A Stout Fellow

The point is not so much whether Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe is one of the great detectives. It is that Wolfe and his narrator Archie Goodwin are a good bet for second place in the altogether more exclusive ranks of great detective double-acts (after the inevitable Holmes and Watson). The combination of ponderous, Johnsonian Wolfe with wisecracking Archie remains almost irresistible, almost all the time.

Now that the Wolfe books are being reissued in Scribners hardback and Sphere paperback [1992], it's worth a look back at the fat private eye's career. He had a long run despite his vast weight of one-seventh of a ton (the exact figure varies, but not as much as I thought before recalling that the American ton is only a mingy 2000 lb). It starts at the tail-end of Prohibition as Wolfe samples legal alternatives to his usual bootleg beer in the opening scene of Fer-de-Lance (1934), and finishes in the context of his aching wish to help unravel the tangles of Watergate and pin the big one on Nixon (A Family Affair, 1975, the year of Rex Stout's death at age 89). I prefer to ignore the works by Other Hands which have caused him to shamble massively on beyond the grave, like Tor Johnson in Plan 9 From Outer Space....

In a series so protracted, it's hard to maintain a steady level of quality. Once he'd played himself in, Stout managed a thoroughly convincing illusion of doing so, by careful handling of his regular props: Wolfe's gluttony, agoraphobia, pedantry, laziness, erudition, misogyny and manic refusal to assist the police; his bickering love/annoyance relationship with Archie (secretary, legman, gadfly and cocklebur); the obsessive devotion to the orchid collection from nine to eleven and four to six each day; the cameo appearances from live-in chef Fritz Brenner, from crafty Saul Panzer and the other freelance operatives, from the increasingly maddened and cigar-chewing Inspector Cramer ... and so on. The best unifying device of all is Archie's sprightly narrative style, which reliably conveys the impression that things are bubbling along excitingly even when in fact they aren't.

There are some hiccups. Wolfe's tremendous personality and his whole bizarre household on West 35th St, New York (the street number varies), didn't wholly come into focus in the first book, which is only to be expected of a trial balloon. (Nevertheless the second, The League Of Frightened Men from 1935, is among the best, with some twisty morbid psychology.) The 1940 When There's A Will lapses badly from the standard which had by then been set, thanks to pulp stuff like a fearful scarred lady in a veil who tends to vanish mysteriously into the draperies. Not to mention some wholly undecipherable photographic clues which must have helped to make this the least reprinted Wolfe novel. Our man accuses the murderer on the damning grounds that, in the photo, 'The flower in your buttonhole is a ... wild rose,' – while (a) strain as they may, readers can see nothing but a tiny white dot, and (b) the photographs also show totally leafless trees in what is supposed to be July, a far more blatant clue that the photographer must have been up to no good. The US publishers who'd made this cock-up received so many complaining letters that they fudged up an explanation about some hideous defoliating blight which Wolfe knew of and had discounted without actually bothering to mention the fact. As the great man himself would have said: Pfui.

For the long haul, familiar trappings are not enough: we need shocks. Stout's favourite way of disrupting the expected order of things was usually, and in the end perhaps rather too often, to have Wolfe wrenched from his beloved desk, table and bed. We can believe his visiting the odd gourmet restaurant or flower show (especially when consumed with envy at a rival collector's display of black orchids), and still more so his being arrested by enraged cops as a material witness – but dislocation does become a trifle hard to take in The Black Mountain (1954). This would be slickly inoffensive action-adventure if it weren't for our difficulty in accepting that the vast and adipose Wolfe, even to avenge his best friend, is capable of tottering across large tracts of Montenegro, climbing mountains, sleeping rough on narrow ledges, and even getting into a knife fight.

Nevertheless, while you're reading them, the effortless-seeming but highly polished narrative propels you smoothly over mere implausibilities. Even when Wolfe takes on and defeats the FBI by outrageous mummery in The Doorbell Rang (1965, called in Dilys Wynn's Murder Ink the 'most overrated Wolfe'), it is only some time after emerging from Stout's glorious piece of wish-fulfilment that chilly hindsight begins to say, 'It couldn't actually have worked.' It worked for long enough – until the page after THE END.

The more insidious problems against which the books contend are that we never get as many Wolfe or Wolfe-and-Archie scenes as we'd like, and that often there is not enough plot to fill the vehicle of a standard novel. Problem one, articulated by Kingsley Amis in his 1966 essay 'Unreal Policemen', is forgivable. One can sense that topnotch Nero Wolfe speeches were damnably difficult to write, and that he needs to be taken in seemly moderation. Here he is at his wit's end, 'reflecting in desperation ... on a diphthong' as his aides exchange worried glances: 'Tenuous almost to nullity, it was unworthy of consideration. It still is. But I'm bereft, and it's a fact.' (A Right To Die, 1964. Parodists usually dwell on polysyllables while neglecting the short words that clinch a speech like this.) We have enough Wolfe to satisfy, and Archie is always fun.

