David Bordwell's website on cinema   click for CV




Perplexing Plots: Popular Storytelling and the Poetics of Murder

On the History of Film Style pdf online

Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling

Film Art: An Introduction

Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages pdf online

Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies pdf online

Planet Hong Kong, second edition pdf online

The Way Hollywood Tells It pdf online

Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Figures Traced In Light

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907–1934 pdf online


Hou Hsiao-hsien: A new video lecture!

CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses

How Motion Pictures Became the Movies

Constructive editing in Pickpocket: A video essay


Rex Stout: Logomachizing

Lessons with Bazin: Six Paths to a Poetics

A Celestial Cinémathèque? or, Film Archives and Me: A Semi-Personal History

Shklovsky and His “Monument to a Scientific Error”

Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense

The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

Doing Film History

The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

Anatomy of the Action Picture

Hearing Voices

Preface, Croatian edition, On the History of Film Style

Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything

Film and the Historical Return

Studying Cinema


Book Reports

Rex Stout: Logomachizing

June 2020

Once I lived in humble hovels
And wrote a few legitimate novels.
Now, tiring of the pangs of hunger,
I ply the trade of mystery monger.

Murder, mayhem, gun and knife,
Violent death, my staff of life!

I wrote, through eating not bewhiles,
Of fate profound and secret trials.
Now—calmed the empty belly’s fury.
I write of guilt and trial by jury.

Suspense, excitement, thrills, suspicion,
Sources of excellent nutrition!

I took men’s souls on bitter cruises,
Explored the heart and necked the Muses.
But now to me I say: poor critter,
Be fed, and let who will be bitter.

Clues, deductions right and wrong,
O Mystery! Of thee I mong!

Rex Stout, “Apologia Pro Vita Sua”


Today Rex Stout isn’t as well-known as he once was. Do young folks read his books, or watch the TV shows based on them? For me, in the early 1960s the adventures of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin provided one model of grownup behavior—part of the vista revealed by the Adolescent Window.

For decades since then, I’ve returned to Stout’s books at intervals; as the fans say, they’re exceptionally rereadable. Now, while working on a book on popular narrative in fiction and film, with an emphasis on crime and mystery storytelling, I thought it was time to dig in more analytically.

The result has turned out to be far longer than it can be as a chapter in the book. So I post it here as a kind of homage—but also as an argument for the artistic accomplishment of a writer who has given me a lifetime of pleasure.

Stout had an exceptionally long career. He was born in 1886 in Noblesville, Indiana, to a politically liberal Quaker family. Rex was a child prodigy, a whiz at spelling and mathematics. He decided college had nothing to offer him, and after bouncing around (usher, bookkeeper, Navy yeoman, etc.) he settled in New York City to try to write. Between 1912 and 1917 he published over thirty stories and four novels, mostly in pulp magazines. At age twenty-seven he gave up writing to run a company that arranged for school children to set up savings accounts. The earnings from this business enabled him to move to Europe and launch a second writing career.

That career began in the auspicious year of 1929. His first novel, How Like a God, appeared in the same fall season as Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, and Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel.  It was also a splendid year for crime: Hammett’s Red Harvest and The Dain Curse were published in book form, along with Ellery Queen’s Roman Hat Mystery, S. S. Van Dine’s Scarab Murder Case, Anthony Berkeley’s Poisoned Chocolates Case, and W. R. Burnett’s Little Caesar. The connection isn’t just a matter of timing. Stout’s novel, for all its literary ambition, is based on a suspense situation: the central action consists of a man climbing a staircase to commit a murder, while his story is told in flashbacks.

How Like a God put Stout among authors who were adapting experimental techniques for a wider readership—a sort of moderate or middlebrow modernism. How Like a God was called “an extraordinarily brilliant and fascinating piece of work.”endnote1 His next novel, Seed on the Wind (1930) was also formally daring, telling its story in reverse order. It made “the Lawrence excursion into sexual psychology seem pale and artificial.”endnote2 Stout was compared favorably with Dostoevsky and Aldous Huxley.endnote3 In a contemporary essay surveying the modern novel, a distinguished academic had no hesitation including Stout in the company of Woolf, Dos Passos, and Faulkner.endnote4

Accordingly, 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 like Mark Van Doren, Christopher Morley, and Alexander Woollcott became close friends.endnote5

Yet soon Stout turned his back on experimentation. After the 1929 stock market crash he needed to make money. How Like a God and Seed on the Wind, published by a firm he helped found, sold poorly. His next efforts were less formally adventurous but continued in a vein of erotic provocation. Golden Remedy (1931) traces the sexual frustrations of a philandering concert impresario. In Forest Fire (1933) a park ranger confronts his homosexual impulses when a college student joins his unit. Both books garnered mixed reviews and few sales.

