Authors: Rex Stout
, the creator of Nero Wolfe, was born in Noblesville, Indiana, in 1886, the sixth of nine children of John and Lucetta Todhunter Stout, both Quakers. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to Wakarusa, Kansas. He was educated in a country school, but, by the age of nine, was recognized throughout the state as a prodigy in arithmetic. Mr. Stout briefly attended the University of Kansas, but left to enlist in the Navy, and spent the next two years as a warrant officer on board President Theodore Roosevelt’s yacht. When he left the Navy in 1908, Rex Stout began to write free-lance articles, worked as a sightseeing guide and an itinerant bookkeeper. Later he devised and implemented a school banking system which was installed in four hundred cities and towns throughout the country. In 1927 Mr. Stout retired from the world of finance and, with the proceeds of his banking scheme, left for Paris to write serious fiction. He wrote three novels that received favorable reviews before turning to detective fiction. His first Nero Wolfe novel,
, appeared in 1934. It was followed by many others, among them,
Too Many Cooks, The Silent Speaker, If Death Ever Slept, The Doorbell Rang,
Please Pass the Guilt,
which established Nero Wolfe as a leading character on a par with Erie Stanley Gardner’s famous protagonist, Perry Mason. During World War II Rex Stout waged a personal campaign against Nazism as chairman of the War Writers’ Board, master of ceremonies of the radio program “Speaking of Liberty,” and member of several national committees. After the war he turned his attention to mobilizing public opinion against the wartime use of thermonuclear devices, was an active leader in the Authors’ Guild, and resumed writing his Nero Wolfe novels. Rex Stout died in 1975 at the age of eighty-nine. A month before his death he published his seventy-second Nero Wolfe mystery,
A Family Affair.
Ten years later, a seventy-third Nero Wolfe mystery was discovered and published in
Death Times Three.
The League of Frightened Men
The Rubber Band
The Red Box
Too Many Cooks
Some Buried Caesar
Over My Dead Body
Where There’s a Will
Not Quite Dead Enough
The Silent Speaker
Too Many Women
And Be a Villain
The Second Confession
Trouble in Triplicate
In the Best Families
Three Doors to Death
Murder by the Book
Curtains for Three
The Golden Spiders
The Black Mountain
Three Men Out
Might As Well Be Dead
If Death Ever Slept
Three for the Chair
Champagne for One
And Four to Go
Plot It Yourself
Too Many Clients
Three at Wolfe’s Door
The Final Deduction
The Mother Hunt
A Right to Die
Trio for Blunt Instruments
The Doorbell Rang
Death of a Doxy
The Father Hunt
Death of a Dude
Please Pass the Guilt
A Family Affair
Death Times Three
hen asked for my thoughts on Rex Stout on the welcome occasion of Bantam’s reissue of his work, I wondered what I could possibly add to the existing hagiography. As my mind began to drift toward the world of Wolfe, a world I’ve visited for more than thirty years, I found myself listing the aspects of Stout’s work and person that I envy, not as a reader any longer, but as a laborer in the same field (or at least the same section).
To begin with a minor example, I envy the New York City of the Wolfe novels. Not the imperiled and pitiable cauldron of today, but the mecca of reason and refinement that Stout portrayed so invitingly. That this oasis was occupied in part by men of diabolical design and by Runyonesque rapscallions seemed to add rather than detract from its sheen. That city, so titanic compared to the hinterland I inhabited when I first encountered it, may never have existed outside Stout’s novels—I am in no position to say whether it did or didn’t—but it was and is a place I would have liked to inhabit.
As for the author himself, I believe I am correct in saying that Nero Wolfe first appeared when his creator
was nearly fifty years old. As I approach that decade of my own life, with major upheavals in the recent past and more likely to come, I envy the vigor and confidence Stout demonstrated in launching such an experiment at that age, particularly one so unlikely and problematic as writing mystery novels. It is essential to survival at any age to believe most things are possible. As with other laudable traits—the devotion of copious time and energy to major issues of the day, for example—Rex Stout was an exemplar. I frequently wonder what would happen if suddenly I had no publisher; Stout’s career is a template of encouragement, albeit in reverse.
As the months of labor on my current novel accumulate to inevitably total twelve by the time I yield my sovereignty, no matter how ardently I have tried to make gestation briefer, I am reminded that Stout’s productivity would shame even a modern Moto. He wrote one of the Wolfe novels in three weeks; the average over the entire oeuvre was not much longer. Envy again, times two to the third power.
So much for the man (space is limited); now for the fiction.
Others have envied Nero Wolfe his passions—the orchids and the cuisine. As my own detective’s tastes reflect, I am in large part immune to the charms of nature and the subtleties of gastronomy. (John Marshall Tanner frequently dines on Campbell’s soup and Oreo cookies and can label virtually nothing in his environment that isn’t man-made). What I coveted was Wolfe’s vocabulary. Did I resort to the dictionary in midnovel? Many times, though not as often as I should have. Do I insert words in my protagonist’s mouth that would issue more appropriately from Wolfe’s? Indeed. A multiple offender.
