A Wodehouse Favourite: Rex Stout

My tribute to Rex Stout, creator of Nero Wolfe, in current edition of Wooster Sauce, journal of the PG Wodehouse Society

“His narrative and dialogue could not be improved, and he passes the supreme test of being re-readable. I don’t know how many times I have read the stories, but plenty. I know exactly what is coming and how it is all going to end, but it doesn’t matter. That’s writing.”

That could come from any number of readers of P G Wodehouse. But it was actually written by Wodehouse himself, about his friend and favourite detective story writer, Rex Stout. It is part of his introduction to Stout’s official biography, and echoes the compliments the two paid each other in a long mutually-admiring correspondence. Rex Stout is one of the few real writers, living or dead, to get a favourable mention in Wodehouse’s fiction. Bertie and Aunt Dahlia actually struggle over a copy of the latest Stout in The Code Of The Woosters.

It is easy to understand why Wodehouse relished Stout. His full name, Rex Todhunter Stout, is one Wodehouse might have given to a struggling author posing as an expert on pigs – or even to a detective.

Rex Stout had a varied life, with some echoes of Wodehouse’s. He was born in Indiana in 1886, one of nine children of Quaker parents who encouraged him to read omnivorously. As a young child he read the Bible twice over and would have edged Bertie Wooster in a prize contest for Scripture Knowledge. At 13 he became the Kansas state spelling champion. After a variety of short-term jobs, including warrant officer on Teddy Roosevelt’s Presidential yacht, he became a published writer at the age of 24 and served a long apprenticeship, like Wodehouse, in magazines. Unlike Wodehouse, he gave himself a financial cushion against failure as a writer, by patenting a successful school banking system. Ironically, he lost most of his money from this in the Great Depression and was forced to become a full-time author.

He wrote some serious psychological novels and a political thriller The President Vanishes. Astutely, he published this anonymously and encouraged speculation that it had been written by a major politician. Then in 1934 he turned exclusively to detective fiction, with the publication of his first Nero Wolfe story, Fer-de-Lance. Another 72 would follow, the last, Death Times Three, posthumously after his death in 1975.

In most photographs, he is wearing a beard which even Gally Threepwood would regard as too extravagant for use as a disguise.

Like Wodehouse, Stout became famous for wartime broadcasts, although for the right reasons, combatting Axis propaganda in America as presenter of a long-running radio series called “Speaking Of Liberty”. Unlike Wodehouse, Stout was politically active. He was a co-founder of the left-wing Vanguard Press and a strong campaigner for civil liberties and authors’ rights. He was badgered by the FBI and took his revenge on them in a late Wolfe novel The Doorbell Rang. But he also detested Communism, and unleashed Wolfe against it in The Second Confession.

Stout created a few other detectives, including a pioneering woman PI, Dol Bonner. But his greatest creations were Nero Wolfe and his live-in assistant Archie Goodwin.

Wolfe must be the bulkiest detective, real or fictional, in history. Archie, his narrator, regularly puts his weight at one-seventh of a ton (American not Imperial) which makes him nearly 290 pounds. He solves all his cases by deep thought in the chair specially built for him, in the intervals between reading, cultivating orchids, drinking beer and consuming gourmet meals cooked by his resident chef Fritz (a loyal and much calmer version of Anatole.) Wolfe almost never leaves his house, a brownstone mansion on West 35th Street, Manhattan. Clients and witnesses are delivered to him (usually with a curt instruction to Archie to “Bring them”) and Wolfe exposes the murderer in his crowded office in the presence of his ally and occasional adversary Inspector Cramer of Manhattan Homicide.

For all Wolfe’s genius the murderer usually strikes two or three times before the exposure (as with his fictional rivals Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple). Despite Wodehouse’s tribute, plots were never the strongest element in a Wolfe mystery. All too often, Wolfe’s solution depends on the discovery of a surprising fact by Archie or Wolfe’s brilliant sub-contracted private detective, Saul Panzer. The addictive properties in the series are the dialogue, the characters and the setting.

A Nero Wolfe mystery is a journey into a magic private world, in many ways similar to that of Jeeves and Bertie.

