Stout, Rex (1886-1975)

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Stout, Rex (1886-1975)

U.S. detective-story writer Rex Stout is best remembered for having created the characters of eccentric crime-solver Nero Wolfe and his assistant Archie Goodwin, a memorable duo who appeared in more than 50 books over four decades beginning in the mid-1930s. Wolfe and Goodwin quickly endeared themselves to readers not only for their adeptness at solving crimes but for their trenchant comments on American life, war, big business, and politics. Nero Wolfe, the puffing, grunting, Montenegrin-born heavyweight gumshoe with a fondness for food and orchid-growing, made his appearance in 1934 with the publication of Fer de Lance. A steady stream of Nero Wolfe books followed, to the point where the character became more well-known than its creator. Often compared by literary critics to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Wolfe and Archie played complementary roles in Stout's fiction. Detective work for Wolfe was a business, and his clients were charged handsomely for his services, allowing the investigator to indulge his penchant for orchids and food. Goodwin, like Watson, is the legman, the hardboiled detective who satirically narrates the events in the story. He is dispatched to do all the detecting that Wolfe, the consummate detective, refuses to do. Wolfe is portrayed by his partner as partly human, partly godlike, with an arrogant intelligence, a gourmand's appetite, and an orchid grower extraordinaire. Goodwin treats clients, cops, women, and murderers with the same degree of wit and reality he applies to Wolfe. Singly they would be engaging but together they form a brilliant partnership that brought a new, humorous touch to detective fiction. Another character in the Nero Wolfe series, Inspector L. T. Cramer, NYPD, has been described by George Dove in his book, The Police Procedural (1992) as probably the most familiar policeman in classic detective fiction. Cramer's feelings toward Wolfe move from skepticism to open hostility to open admiration within the space of a single novel.

Rex Todhunter Stout was born in Noblesville, Indiana, in 1886, the sixth of nine children of John and Lucetta Todhunter Stout, who were Quakers. The family later moved to Kansas, where by the age of nine, Stout was a child prodigy, especially in mathematics. He attended the University of Kansas but did not complete a degree, leaving to enlist in the United States Navy, where he served as a yeoman on President Theodore Roosevelt's yacht. When he returned to civilian life in 1908 he began working as a bookkeeper, and devised a system of school banking that netted him a considerable fortune, making possible a trip to Paris and an opportunity to write. Among his early freelance articles was one in which he purported to analyze the palm prints he personally obtained from President William Howard Taft. Stout turned out three critically acclaimed novels before Fer de Lance that never attained the popularity he later achieved with his Nero Wolfe novels. In his private life Stout was outspoken, first against Nazism and then later against the use of nuclear weapons. In 1941, he served as emcee of the radio program "Speaking of Liberty" and, during World War II, he wrote propaganda and volunteered for the Fight for Freedom organization.

In Stout's Nero Wolfe series, the detective is portrayed as solving crimes from his brownstone on New York's 35th Street, adhering to a schedule regardless of murderers with guns, bombs in guest rooms, or clients with problems. In The League of Frightened Men (1935), Goodwin suggests that Wolfe step out into the street in front of the house to bring his powers to bear on a cabdriver there, an important witness. "Out?" Wolfe exclaims, looking at Goodwin in horror. When Goodwin explains that his employer would not even have to step off the curb, the unflappably cool Wolfe replies, "I don't know, Archie, why you persist in trying to badger me into frantic sorties." Wolfe did, however, leave the house upon occasion to attend orchid shows as in Some Buried Caesar (1938) or to be incarcerated in the local jail in A Family Affair (1973).

In Stout's novels, character and dialogue are more important than plot. Goodwin is portrayed as dashing around—even falling in love—while Wolfe is defined as a slightly comic but always impressive figure, even if only for his sheer bulk. Weighing a full seventh of a ton, the enormous Wolfe can cross his legs only with great difficulty whenever he finds a strong enough chair in which to seat himself. Goodwin takes great delight in his observation and recording of Wolfe's movements and habits, his glasses of beer, his tending of a collection of 10,000 orchids, or his method of entering a room. Stout himself summed up his career in this quotation: "You know goddam well why, of all kinds of stories, the detective story is the most popular. It supports, more than any other kind of story, man's favorite myth, that he's Homo sapien, the rational animal. And of course the poor son-of-a-bitch isn't a rational animal at all—I think the most important function of the brain is thinking up reasons for the decisions his emotions have made. Detective stories support that myth."

—Joan Gajadhar

Further Reading:

Dove, George. The Police Procedural. Bowling Green, Ohio, Bowling Green University Press, 1982.

Keating, H. R. F. Crime and Mystery, the 100 Best Books. New York, Carroll and Graf, 1987.

Stout, Rex. Fer de Lance. New York, Farrar and Rinehart, 1934.

——. The League of Frightened Men. New York, Farrar and Rinehart, 1935.

"Stout, Rex." In World Authors 1900-1950. New York, H. W.Wilson, 1996.

Symons, Julian. Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, a History. London, Faber and Faber, 1972.