Problem two was stated and overstated by critic Edmund Wilson in one of his periodic bashes at genre fiction, 'Why Do People Read Detective Stories?' (1944). Wolfe himself he 'rather enjoyed', while feeling the novels 'seemed to have been somewhat padded, for they were full of long episodes that led nowhere and had no real business in the story'. Warming to his theme, Wilson summed up the case for the prosecution:

'I finally got to feel that I had to unpack large crates by swallowing the excelsior in order to find at the bottom a few bent and rusty nails ... I even began to mutter that the real secret that Author Rex Stout had been screening by his false scents and interminable divagations was a meagreness of imagination of which one only came to realize the full ghastliness when the last chapter had left one blank.'

Now if 'classical' detective fans can curb their righteous rage for a moment, they might on reflection agree that there is a tinge of truth in this.

The classic Holmesian or Father Brownian detective tale is a short story, having one clever knot of ingenuity at its heart. A great deal more than one perfect ingenuity is needed to fill out a novel, and unless there's an utterly fiendish tangle of plot on plot, there are likely to be irrelevancies, digressions and patent delaying actions. Even the maestro Conan Doyle padded out and broke the backs of two Holmes novels with massive historical flashbacks sadly lacking in Holmes (does everyone else skip those bits of A Study in Scarlet and The Valley of Fear, too?). Even John Dickson Carr could spend altogether too much time on highly routine 'love interest', and Dorothy Sayers too long ransacking her dictionary of quotations.

Stout's 'realistic' detective scenario allows for plenty of good clean fun without too much actual development. Wolfe may throw a tantrum and block the action for days. Vital evidence can take time for even Panzer and the other freelances to track down, while Wolfe pessimizes loud and long over the thousands of men the police (who have no chance) have assigned to the same task. Chapters of ingenuity may be needed to lure a recalcitrant suspect to West 35th Street for a marathon session of 'ten thousand questions'. Archie can always be arrested and divert us by his supreme cool under interrogation (not to mention the tense question of whether he'll beat his record for infuriating Lieutenant Rowcliffe into stuttering). Invariably readable, but sometimes it seems painfully true that the plot is spinning in neutral – at least in the chill light of hindsight. My favourite example is in Murder in Style alias Plot It Yourself (1959), where after a brilliant early coup Wolfe sits on his vast bottom brooding, with increasing self-recrimination, and generally doing nothing while the ripples of his unwontedly clumsy investigation cause three-quarters of the suspects to be murdered.

For those who think brevity is the soul of detection there are in fact a goodly number of Wolfe novellas, gathered into collections of two, four or (mostly) three stories. These are generally taut, concentrated and successful, include many of my favourite Wolfeisms, and are singularly hard to find – few have seen British paperback editions in living memory, even when most of the novels were being regularly reprinted by Penguin or Fontana. Is this the traditional caution of publishers, following the well-known adage 'The Public Doesn't Buy Short Stories'? A pity if so.

The books chosen for this year's [1992] British relaunch of Wolfe are The Red Box (1937 – it says '1936' in this edition), Over My Dead Body (1940), Even In The Best Families (1950) and Champagne For One (1958 – here it mysteriously says '1952, First Edition published in 1959'). According to me these are all good entertainment and representative of Stout, although the early The Red Box does admittedly have an example of those plot jams during the long and unsuccessful search for the fatal box itself ... also one of those bits of portentous but inadequately baffling mystification common in crime fiction though rare in Stout, which blows the murderer's name rather too soon if you can remember a trace of schoolday Latin. But there are several nice ingenuities and set-pieces: Wolfe dragged from his office by Archie's experimental ploy of a petition from revered orchid-growers, murder by remote control in front of his very desk, murder by nitrobenzene booby-trap in a car, etc. The book contains one of Wolfe's most splendid and splenetic outbursts, after Archie has conned him out of abandoning the case and going into a gourmet relapse whose menu plans begin with peafowl, goose, kid, squabs and shish-kabob. For starters.

By the way, Stout's prose in The Red Box attracted the finical attention of The New Yorker magazine – which ran a filler entitled 'Infatuation with Sound of Own Words Department: Finger-Wiggling Division', listing seventeen variations on 'Wolfe wiggled a finger at him' or 'He wiggled Fritz away with a finger'. It is my impression that Wolfe never again deployed his wiggling finger so often in a single book. [In the final novel A Family Affair, Archie reports: 'Wolfe wiggled a finger. That was regression – I just looked it up. He had quit finger-wiggling a couple of years back.']

