July 30, 2016


Eccentricity and Domesticity: The World of the Nero Wolfe Mysteries (Benjamin Welton, 7/30/16, Imaginative Conservative)

The detective story seems predicated on action. Even the most leisurely or snobbish mystery novels contain some semblance of motion, and typically it is the primary detective who does most of the legwork. Of course, the level of sweat is based on who is writing the story. The British school of mystery writing, especially during its supposed "Golden Age" between the two world wars, places a greater emphasis on logic, deduction, and the puzzling nature of its central crime (which is almost always murder). The best examples of this style are any one of Dame Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple mysteries, plus for those interested in the subject, Dorothy L. Sayers and her insufferable aristocrat Lord Peter Wimsey offer up yet another view into the peculiar world of the "cozy" mystery.

As a reaction to this school of mystery writing, American authors working in the pulp market during this time developed a more brutal, less intellectual style of mystery writing. Later termed "hard-boiled," this school puts a premium on action and violence, not dazzling displays of mental gymnastics. The foremost masters in this line are the trinity of Dashiell Hammett (who had been a real-life private eye for the Pinkertons before taking up the typewriter), Raymond Chandler, and the often overlooked Ross Macdonald. For his part, Mr. Hammett, who first started publishing his hard-hitting Continental Op stories in the early 1920s,"took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it in the alley." These are the words of Raymond Chandler, who, in his 1944 essay "The Simple Art of Murder," took to task the "Golden Age" mystery and instead upheld the more realistic and deeply cynical "hard-boiled" novel. In the groundbreaking essay, Mr. Chandler holds special venom for two things: 1) A.A. Milne's novel The Red House Mystery, and 2) those American writers who wrote in the British vein. For the latter, Mr. Chandler concludes that American detective fiction is the "Junior Varsity" to its British seniors, and to make matters worse, the American detective novel about "pseudo-gentility" is far inferior to even to the most foppish British mystery.

Mr. Chandler's thoughts on Rex Stout are hard to come by, but then again the usually tetchy Mr. Chandler probably would have found things to loathe about Mr. Stout's Nero Wolfe mysteries. Beginning with 1934's Fer-de-Lance, Mr. Stout would go on to write an astonishing thirty-three novels between 1934 and 1975. That is quite the accomplishment, especially since Wolfe, the series's namesake, rarely leaves his brownstone apartment and has all the eccentricities of a "Golden Age" British detective. Built like a whale, Wolfe, a Montenegrin by birth but a naturalized American citizen, is a private detective with peculiar habits. First of all, as he says with trademark restraint in Before I Die, "I rarely leave my house. I do like it here." Wolfe, like Jacques Futurelle's little-known "Thinking Machine" Professor Augustus S.F.X. Van Dusen, is an all-consuming mind that almost never shows traces of being wrong or mislead. On top of that, Wolfe is also an all-consuming belly, and every single one of Mr. Stout's novels contain detailed examinations of Wolfe's fussy eating habits, from his preference for unopened beer bottles to his profound appreciation for shad roe.

While this may sound Proustian, Mr. Stout managed to keep his character from sounding too self-absorbed, despite his diva-esque dietary demands. Besides, as Criminal Element writer Robert Hughes points out, "It's Archie [Nero's airy and streetwise sidekick and the narrator of the series] we want to read." Wolfe is but one piece of a larger household. Besides Wolfe and Archie there is Fritz Brenner, Wolfe's Swiss butler and exceptional cook, and Theodore Horstmann, the sometimes volatile florist who helps Wolfe to maintain his vast collection of orchids. The wonderful dynamics of this household often overshadow the cases in each novel, and throughout the entire length of the series, Mr. Stout highlighted the wonderful nature of domestic life in a way akin to HergĂ©, the creator of the popular character Tintin. 

Posted by at July 30, 2016 8:53 AM