Over the years Stout provided variants of the same explanation for his move to mainstream genres. He took to heart the Collins Test, the distinction between art and entertainment.

These four novels had demonstrated to my satisfaction two things, first—that I was a good storyteller, and second—that I would never be a great novelist. I’d never be a Tolstoy, or a Dickens, or a Balzac…. I might write another dozen or even two dozen novels and they would all get pretty good reception but, two things, they wouldn’t make any large amount of money and they wouldn’t establish me in the first rank of writers. So since that wasn’t going to happen, to hell with sweating our another twenty novels when I’d have a lot of fun telling stories which I could do well and make some money on it.endnote6

His confession echoes a comment of several reviewers who found that his first two books, though technically a bit gimmicky, still managed to tell gripping stories.endnote7 More than one compared their effect to the suspense generated by detective fiction.endnote8

Always a fast worker, Stout tried his hand at a political thriller (The President Vanishes, 1934), two comic romances, and detective novels.

There was no thought of “compromise.” I was satisfied that I was a good storyteller; I enjoyed the special plotting problems of detective stories; and I felt that whatever comments I might want to make about people and their handling of life could be made in detective stories as well as in any other kind.endnote9

Fer-de-Lance (1934) launched a series centered on Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, and after 1940, Stout would concentrate wholly on them. Their adventures, chronicled sequentially in thirty-three novels and forty short stories and novellas, ended in A Family Affair (1975), published shortly before Stout’s death.endnote10

Stout was a prominent figure in American political culture.. A founder of the left-wing New Masses magazine, he left when it was taken over by Stalinists. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he mocked Nazi-friendly Congressmen in a book called The Illustrious Dunderheads. He mobilized writers for the war effort, while also fighting publishers to increase writers’ rewards from their work. After the war Stout championed the idea of world government, and he railed against what we’d now call the surveillance state. His biggest-selling Wolfe novel, The Doorbell Rang (1965), attacked the political machinations of the FBI. As an anticommunist liberal he initially supported the war in Vietnam, but he came to despise Nixon as a major threat to democracy. Today he would excoriate Trump.

Many mystery novelists of the 1920s and 1930s tried out modernist techniques, and we might have expected Stout’s exercises in detective fiction to show off his avant-garde ambitions. Instead, coming off some more linear and “straight” novels, Stout did something, in its way, more radical. He carried a central convention of the detective story to a new, almost obsessive limit; he made it newly ingratiating; and in the process he revealed some subtler ways to adapt modernist attitudes to language and narrative to a mass-market genre.

The technique of eccentricity

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.endnote11

Nero Wolfe

How to fill out a novel’s full expanse? Especially one in a genre with rigid structural conventions? The classic puzzle plot, ideal for a short story, had to stretch itself to book length by means of subsidiary mysteries, more deaths, false solutions, some love interest, and the genius’s disquisitions. Hard-boiled authors might interweave crimes perpetuated by different malefactors (Hammett), pad out descriptions and atmosphere (Chandler), multiply parallels and kinship ties (Macdonald), and sprinkle interrogations across acres of white space (Gardner). Stout had recourse to some of these strategies as well. But coming from “straight” literature, he knew other ways to flesh out the mystery format while still respecting the core conventions.

Stout’s solution to the problem of scale fulfilled a precept Wolfe passed along to Archie: “There is no moment in any man’s life too empty to be dramatized.”endnote12 Spoken like a true Jamesian (“Dramatize, dramatize!”) and Joycean (Stout thought the Bloomsday chronicle the best novel of modern times). His aim, I think, was to compose a thoroughly conventional detective novel that also provided a character study, created a unique world, spun a yarn in a comic register, and invited us into an adventure in language.

Start with character. Nero Wolfe, weighing in at one-seventh of a ton, lives in a well-appointed brownstone on Thirty-Fifth Street. There he breeds orchids, reads, drinks vast quantities of beer, and dines on meals of rare delicacy. To support his lifestyle he works as a private investigator. But he is the ultimate armchair detective. His central rule of behavior, and the formal premise that founds the series, is that he leaves his home only under extreme necessity.

