Mon
May 2 2011 12:00pm

Rex Stout: An American Wit and Propagandist

Rex Stout was a propagandist.

Rex Stout smoking cigaretteYou might have thought he was only that author who came up with the enduring Nero Wolfe mysteries, featuring the larger-than-large, orchid-growing detective and his dashing and irreverent right-hand man, Archie Goodwin. But Stout (1886–1975) was that most remarkable—and American—of crime writers. He was a jack of all trades. He made a fortune creating a banking system, which gave him a cushion as a writer. He helped strengthen U.S. copyright law for writers. He was one of the first board members of the American Civil Liberties Union. He was a very public supporter of the United Nations. He was also targeted by the FBI (and wrote a Nero Wolfe book, The Doorbell Rang, that targets the FBI's intrusions into the lives of American citizens.)

But back to the propaganda. During World War II, Stout wrote anti-Nazi propaganda for the government, as president of the Writers' War Board. He knew the power of words—and he wanted to wield them on behalf of liberty and freedom everywhere.

Not your typical mystery writer.

But if he hadn't created Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, and written such witty and elegant mysteries featuring these distinctive characters, Stout would probably be remembered as a footnote in the American banking system.  He created a school banking system, adopted by several hundred schools nationwide, which allowed children to keep track of money saved in accounts.  For this, Stout received royalties.  

 Cover of Nero Wolfe series Before he turned his hand to crime writing, Stout published adventure tales, literary novels (including How Like a God, a second-person narrative that predates Bright Lights, Big City by about six decades), and science fiction stories. But with the publication of 1934’s Fer-de-Lance, the first Nero Wolfe novel, Stout's career as a writer of bestselling mysteries began in earnest. He kept up the pace for almost the rest of his life, averaging one new Nero Wolfe book a year.  Each one sold so well, they attracted the notice of John Cheever, who remarked in his journals the everyday sight of suburban train commuters absorbed in reading the latest Rex Stout.

What makes Rex Stout so distinctive is, of course, his prose: literate, witty, insightful, sophisticated, and undeniably American. Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain had a hard-boiled, incisive style. Raymond Chandler had an ornate and witty, metaphoric one. Stout's was more akin to Bertie Wooster's narratives in the P.G. Wodehouse “Jeeves” novels, though less reliant on wordplay than Wodehouse's amazing Bertie. 

Wodehouse, who was a friend of Stout's, contributed a foreword to John McAleer's excellent 1977 biography of the crime writer, saying, “his narrative and dialogue could not be improved, and he passes the supreme test of being rereadable” This from a master like Wodehouse.

Who was right.

Timothy Hutton as Archie GoodwinAnd Wodehouse adds that Stout's great achievement in his Nero Wolfe novels was the creation of Archie Goodwin as narrator, with a voice unlike any other in American crime fiction.  Archie Goodwin's deceptively airy tone often masks a serious treatment of subjects from treason and anti-Semitism to, of course, murder.  It's Archie we want to read. It's Archie who describes Wolfe's eccentricities, his splendid repasts, his choleric outbursts, his obsessions with orchid-growing. Were these described in the third-person, we'd have an interesting, but perhaps somewhat two-dimensional character, an assemblage of tics. But from Archie's perspective, and through Stout’s prose, we have an unforgettable personage, a true original.

As Wodehouse wrote: “He brings excellent comedy into the type of narrative where comedy seldom bats better than .100.”

Consider this from the opening pages of And Be a Villain, a 1948 novel in which Wolfe (and Archie) solve the murder of someone who has been killed during the broadcast of a radio program:

And Be A Villain by Rex Stout

. . .I swiveled my chair to face Nero Wolfe, who was seated behind his desk to the right of mine reading a book of poems by a guy named Van Doren, Mark Van Doren. So I thought I might as well use a poetry word.

“It's bleak,” I said.

There was no sign that he heard.

“Bleak,” I repeated. “If it means what I think it does. Bleak!”

