Excuse me – I want to go and finish rereading Champagne For One.

(If you’d like to read any of my own books, there’s Belfast Girls, a mixture of genres including romance and thriller, which has been selling quite well,

and my new one, Danger Danger, a more straightforward Irish romantic thriller which you can buy at these links.

See you soon!


  1. Gerry your posts always hold so much interest. Writers coming to life that are all new to me.
    Awesome and well done. x

  2. Thanks, Tee! I have so many favourite writers, and it's always a joy to write about them – a bit like having a conversation with a friend who also likes books, but without being interrupted! It's always lovely to get comments and to know someone has appreciated what I've said.