Wolfe’s self-imposed isolation obliges him to employ an assistant, Archie Goodwin, who works as his secretary, making appointments, typing correspondence, and keeping plant records. Archie also acts an investigator and go-between. Hee fetches clients, witnesses, and suspects to meetings. Slender and strong, reasonably handsome, Archie is attractive to and attracted by women of many ages.endnote13

Wolfe is arrogant, lazy, oracular, and imperious. Of Montenegrin origin, he speaks at least six languages and reads voraciously. He is no altruist. He is driven by his need for money and his vaunting self-esteem, although he will also act out of a sense of obligation. His skills in intimidation, evasion, and bluff are considerable. Politically liberal, he has little faith in humans to achieve much collectively.

Above all, he 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, R. Austin Freeman, Wilkie Collins, and other classics, and he admired Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and 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.endnote14

Grunting, pursing his lips, and closing his eyes, Wolfe avoids displays of emotion and recoils from them in others, especially women. His aplomb is that of the detached genius, the “transcendent detective” of classic whodunits. He combines the condescension of Holmes, the cosmopolitan experience of Wimsey, and the gourmet tastes of Philo Vance, with a dash of the fin-de-siècle aesthete: in the early books he claims to be as much an artist as a thinker.

Archie Goodwin, as Wolfe describes him in an appreciative mood, is “inquisitive, impetuous, alert, skeptical, pertinacious, and resourceful.”endnote15 He is good with weapons and his fists. He can bluff as well as Wolfe, but in an ingratiating, rapid-fire style. While 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 partly because he hasn’t withdrawn from the world. He has lady friends, chiefly the heiress Lily Rowan, 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 partly true, 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, the Old Man recounts his cases in embedded flashbacks. Stout by contrast took the Armchair 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.”endnote16 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.endnote17 The writer must present all the information needed to solve the mystery, but the significance of crucial clues must be played down. Systematically surveying viewpoint options, Stout concludes that if we’re attached to the detective’s range of knowledge, suppressing his or her inferences is an obvious cheat. Stout was unwilling to accept the viewpoint shift that Sayers found natural in Trent’s Last Case, although he praised Sayers and Hammett for the way their third-person tales skillfully suppressed the detective’s reasoning.endnote18

His preference was clear. 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.endnote19

Stout seized on the opportunities afforded by an energetic, 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 stooge 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.”endnote20 Accordingly, Archie is by turns frustrated and amused by Wolfe’s endless eccentricities, and his reactions go beyond John Watson’s amiable tolerance. Recorded in Archie’s blend of casual mockery, Wolfe’s idiosyncrasies and tantrums become diverting, even endearing. “What makes Wolfe palatable,” Donald Westlake notes, “is that Archie finds him palatable.”endnote21

The Great Detective tradition had celebrated one sort of intelligence. Apart from Father Brown and a few others, the genius was purportedly a master of ratiocination, the wizard of little grey cells. Actually, as Leroy Lad Panek has convincingly shown, the brainy detective relies a lot on intuition.endnote22 In any case, Archie has a different endowment, what we’ve come to call social intelligence. Wolfe threatens, but Archie persuades, wheedles, fibs, flatters, cajoles.  Both are suave, but each in his own way, and neither could do the other’s job.

The hardboiled detective tends to be wary, weary, and withdrawn, but Archie the extravert is socially adroit. He’s closer to the fast-talking newshound or salesman of 1930s movie comedies. And he has a more flexible conception of masculinity than what we find in most hardboiled heroes. He doesn’t manhandle women or bully weak men. He can punch, but he prefers shock tactics, yanking a man out of a chair by his ankles, or dragging another man down a hallway on his back. He loves to dance in nightclubs and usually prefers milk to whisky. He almost never gets whacked unconscious. On the one occasion he is given knockout drugs, he wakes up weeping and takes a plausible stretch of time to recover.endnote23 Then there’s his name: Who calls a tough guy Archie? And Good-win, at that?

Stout admired Hammett enormously, ranking him above Hemingway, but had little patience with the “sex-and-gin marathon” on display in postwar noir novels.endnote24 In 1950 Stout even parodies the Chandler mode by having Archie impersonate a hardboiled dick. He squeezes a target with phrases like “first-hand dope,” “a nice juicy price,” “a fine goddamn mess,” and references to “bitching up” a plan before he declares, in the noble Marlowe manner: “I have my weak spots, and one of them is my professional pride…. That’s a fine goddamn mess for a good detective, and I was thinking I was one.”endnote25 Archie never normally talks like this.

