April 27, 2023



Rex Stout began writing before Hammett, Chandler, and Gardner did. Between 1912 and 1917, he published more than thirty stories and four novels, most in pulp magazines. At age twenty-seven, Stout gave up writing to run a company that arranged for schoolchildren to set up savings accounts. The earnings from this business enabled him to move to Europe and launch a second writing career.

The first fruits of that effort put him among authors who were adapting modernist techniques for a wider readership. How Like a God (1929) was called "an extraordinarily brilliant and fascinating piece of work," and Seed on the Wind (1930) made "the Lawrence excursion into sexual psychology seem pale and artificial." Stout was compared favorably with Dostoevsky and Aldous Huxley. In a contemporary survey of the novel, a distinguished academic had no hesitation including Stout in the company of Woolf, Dos Passos, and Faulkner.

Stout mingled with the literati. He met G. K. Chesterton, Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Ford Madox Ford, and Joseph Conrad. He got fan letters from Havelock Ellis and Mrs. Bertrand Russell. Manhattan tastemakers Mark Van Doren, Christopher Morley, and Alexander Woollcott became close friends.

Yet soon Stout turned his back on experimentation. After the 1929 stock market crash, he needed to make money. [...]

Above all, Wolfe is committed to rationality--or at least as much as a detective in the intuitionist tradition can be. As a boy, Stout steeped himself in Doyle, Freeman, Collins, and other classics, and he admired Christie, Sayers, even Van Dine. He defended the orthodox detective story as a fairy tale "about man's best loved fairy": the belief in the power of reason to serve justice. Wolfe, who grunts and purses his lips and closes his eyes, avoids displays of emotion, especially from women. He is the detached, arrogant, grumpy genius.

Archie Goodwin, as Wolfe describes him in an appreciative mood, is "inquisitive, impetuous, alert, skeptical, pertinacious, and resourceful." He is good with weapons and his fists. He can bluff as well as Wolfe, but in an ingratiating, rapid-fire style. Although no less sensitive to money than Wolfe--he often has to goad his boss into taking a lucrative case--he has a streak of idealism and fair play, perhaps because he hasn't withdrawn from the world. He has pals, including the heiress Lily Rowan and other lady friends, and he enjoys parties.

The contrast between Wolfe and Archie has inclined some commentators to see Stout's accomplishment as a teaming of two prototypical protagonists: the puzzle-solving genius and the hard-boiled man of action. It's true in part, but in the blend both components are changed.

Traditionally the armchair detective commands center stage. The prototype, Baron Orczy's Old Man in the Corner, is both protagonist and narrator. Prompted by a young woman, he recounts his cases in embedded flashbacks. Stout took the armchair detective premise as a formal problem. "Like the restrictions a sonnet writer is held to, Wolfe's chosen way of life offers a challenge that is fun to meet." Stout's solution is to make the assistant participate fully in the action. Archie tells the story, and he is given plenty to do. In some books, Wolfe is offstage for many chapters.

Stout defended the use of a Watson as the best solution to the "purely technical problem" of fair play. The writer must present all the information needed to solve the mystery, but the significance of crucial clues must be played down. A narrating sidekick not only justifies suppressing the detective's thinking, but it provides creative options. "A Watson keeps the reader at the viewpoint where he belongs--close to the hero--supplies a foil for the hero's transcendence and infallibility, and makes the postponement of the revelation vastly less difficult. Also, if your imagination is up to the task of making the stooge a man instead of a dummy, he will be handy to have around in many other ways." Stout seized on the opportunities afforded by a restless, outgoing Watson who could contrast sharply with the great detective while complicating the plot and throwing his own mystifications into the mix. In effect, he turned the Poe-Doyle helper into a coequal protagonist.

Stout believed that what made Holmes attractive was not his reasoning power but his idiosyncrasies. He admired "the thousand shrewd touches in the portrait of the great detective... It is stroked in quite casually, without effort

or emphasis." Archie is by turns frustrated and amused by Wolfe, and his reactions go beyond John Watson's gentlemanly tolerance. Recorded in Archie's respectful mockery, Wolfe's eccentricities and tantrums become diverting. "What makes Wolfe palatable," Donald Westlake notes, "is that Archie finds him palatable."

Posted by at April 27, 2023 7:57 AM