Wolfe never leaves the brownstone. (Well, hardly ever; his sojourn to Montenegro is an outing of special interest these days, given geopolitical developments. Were he still with us, I’m certain he would go again.) Although my home is not nearly the biosphere that
Wolfe created for himself (or rather that Stout created for Wolfe), I leave it infrequently as well. The solitude that Wolfe demanded is handmaiden to the writing profession, of course, and is a major reason I wanted to become a writer and why I still pursue the art. Initially, writing let me escape the cacophony of litigation. In a more defining sense, it has provided a means to avoid, in large part, the whir of commercial society and the values it suggests.
A word about Archie. Then as now I lacked the chutzpah to identify with Wolfe, so Archie was my alter ego. What I coveted was his savoir faire—always a step ahead, always with the coup de grace for the repartee, always managing the unmanageable: Archie was who I aspired to be. But at best I performed such feats only after the fact, in daydreams and psychodramas and hours of rueful reverie. Which suggests another reason I became a writer, I suppose: the sense that my untimely talents were more suited to the world of fiction, where I, or at least my hero, could deliver on demand. Luckily, demand for Mr. Tanner’s savoir faire, such as it is, comes only once a year.
(Addendum: Although Archie was my favorite, he did not suggest the form my own detective would later take. That distinction belongs to Saul Panzer, who for me remains Stout’s best creation. Amazingly, our knowledge of Saul is largely once removed—we know him best through Archie’s deft descriptions of his genius.)
A final note. Several years ago, when Orson Welles was appearing with disappointing frequency on
The Tonight Show,
it occurred to me (as no doubt to others) that Welles had actually
Nero Wolfe, in both physical and intellectual dimensions, and that Hollywood should build a film around that metamorphosis. Hardly a brilliant insight, but that was only a subordinate impulse. The capper was, Why not Carson as Archie? Johnny as Goodwin? Indeed.
Sadly, the two stars had a falling out, for reasons unknown to me; Welles became a butt of Carson’s jibes
and the film remains unmade. But the books survive, and thrive, and another generation has the pleasure of meeting Nero and Archie and Fritz and Theodore (and Saul and Orrie and Fred and Doll).
What could be more satisfactory?
was standing there in the office with my hands in my pockets, glaring down at the necktie on Nero Wolfe’s desk, when the doorbell rang.
Since it would be a different story, and possibly no story at all, if the necktie hadn’t been there, I had better explain about it. It was the one Wolfe had worn that morning—brown silk with little yellow curlicues, A Christmas gift from a former client. At lunch Fritz, coming to remove the leavings of the spareribs and bring the salad and cheese, had told Wolfe there was a drop of sauce on his tie, and Wolfe had dabbed at it with his napkin; and later, when we had left the dining room to cross the hall to the office, he had removed the tie and put it on his desk. He can’t stand a spot on his clothes, even in private. But he hadn’t thought it worth the effort to go up to his room for another one, since no callers were expected, and when four o’clock came and he left for his afternoon session with the orchids in the plant rooms on the roof, his shirt was still unbuttoned at the neck and the tie was still on his desk.
It annoyed me. It annoyed Fritz too when, shortly after four, he came to say he was going shopping and
would be gone two hours. His eye caught the tie and fastened on it. His brows went up.
He nodded. “You know my respect and esteem for him. He has great spirit and character, and of course he is a great detective, but there is a limit to the duties of a chef and housekeeper. One must draw the line somewhere. Besides, there is my arthritis. You haven’t got arthritis, Archie.”
“Maybe not,” I conceded, “but if you rate a limit so do I. My list of functions from confidential assistant detective down to errand boy is a mile long, but it does not include valeting. Arthritis is beside the point. Consider the dignity of man. He could have taken it on his way up to the plant rooms.”
“You could put it in a drawer.”
“That would be evading the issue.”
“I suppose so.” He nodded. “I agree. It is a delicate affair. I must be going.” He went.
So, having finished the office chores at 5:20, including a couple of personal phone calls, I had left my desk and was standing to glare down at the necktie when the doorbell rang. That made the affair even more delicate. A necktie with a greasy spot should not be on the desk of a man of great spirit and character when a visitor enters. But by then I had got stubborn about it as a matter of principle, and anyway it might be merely someone with a parcel. Going to the hall for a look, I saw through the one-way glass panel of the front door that it was a stranger, a middle-aged female with a pointed nose and a round chin, not a good design, in a sensible gray coat and a black turban. She had no parcel. I went and opened the door and told her good afternoon. She said she wanted to see Nero Wolfe. I said Mr. Wolfe was engaged, and besides, he saw people only by appointment. She said she knew that, but this was urgent. She had to see him and would wait till he was free.
There were several factors: that we had nothing on the fire at the moment; that the year was only five days old and therefore the income-tax bracket didn’t enter
into it; that I wanted something to do besides recording the vital statistics of orchids; that I was annoyed at him for leaving the tie on his desk; and that she didn’t try to push but kept her distance, with her dark eyes, good eyes, straight at me.