Archie’s social intelligence makes him shrewd at reading people’s behavior, and Wolfe relies on him for reporting everything he notices. He’s also adept at clue-spotting. Above all, Archie has a roguish skepticism about mystery-mongering. He backs away from the conventions of his trade, veering into the mock-heroic when he asserts that as a detective he is trained to notice shapely figures. With a straight face he reports: “As an example of superior snooping, it was a perfect performance.”endnote26 He often flatters us when, just before a story’s denouement, he concedes that the reader probably solved the mystery before he did. His ingenuousness is both charming and cunning.

Friday morning, having nothing else to do, I solved the case. I did it with cold logic. Everything fitted perfectly, and all I needed was enough evidence for a jury. Presumably that was what Saul Panzer was getting. I do not intend to put it all down here, the way I worked it out, because first it would take three full pages, and second I was wrong.endnote27

Archie invokes the convention of the false solution, parodies the need to hide the sleuth’s reasoning, expresses solicitude for the reader’s time, and turns the whole exercise into a modest admission of error. Deflate yourself, and you become even more likable.

Because Archie sees Wolfe through grudgingly admiring eyes, Stout can make their ongoing relations, long-term and short, part of the plot. This is another way to “dramatize every moment.” Stout turns the Watson/Holmes interplay into a battle of wits—not just a race to the crime’s solution but a daily game of two men pushing against one another. Archie prods the lazy Wolfe to take cases, quarrels with him about tactics, teases him about his habits, and threatens to quit. (Archie claims to have resigned or been fired dozens of times.).

The petty friction of different temperaments working and living together makes every moment fraught with interest. Both men bicker ingeniously. “You know me, I’m a man of action.” “And I, of course, am supersedentary.” When Archie pushes too far, Wolfe will interrupt: “Shut up.” Archie, though always sensitive to cash flow, is more of an idealist, willing to take a case on principle. “I don’t have to rob corpses to eat and neither do you.” They go through periods of sullen silence, usually broken by the need to cooperate on a case.

Part of the problem is that Wolfe can seem deficit in human feeling. He will invest more emotion in correcting a word choice than in registering a death. When a blunder gives Archie bitter indignation, Wolfe feels humiliated. After Wolfe’s daughter dies, Archie reports: “’She’s dead,’ he said glumly. It always irritated him if I talked like that.” Not that Archie is a wailer. Learning of the death of Wolfe’s oldest friend, Archie starts to tell Wolfe, “but I had to stop to clear my throat.” Both are stoic, but Archie is less jaundiced.

 The men will change over the years, but from the start the interpersonal stratagems allow for a fundamental respect and affection. Wolfe admits: “I could do nothing without him” and Archie, while handing an arch-villain a line of patter, seems perfectly sincere in one claim: “He’ll always be my favorite fatty.”endnote28 More than once Wolfe propels himself out of the house to save his legman. After Archie’s boast about being a man of action, Wolfe reveals that the unconscious Archie rode home in a cab with his head in Wolfe’s lap.endnote29

Wolfe’s idiosyncrasies, Archie’s comparative normality and streak of insubordination, and the first-person narration all bias us toward Archie. Yet Stout balances the scales. Archie at times shows a streak of ethnic prejudice. Early in Too Many Cooks, Archie casually calls the black serving men “smokes.” But Stout is careful to differentiate his white characters by their terms for the servants: “Negroes,” “colored,” “boys,” and, from the most aggressively racist police officials, “niggers.” On this continuum, Wolfe becomes a model. His questioning of the staff shows his knowledge of and respect for African-American culture. After that marathon, and more encounters with racist officers, Archie uses no more epithets, in either conversation or narration. He settles on calling the staff “greenjackets” because of their livery. Such minor-key signals of his changed attitude will become important in the postwar stories.

The handling of racial identity is one extreme example in the ceaseless stream of contrasts that fill out the books. Archie’s impudence versus Wolfe’s stolidity, Archie’s flood of words versus Wolfe’s grunts and lapidary pronouncements, Archie crossing his legs and lifting his eyebrow and Wolfe closing his eyes and wiggling a finger and both of them turning over a hand: every instant is endowed with particularity.

