In the latest in a series of blogs, new allonymbooks crime author EJ Knight discusses some favourite crime writers. This week, American writer Rex Stout.
Rex Stout is a name which many readers may be unfamiliar with, indeed amid the wash of gritty Nordic and British crime, there might seem to be little to recommend a writer whose novels are at first glance so mild-mannered and dated to the time of their writing. Indeed, much of the action takes place in the brownstone home of a man who weighs “one sixth of a ton”, rather than on the mean streets of pre- and post-WWII New York. Yet the thirty or so novels Stout wrote featuring the intellectual giant Nero Wolfe, and his legman – the witty ladies’ man Archie Goodwin – are not only clever puzzles but also a fine portrait of a city and a country going through periods of enormous social change. The plots range widely from corporate and industrial intrigue, families in crisis, diplomacy, politics and the criminal underworld, to the recurrent impact of the war both collectively and individually. Wealth is perhaps more prominent than poverty, as both Wolfe and his clients live comfortably and Archie Goodwin’s taste in ladies generally runs to the more refined, such as socialite heiress Lily Rowan. But the darker, dirtier face of the city is glimpsed often enough in the diners and dark alleys observed by Wolfe’s secondary team of private detectives such as Saul Panzer.
Wolfe and Goodwin are in a marriage of unequals yet they complement each other most brilliantly. Wolfe is huge, temperamental, obsessive about his food, devoted to his orchids, a man of such utter ritual that he will not be disturbed for any crisis, even by his closest associates – Archie Goodwin and Fritz (the chef and majordomo). He refuses to leave the brownstone for anyone – client or cop – and could be seen as the extreme of the eccentric, individualistic private detective. Crimes are puzzles, criminals are like museum exhibits, to be studied and observed from many angles while Wolfe barely moves from his office chair. By contrast, Goodwin is the everyman: a connoisseur of women and violence, he is Wolfe’s eyes and ears out in the world, gliding easily between the criminal classes and the monied aristocracy, driving all over the city and the state, and it is he who tells the stories of the cases that Wolfe is asked to solve, and who paints the portraits of those entangled in the crimes.
The dialogue and first person narration in these books is what drives them both in story and quality. This quote from The Silent Speaker (1946) is typical of the way Stout captures the relationship between Wolfe and Goodwin:
“Nonsense.” Wolfe was peevish. “With an ordinary person that might be necessary, but Mr. Goodwin is trained, competent, reliable, and moderately intelligent.”
We aren’t told what Archie thinks of being described by his employer as “moderately intelligent” and it doesn’t matter, for Archie reports things exactly as they are, which is part of what makes him such a good detective. Hence his use of the word “peevish” – perhaps a less fashionable descriptor now yet for Goodwin it pins his employer’s mood precisely to the map, and for Stout it avoids slowing the rapid fire pacing of the dialogue with overly heavy description. But hence also the precision with which, in the same novel, Stout has Archie report the death of a beautiful woman outside the brownstone and chart the effect of her loss on him:
I do not ordinarily hunt for a cave in the middle of the biggest excitement and the most intense action but this seemed to hit me in a new spot or something, and anyhow there I was, trying to arrange my mind. Or maybe my feelings. All I knew was that something inside of me needed a little arranging.
And at the end of the same short chapter:
I had been sitting in my room twenty minutes when I noticed that I hadn’t drunk any milk, but I hadn’t spilled any from the glass.
There is little angst in these books, no great emotional swings and roundabouts as experienced by some of the other great detectives who get so personally involved. Nero Wolfe solves crimes for money, he is perhaps an intellectual mercenary for he forms no attachments to the victims. His endless battle with Inspector Cramer of the police is one for control of the facts and of his privacy – perhaps in equal measure – and the police are as necessary an evil in tidying up and enacting the solutions Wolfe reaches, as the crimes are for Wolfe to fund his peculiar lifestyle.
So why would you read these books? They are historically dated, favour dialogue over action and the questing of motive over the complexity of plot. Stories are sometimes convoluted, there are often innumerable characters (all beautifully named) and Wolfe is at times so metronomically confined by his own routines as to be close to a parody of himself. But that is to oversimplify the charm of the books – any fan of Christie or Allingham or Sayers would find these just as compelling – and to belittle their lessons for us as writers. For they are a masterclass in how to use words very exactly, how to create a world without being too lavish in description, how to home in on what we really need to say about our characters. Not a word is wasted. The books rush past as easily as a fat airport paperback, but they do so without gloss or embellishment. Every sentence counts, every single observation Archie makes tells us what we need to know, and I for one could listen to him reading the telephone book.
Many of the Nero Wolfe books are still in print and several have now been issued for Kindle. If you haven’t encountered Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin before, A&E made a series of films for television based on a number of the stories. Starring Maury Chaykin as Nero Wolfe and Timothy Hutton as Archie Goodwin, they are good adaptations of the novels and also fun to watch.