Over My Dead Body expands on the fat man's past, specifically his Montenegrin ancestry and ability to speak Serbo-Croat, and lands him with an adopted daughter who is promptly entangled in a stew of pre-war politics, murder and international finance. (Wolfe gets in some good snide remarks on international financiers.) Rather than a boring old blunt instrument, the deed is done using a blunt fencing épée fitted not with a button to make it safe but with a purpose-designed pointy bit, which Wolfe at one stage conceals from the police in a spurious chocolate cake.

There is much enjoyment in a ruse like this even when – as here – it's fairly pointless. (Archie: 'It's wonderful how your mind works. If that had been me I would have gone up and chucked it in my bureau drawer. Of course, it's more picturesque to disguise it as a cake....' Yes.) There is more to relish in Wolfe's disgusted pique when the most excruciatingly foreign-accented of an almost entirely foreign suspect-list is tracked down to her true origin in Ottumwa, Iowa, and her true name Pansy Bupp. (Wolfe: 'Get her out of the house!' Archie: 'Zhat weel be a plaizhoore.') Stout was now in firm possession of the fact that for most detective readers other than Edmund Wilson, a perky style and quirky developments are far more attractive than a mere puzzle. It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive at the last page....

Archie as well as Wolfe was still a developing character at this time. The worst blemish in Over My Dead Body is his descent – perhaps inflamed by war fever – into needless bullying of and violence against admittedly unlovable characters (a German agent, an international financier). Beats me how he survived doing the same to an Assistant District Attorney in The Red Box. In later books the reformed Archie prefers to banter with aggressors until actually forced into violence, which seems far more in character.

Even in the Best Families is the most enjoyable of the four books here, though paradoxically not the best introduction to Wolfe. It has less impact if you don't 'know' Wolfe, and it concludes a loose trilogy involving Stout's equivalent of Professor Moriarty ... the dread and highly respectable mastermind Arnold Zeck. The prior books are And Be a Villain alias More Deaths Than One (1948) and The Second Confession (1949). Both appeared in Penguin's 1975 The First Rex Stout Omnibus, cleverly placed in the wrong order and without the concluding novel. Pfui.

A virtue of this one is that it has plenty of plot, opening with a straightforward mystery case that brings a Hands Off warning from Zeck (in the form of a tear-gas-trapped packet of gourmet sausage) and before too long sends Wolfe scurrying unprecedentedly to an offstage hidey-hole for a third of the book – there to lose 117 lb while preparing himself for a masterstroke against the arch-fiend. Meanwhile Archie demonstrates in convincingly circumstantial detail that he can (as we always knew he could) set up a detective agency and make it on his own. Wolfe's flight and surprise reappearance give two of the best frissons in the entire works. The machinations against Zeck are also good fun, involving the goading of a third party to murder in order to keep Wolfe's and Archie's hands clean of premeditated outrage, and finally the original case is wrapped up with a satisfying and more or less unexpected solution. Hindsight insists that our intrepid pair could not possibly have survived the aftermath of Zeck's end (his goons burst straight in and start shooting), but once again hindsight will kindly shut up.

Finally, Champagne for One is a good example of later-period Wolfe: polished, fun, full of irreverent observations about charity foundations and where charity begins; perhaps a little thinner in every sense than some of the earlier cases, but showing Stout's increasingly accurate eye for thumbnail characterizations, and his total confidence in handling Wolfe/Archie relations.

Nevertheless he was producing the books annually at a surprising speed:

'Rex began another novel on 1 March [1958]. The working title was Murder of an Unmarried Mother. Rex finished it on 24 April, then entitled it Champagne for One. Thirty-four writing days. Still more remarkable was the three-week hiatus in Rex's work schedule. He had been to Florida.'

Thus John McAleer's wolfeishly fat Rex Stout: a Biography (1977), which must be one of the most trivia-crammed and uncritical works ever written by a Professor of English.

These Scribners reprints look good outside, with a laudatory quote from the Amis essay already mentioned and the traditional but inevitable cover paintings of sinisterly bedizened orchids. (The unnamed artist has evidently read all the books with care, and even manages a plausible depiction of the useful add-on gadget for one's fencing foil.) Inside, through the miracles of photo-offset, the texts have been lifted from four separate sources, typos and all, including a Julian Symons introduction to Families written for – and making mention of – the Collins Crime Club jubilee reprints. Does anyone remember the days when publishers of a uniform edition would contrive, by some arcane trade secret, not to have the words 'Chapter One' set in a blatantly different style for each book?

We need more Stout in print. The effect of this series is cumulative, as touch after touch is added to Wolfe's massive personality (I still treasure his page-by-page burning of Webster's New International Dictionary, third edition, for threatening the integrity of the English language), to Archie's cheeky resourcefulness and to the old brownstone house on West 35th street whose eccentric cosiness makes it – far more than Poirot's art-deco, Wimsey's clubman magnificence or 221b Baker Street with its reek of chemicals – a place where one might really like to live. It's worth a visit.