Literary analogies spring to mind: Quixote and Sancho Panza, the phlegmatic and sanguine characters of the Comedy of Humours. Whatever we settle on, it seems evident we are on archetypal terrain. Poirot and Wimsey and Miss Marple are agreeable enough, but they aren’t incessantly, overwhelmingly lively. Archie and Wolfe are. “It is impossible,” wrote cultural historian and Columbia professor Jacques Barzun, “to say which is the more interesting and admirable of the two.”endnote30 Continuing characters in a series, as Holmes and Watson proved, can hold an audience for generations. In turning to the detective story, Stout brought literary craftsmanship to the task of elaborating the Armchair convention and the Holmes/Watson partnership. Abandoning Serious Literature, he scored a coup any author would envy. He created legends.

Endless delicious minutiae

The explosion of book and magazine publishing at the turn of the twentieth century encouraged writers to pursue what today we’ve come to call world-building. Treasure Island (1883) and other adventure tales, children’s stories like Alice in Wonderland (1865), and science fiction like The Time Machine (1895) introduced readers to richly furnished imaginary lands.

Unlike the utopias and exotic realms of earlier fictions, these “New Romances” were rendered in novelistic detail.endnote31 Illustrations, stage versions, and the new medium of cinema made alternative worlds even more palpable. Carrying over a character from book to book had an obvious marketing advantage, but adding a unique terra incognita opened up still more possibilities. A series of books set in a proprietary neverland could sustain an entire writing career, as L. Frank Baum proved with his Oz franchise.

World-building showed up in some prestige literature as well. Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919) and Sinclair Lewis’s Zenith novels painstakingly portrayed fictitious American towns. Woolf’s Orlando (1928) was more fanciful, as was James Branch Cabell’s eighteen volumes of tales set in the French town of “Poictesme.” The most ambitious effort at modernist world-building was Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha county, chronicled for thirty years from Sartoris (1929) to The Reivers (1962).

Before Stout, no major writer of detective fiction had tried for such thickly populated milieus. Poirot had sidekicks but scarcely a domicile. The apartment of Ellery Queen and his father was minimal and standardized. Even more sparsely furnished was Perry Mason’s office, and his retinue was a skeleton crew.endnote32 Philo Vance treated his flat as a gallery of fine art, but did not have a circle of intimates. Lord Peter Wimsey lived a more fully described life, with both a circle of intimates and a detailed biography, provided by Sayers in a privately printed pamphlet. Unusually for a series detective, Wimsey also aged across decades in a more or less chronological sequence of cases.endnote33

Sayers’ ambition to fill the Wimsey canvas was doubtlessly indebted to the biggest name of them all. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle contributed to the New Romance trend with his Professor Challenger series, launched in The Lost World (1912), but his major literary creation showcased the world-building impulse in less fantastic surroundings. The Sherlock Holmes adventures settled the great detective and his roommate John Watson in a cozy bachelor redoubt rendered with loving exactitude, from the V.R. bullet-holes on the wall to the strong shag tobacco kept in the Persian slipper.

Stout was no stranger to the New Romance conventions. One of his pulp novels, Under the Andes (1914), a “lost race” story of an underground Inca population, came out of H. Rider Haggard. But we see Stout’s world-building at its most pervasive in his application of the Doyle template of a domestic space whose routines and furnishings could be rendered in refined detail.

The last Holmes story was published in 1927, and Doyle died in 1930. By then an ardent fandom had sprung up among the Manhattan literary elite.endnote34 Entire books treated Holmes and Watson as actual figures, culminating in Vincent Starrett’s Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, released just as Stout was beginning to write Fer-de-Lance. In his influential introduction to the first two-volume collection of all the stories, Christopher Morley waxed eloquent about the “minor details of Holmesiana” and the “endless delicious minutiae to consider!”endnote35 The sitting room where clients called, Holmes stretched languidly on the sofa while he scraped the violin, breakfasts on winter mornings, “The game is afoot!”—each scrap of information was to be caressed and cherished. Morley founded the Baker Street Irregulars as an informal dining group. In 1934, the year Fer-de-Lance was published, Morley invited Stout to join the now habitually meeting Irregulars.

