Rex Stout Essay - Stout, Rex

Stout, Rex

Stout, Rex 1886–

An American detective-story writer, Stout created the well-known detective Nero Wolfe.

The name of Rex Stout and the universe he created are familiar in some degree even to casual readers of mystery fiction. At the hub of this universe, behind his desk in the study of the old brownstone on West 35th Street between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues that serves as his office and home, sits an irascible, gargantuan genius of a consulting detective named Nero Wolfe—the only sleuth extant who cries out to be portrayed by Orson Welles. Wolfe is a lover of orchids, good books and good food, and keeps himself supplied therewith through the fees he earns by sweeping away murder problems from the doorsteps of the very rich. Inspector Cramer of the Homicide Squad grudgingly tolerates Wolfe's interferences because he has learned from bitter experience the efficacy of Wolfe's massive intellect against those statistically inevitable murderers who are beyond the power of official routine to unmask. Wolfe's campaigns are recorded in magnificently brash and breezy manner by private detective Archie Goodwin, at once Wolfe's Watson, his errand boy and his gadfly….

[Stout's shortcomings include his] herculean labors to keep from putting in his novels a plot that is adequate to book length; his incessant use of that laziest of denouement devices from the old Charlie Chan movies, the trap to make the murderer (whose identity is unknown to the detective) betray himself; and his refusal in almost all of his stories to "play fair" with his readers. But, just as the grievous defects in the Sherlock Holmes stories did not destroy our delight in the living universe Conan Doyle created, it is most probable that our great-grandchildren will find the world of Rex Stout and Nero Wolfe, despite its weak spots, almost equally enthralling.

Francis M. Nevins, Jr., in Journal of Popular Culture, Summer, 1969, pp. 170-72.

It looked at one time as though the work of Rex … Stout … might … represent a peak … in the creation of the most original and plausible Holmes-and-Watson pair. He began to write crime stories late in life, after the production of some interesting but commercially unsuccessful novels, and Fer-de-Lance (1934) introduced his puffing, grunting Montenegrin-born heavyweight detective Nero Wolfe, and Wolfe's tough, sometimes aggressive assistant Archie Goodwin. Stout may have begun with the intention of guying a little, in the gentlest way, the whole detective form. Wolfe sits in his oversize chair, unable to cross his legs because they are so fat, taking trips in the elevator up to his collection of ten thousand orchids in the plant room on the roof, and solving crimes without moving from the house. Goodwin, a barbarian man of action ("I do read books, but I never yet got any real satisfaction out of one"), is Wolfe's eyes and legs for anything that takes place outside the old brownstone on West Thirty-fifth Street.

Plotting was not Stout's strong suit, and Wolfe's solutions were sometimes arbitrary or instinctive, but in Fer-de-Lance, The League of Frightened Men (1935), and other early books, notably The Red Box (1937), the dialogue crackles, Archie dashes around and almost falls in love, and Wolfe is built up into a slightly comic but always impressive figure. But as time went on and the books piled up, Wolfe had sometimes to be taken away from home, and the problems involved in all series characters who appear in a lot of stories became evident. These are, of course, all the greater when the characters are built up from a few superficial attributes, like love of beer and orchids and a gourmet's appreciation of food. Slowly, slowly, the Wolfe stories have declined. The decline became steep after the end of the forties, which still contain some books very near to Stout's best work, like The Silent Speaker (1946) and The Second Confession (1949). Stout himself is the Grand Old Man of American crime fiction….

Julian Symons, in his Mortal Consequences: A History—From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel (copyright © 1972 by Julian Symons; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1972, pp. 123-24.

For many of Mr. Stout's more assiduous readers the interest by now centers in observing the details of life in the old brownstone quite as much as in the solution of the case, as with the Holmes-Watson ménage. Indeed, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin form the only household remotely comparable with 221B Baker Street, except possibly Emma Lathen's Sloan Guaranty Trust in a rather different way. Even the old brownstone itself has been almost as elusive as 221B. It seems to be back at 918 West Thirty-fifth, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, after varying over the years between 918, 506, 922, 914 and 948 and for a time moving over to between Tenth and Eleventh. If "that address held memories, most of them sour, for the personnel of Homicide West" (itself to change to Homicide South), what was the address?

As in nearly all of Archie Goodwin's accounts of Wolfe's cases, the puzzle and its solution [in Please Pass the Guilt] are impeccably fair, in the sense that the reader knows all that Archie does and can even make an informed guess at "the specific thing that was strikingly suggestive" to Wolfe, but not to the others. Bound as Wolfe is to his desk, his kitchen and his plant rooms, he nearly always works within a fairly narrow frame, even with Archie to do the legwork. This is the measure of Mr. Stout's ingenuity; Wolfe solves cases by reasoning and deduction rather purer than Sherlock Holmes's; though he has on occasion fabricated the conclusive piece of evidence, Inspector Cramer has seldom caught him at it.

Frank Jellinek, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 11, 1973, p. 7.