Tuesday, June 26, 2012

F is for Fer-de-Lance

Rex Stout wrote 33 novels and 41 novellas about the private detective Nero Wolfe and his assistant, Archie Goodwin. The novellas are published in 14 books; each book has two, three or four novellas.  The books are narrated by Archie. The series began in 1934 and the last book in the series, A Family Affair, was published in 1975, shortly before Stout's death. Over the forty plus years this series was published, the protagonists did not age at all, but they were always placed within the context of the time that the book was written. 

I am featuring Fer-de-Lance, the first book in the series, in the Crime Fiction Alphabet for 2012.  Please visit the post at Mysteries in Paradise to check out other entries for the letter F.

I have read all of the mysteries that Rex Stout wrote, and I have read all of the books in the Nero Wolfe series multiple times. Obviously, I am a confirmed fan. Recently I read Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-fifth Street: The Life and Times of America's Largest Private Detective, a fictional biography of Rex Stout's detective character Nero Wolfe.

So much has been written about Rex Stout and the Nero Wolfe series. I will concentrate on what I like about this book in particular and his writing in general.

Archie is my all-time favorite fictional character. Jacques Barzun, in A Birthday Tribute to Rex Stout, says:
If he had done nothing more than to create Archie Goodwin, Rex Stout would deserve the gratitude of whatever assessors watch over the prosperity of American literature. For surely Archie is one of the folk heroes in which the modern American temper can see itself transfigured.
I consider Fer-de-Lance to be an example of the best of Rex Stout's plotting. His books have been criticized for poor plotting. I have never noticed that, but then I am usually paying more attention to the relationship between Wolfe and Archie and the clients are always interesting. I read the books more to join into the Wolfe household for a few hours than for the mystery.

Fer-de-Lance was not Wolfe's first book, but it was his first mystery. It amazes me that it was so well done. The story is complex and entertaining. From the beginning, he had the relationships of Wolfe and Archie developed. The other characters (the client, the acquaintances and relatives of the victim) are all well developed.

The books are full of great quotes, I will select just one from this book, a comment from Wolfe to Archie:
I understand the technique of eccentricity; it would be futile for a man to labor at establishing a reputation for oddity if he were ready at the slightest provocation to revert to normal action.

I like that the Nero Wolfe series is really about a family. Archie is Wolfe's employee, and he is definitely his own man. Wolfe is in his fifties; Archie is in his early thirties. They disagree on a lot. But both of them look out for each other and will go to great lengths to help when the other is in trouble.  Throughout the series, the same group of characters inhabit the brownstone on West Thirty-fifth Street: Wolfe and Archie; Fritz, the cook; Theodore Horstmann, the orchid expert (Wolfe has plant rooms on the top floor of the brownstone). All of them depend on Wolfe's talents as a detective to support the household. Archie is often the one who has to goad Wolfe into taking on a case.

There is also an established group of operatives that work with Archie and Wolfe when cases demand more manpower: Fred Durkin, Saul Panzer, Orrie Cather.  They each have their strengths and idiosyncrasies.  This is not true so much in Fer-de-Lance. But even at this point, Fred Durkin has been working with Wolfe long enough to ask him for a favor, and Fritz and Theodore's quirks are evident.

These are my favorite Nero Wolfe novels (other than Fer-de-Lance):
1938: Too Many Cooks
1939: Some Buried Caesar
1940: Over My Dead Body
1946: The Silent Speaker
1958: Champagne for One
1962: Gambit
1963: The Mother Hunt
1968: The Father Hunt
I also like the trilogy in the omnibus Triple Zeck, which includes And Be a Villain (1948), The Second Confession (1949) and In the Best Families (1950). These all feature Wolfe's dealings with the crime boss, Arnold Zeck.



8 comments:

  1. Nicely done post, Tracey! I like the different book covers of the one book. I have not read Nero Wolfe, only watched the old show that was on TV long ago. I will have to check some out at the library. I just subscribed by email to your blog!

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    1. Thanks, I collect vintage paperbacks (when I can afford them). I have copies of as many Rex Stout paperbacks as I can find.

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  2. I enjoyed reading Fer de Lance earlier this year and it was the first book by Rex Stout which I had read. His books aren't all that easy to find in bookshops here (near Edinburgh). I particularly like the character of Archie. I'm just about to subscribe too.

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    1. Hope that you can find more Rex Stout books. It really doesn't matter which order you read them, since there are so many. Except the last one. Thanks for subscribing.

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  3. Really enjoyed your post TracyK and I think you are spot-on abotu family, though Stout's vision is hardly a romanticised one. That quote by Barzun is a wonderful one. This is not my favourite Wolfe as I think later books are stronger in terms of the Wolfe-Goodwin dynamic (which is hardly surprising) though this is unfoubtedly a strong debut. Of the novella collections I would pick CURTAIN FOR THREE as my favourite and THE DOORBELL RANG has always struck me as being indispensible.

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    1. I was just commenting on your Ellery Queen post, and came here to find a comment from you. How nice.

      I like all the Nero Wolfe novels and novellas, although some are not as fun to reread when you know them by heart. Like The League of Frightened Men and The Rubber Band. I have favorite bits in both, but I have just read them too many times.

      I do like The Doorbell Rang too. I love reading about Archie and Wolfe set in different times and how Stout weaves in persons and news events of the time. Of course, I would have read that one close to when it was written. Two of my favorite novellas are the ones set in World War II, but he did not write much in that time period.

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  4. Thanks for this enjoyable post. Though I had heard a lot about Nero Wolfe, I read my first Stout only this year: The Mother Hunt. The plot was wafer-thin but the narrative voice of Archie had me in splits.

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  5. Tracy - What a terrific choice for F! I like the mechanics of how the murder in this novel is committed, and I agree with you that Archie Goodwin is a wonderful character. :-)

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