His eyes didn't lift from the page, but he murmured, “What's bleak?”

“Figures.”. . .

. . .Wolfe had put down the poetry and was scowling at the Form 1040, pretending he could add. . .

Stout's Archie is light of touch, but he's also setting the scene for a job—the two men need money to pay their taxes—and the novel's opening pages create a world any reader would want to live in. Millions have.

The Nero Wolfe Files edited by Marvin KayeCapturing wit in a narrative tone that balances easy erudition with street smarts, is difficult. Which may be why the Nero Wolfe novels haven't been adapted as much as they deserve to be, save for a short-lived (and pretty good) series on A&E in the early part of the millennium.

But we always have the books – close to 50, plus several dozen novellas and many short stories – many of which remain in print. Which says something in our age of short attention spans, of our fascination with serial-killer novels, of our mania for forensic thrillers. It's good to know there's still room for Rex Stout —and Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe—in the contemporary landscape of crime writing. Wolfe would have harrumphed, Archie Goodwin would have made a sarcastic comment or two, but Stout himself might have been pleasantly surprised.


Robert Hughes

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12 comments
Terrie Farley Moran
1. Terrie
And by telling the story through Archie's view, Rex Stout revamped the detective and sidekick theme. Exactly who is the detecive and who is the sidekick in the Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin relationship? Kind of rolls back and forth. doesn't it?
2. Leslie Elman
Rex Stout is my all-time favorite. Thanks for this post!
3. John Hornor Jacobs
I read somewhere that the duo of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin bridged the gap between the old-school genius sleuth - a la Sherlock Holmes - and the post-war dicks and gumshoes from the likes of Chandler and Hammett. Their partnership was a coming together of those two disparate stereotypes to form something new and completely American.

What a fantastic blog post. I'll be coming back for more.
4. Ron Scheer
Enjoyed this bio. Thanks. Picked up a double title at a Borders closeout and, after many years, am looking forward to getting reacquainted with Nero.
Dr. Lewis Preschel
5. TheMadMutt
I started reading Nero Wolfe mysteries in the mid-1960's and what struck me at the time, and I was a teenager, was that he captured the atmosphere of New York. He wafted the aroma of city in the 1930's and 40's to the reader. You walked those dark streets with Archie; you met people in places that could not longer exist except on the page, but surely they existed before. His story lines were great and the mystery plots worked, but he truly created a world that no longer existed and made it real to me.
Thanks for the great post. I think I have to go back and read some more Wolfe to remember what I forgot.
Megan Frampton
6. MFrampton
Oh, I never thought about the similarity between Stout and Wodehouse, two of my favorites! Thanks for that, and for more info on Stout's not-fiction writing activities. Who knew he was so brilliant beyond creating Nero and Archie?
7. Carol Hennessey
Thank you so much for such a well written, and inclusive summary of a remarkable writer and citizen. May I add this to the Rex Stout page on the Wolfe Pack web site, crediting you of course and with a link to your blog? The Wolfe Pack is the Rex Stout/Nero Wolfe literary society and our site is www.nerowolfe.org.

Regards, Carol
webmaster@nerowolfe.org
8. Ron Dylewski
Stout created a world that is so real and utterly functional, that each novel seemed like a continuing narrative in someone's journal. He also created "partners" who were both perfect and flawed at the same time; an unmarried married couple who taunted and kidded and cajoled one another with great love and compassion....
10. Detectives Beyond Borders
I was never entirely convinced by the suggestion that Stout combined the English eccentric-detective tradition with the American hard-boiled tradition. After reading this article, I'd say the Nero Wolfe stories were more an American commentary on the English tradition.
11. Secrets In Gold
Why did so many Nero Wolfe titles have the triplicate or three themes?
12. Detectives Beyond Borders
Almost two years later, I now find it easier to believe that Stout combined the two traditions. But I think that this interesting article is a bit short on giving Stout credit for his affinity with the hardboiled wisecracking tradition.
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Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com
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