Rex Todhunter Stout (above) packed several lives into his 88 years on God’s earth. He was a publisher, a propagandist, a radio celebrity, a campaigner for author rights, inventor, husband and father – and the creator of one of the immortal crime fiction partnerships. The son of Quaker parents, Stout was born in Noblesville Indiana in 1886, and if the tale of him reading the Holy Bible from cover to cover twice by his fourth birthday is true, then he must have been an extremely precocious child.
After serving in the U.S. Navy and honing his writing skills with magazine articles and stories for pulp periodicals Stout achieved some level of financial independence in an unusual fashion. Had it been in the digital age, his achievement would probably be that he designed a piece of software, but this was 1916, and his creation was a banking system designed for school to keep track of cash paid in by children. Stout was clearly canny enough to demand royalties, and the income enabled him to travel widely, and to write what he wanted to write, rather than what paid.
For all that Stout was an intellectual and a vigorous campaigner for what he believed in, his legacy remains the creation of Nero Wolfe. Wolfe is an obese, physically lazy but improbably intelligent detective who loves his food and alcohol, cultivates orchids, but never leaves his brownstone house on New York’s West 35th Street. Much of Wolfe’s crime solving is done from the comfort of his armchair, or while consuming fine food and drink. His mind can only achieve so much, however, and he needs access to the streets. This comes in the form of Archie Goodwin (pictured left in a period illustration). Archie would, in truth, have made a perfectly good PI on his own. He is physically fit, handsome, as sharp as a tack, and can handle himself when it comes to physical violence. He lives on another floor of Wolfe’s house, and according to a memo written from Rex Stout to a friend, Archie is:
“Height 6 feet. Weight 180 lbs. Age 32.”
The pair first appeared in 1934 in Fer de Lance, published by the New York company Farrar & Rinehart. Re-reading it for the first time in many years, I was struck by how easily Stout introduces the Wolfe household, almost as if he is gently reminding us of old acquaintances of long standing. As well as Wolfe and Archie, we have Fritz Brenner the cook, and Theodore Horstmann the cantankerous expert who does the hard work up in the expertly-designed cultivation rooms where the precious and capricious orchids are pampered like dissolute and demanding princesses from a bygone era. When heavy lifting out on the tough streets of New York is needed, Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin and Ollie Cather can always be called upon to get their knuckles grazed.
It is little short of astonishing how Fer de Lance delivers the Nero Wolfe template complete and ready formed, almost as if Stout had already written all the books in one superhuman creative effort. A Family Affair (1975) was the 46th and final Nero Wolfe mystery, and it shows just how successfully Stout was able to keep the train chugging along on the same rails for over 40 years. Goodwin and Wolfe have, of course, not aged by a day, nor do their characteristics and personality quirks deviate by so much as the thickness of a cigarette paper. Wolfe still takes the lift up to his orchid rooms twice a day, while Fritz prepares the gourmet meals. Goodwin still likes the odd slug of whisky, but his drink of choice remains a glass of cold milk.
In Part Two of this feature, we will look in detail at both Fer de Lance and A Family Affair, while assessing Rex Stout’s legacy. To close, though. here’s a quote from the early chapters of Fer de Lance, where Goodwin gives us some idea of the sheer physical presence of his boss.
“Wolfe lifted his head. I mention that, because his head was so big that lifting it struck you as being quite a job. It was probably really bigger than it looked, for the rest of him was so large that any head on top of it but his own would have escaped your notice entirely.”