In both worlds, intricate problems are solved by a cerebral figure for a baffled narrator. Archie Goodwin is considerably smarter than Bertie (although his narration is much less “literary” than Bertie’s). He is far more active as a participant in the stories than Bertie, doing all of Wolfe’s leg work, supervising the sub-contracted operatives, and often needing to use his fists or his Marley automatic gun. He regularly has to needle Wolfe into accepting a job. But he shares Bertie’s unabashed admiration for the problem-solving genius of a superior mind.

Like Jeeves, Wolfe likes to spend time with an improving book. Like Jeeves, Wolfe is nervous in the presence of women (although there are hints of a romantic past and he supports a distant grown-up daughter). Wolfe relies heavily on Archie’s ability to charm women (these passages have not kept pace with modern times: Archie’s chat-up routines would now earn a slap or even a jail sentence), but like Jeeves with Bertie, Wolfe frets when any woman gets too close to Archie.

The two pairs cannot live without each other. There are intermittent rifts between Wolfe and Archie to match Bertie’s and Jeeves’ battles over clothes and the banjolele, and Archie periodically threatens to leave the brownstone and work independently. But the crisis is always resolved. Eventually, Archie achieves a long-term extra-mural relationship with the wealthy Lily Rowan, which allows him to remain with Wolfe.

Both Jeeves and Wolfe have distinctive dialogue, but Wolfe’s is so stately and ornate as to make Jeeves seem almost vernacular. He dismisses nonsense as “flummery”, and his highest word of praise is “satisfactory.” He reserves his best phrases to describe himself. In the first Wolfe mystery Fer-de-Lance he announces that “I understand the technique of eccentricity; it would be futile for a man to labor at establishing a reputation for oddity if he were ready at the slightest provocation to revert to normal action.” He puts this point a little more concisely in Murder By The Book when he refuses to abandon his set hours with his orchids: “No. A schedule broken at will becomes a mere procession of vagaries.” However, he also proclaims in Too Many Cooks that “a guest is a jewel on the cushion of hospitality.” Stout gives Archie a brash, hard-boiled, wisecracking style of narration which perfectly sets off Wolfe’s rolling periods.

Above all, the world of Wolfe and Archie is timeless in its essentials, like that of Jeeves and Bertie. The reader is more aware in Wolfe stories of outside events, such as the war, civil rights and women’s liberation, Communism, Red-baiting and the FBI, and ultimately Watergate. But the characters do not age and their behaviours are delightfully consistent. Among the regular supporting characters, Inspector Cramer can be relied upon to bluster, to threaten Wolfe with imprisonment for obstruction of justice, and to chomp a cigar between his lips without lighting it before throwing it away in disgust. But he will re-join Wolfe’s admirers in the end while arresting the villain. In spite of the numerous murderers he nails with Wolfe’s help he is never promoted beyond Inspector. In a similar way, the supporting operatives stay in character: Fred Durkin ponderous but reliable, Orrie Cather self-satisfied and ambitious, Saul Panzer anonymously brilliant.

When forced by exceptional circumstances to leave the brownstone, Wolfe will invariably exhibit extreme anxiety in any moving vehicle, even the sturdy Heron Sedan he buys for Archie to drive. In the later novels, Wolfe acquires a television only to glare briefly at programs before returning to his latest book. In Please Pass The Guilt he announces: “I turn on the television rarely, only to confirm my opinion of it.”

Wolfe would have glared at most of the attempts to render him on television, largely because the adapters generally lacked the confidence in the original material which was shown by the best adapters of Jeeves and Bertie. He deserves a first acquaintance in his beloved medium of books. My own personal favourite – read and re-read many times, is And Be A Villain which the British publishers incomprehensibly re-titled More Deaths Than One.

The plot is, as Wolfe would say, satisfactory, particularly in the introduction of Wolfe’s Moriarty, the arch-villain Arnold Zeck. It allows Wolfe to rail agreeably at radio advertising. And his vocabulary includes the words “temerarious”, “chambrer,” and “dysgenic.”

21. June 2019 by rkh
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