Stout’s sardonic streak made him resist the cult’s ponderous coyness. “The pretense that Holmes and Watson existed and Doyle was merely a literary agent can be fun and often is, but it is often abused and becomes silly.”endnote36 Stout famously shocked an Irregulars dinner in 1941 with a remorseless paper asserting that Watson was a woman, probably the wife of Holmes and the mother of Lord Peter.endnote37 With friendly humor he called the hagiographical speculations of a Holmes biography “un-canonical and un-Conanical.”endnote38 He was bemused by the efforts of the Wolfe Pack, a coterie of admirers who wanted to immortalize his creation through devoted pseudo-scholarship.

But who can blame them? All the trappings were there. This cantankerous genius had a Watson. Said Watson tantalized us with references to unrecorded cases which, though perhaps not as evocative as the mention of the Giant Rat of Sumatra, still harbored Doyle’s glint of pawky humor: Wolfe, Archie tells us, “sweated the Diplomacy Club business out of Nyura Pronn.”endnote39 This Watson eventually confessed that the cases (“reports”) were being published thanks to the ministrations of a literary agent named Rex Stout. Some characters had even read the books.

References to Archie’s Ohio childhood, Wolfe’s espionage work and family roots in Montenegro, discovery of an estranged Wolfe daughter, a gradual excavation of the past of restauranteur Marko Vukcic: such sporadic revelations coaxed the faithful to ever more patient rereading, ever wilder speculation. What today’s fans call head-canon proliferated. Is Wolfe Mycroft Holmes’ son? Or even Sherlock’s with Irene Adler? Is Archie Wolfe’s son? Or just his cousin? It was inevitable that the foremost Holmes expert, W. S. Baring-Gould, would turn out a treatise on the Wolfe ménage.endnote40 After Stout’s death Archie would purportedly sign a book correcting the Baring-Gould version and assuring us that everyone was living happily ever after.endnote41 An alternative history was broached in an interview with an aging Archie, who gave Wolfe a heroic final case.endnote42

All this happened because, more than any other writer of the time, Stout carried detectival eccentricity down to obsessive-compulsive granularity. The brownstone on West 35th Street, however recognizably part of Manhattan, became an alternative world, ruled by patterns and behaviors capable of endless fine-tuning.

Pages are packed with the arcana of routine. Six days a week at 8:00 A.M., the chef Fritz Brenner delivers Wolfe’s breakfast to his bedroom. At nine Wolfe goes to the rooftop plant rooms for a two-hour session with his orchids and Theodore Horstmann. He descends to his office in an elevator, strides to his desk, and starts his business day. Beer is brought. Checks are signed. Every letter is answered. Archie, who has dusted and tidied up already, reports, or prods, or reads the paper. Lunch comes at 1:15, followed by more office hours.

At four Wolfe returns to his orchids until six. Dinner is around 7:15, and business is never discussed. The evening consists of reading, client meetings, or small intervals of radio or television. Archie may go out on a date, or to a poker game. Wolfe retires late, as does Archie. On Sunday Archie might shoot billiards in the basement while Wolfe watches; otherwise Wolfe visits his plants, reads books and newspapers, and shares a kitchen snack with Archie in the evening. Nobody goes to church.

In the last book of the series, after his most traumatic case, Wolfe contemplates ten days of peace. What will he do? “Loaf, drift…. Read books, drink beer, discuss food with Fritz, logomachize with Archie.”endnote43 This is a world that tries to keep anything new from happening.endnote44

Stout led no less organized a life than his characters. In 1932 he designed and built a modernistic house straddling the New York and Connecticut border. When he was not growing giant pumpkins, provoking political controversies, and teaching crows to talk, he punctually turned out a novel and two or three novelettes every year. These handcrafted stories, written without outlines and never revised after first draft, were sent in immaculate copy to the publisher. No piece consumed more than sixty working days. Erle Stanley Gardner, churning out over a million words a year, called himself the Fiction Factory. Stout was a Fiction Atelier.

The geography of the brownstone is as sharply etched as its routines. There is the greenhouse, where Theodore sleeps, and the basement, where Fritz has his apartment. The main floor consists of hall, front room, kitchen, toilet, dining room, and office. Upstairs is Wolfe’s bedroom, very large and striking, with its yellow telephone and black silk coverlet. In Archie’s homier quarters we find three chairs (who ever visits?), a tile-top table, a photo of his parents, and an African violet on the windowsill. Both the second and third floor contain guest rooms. In a back garden Fritz grows tarragon and chives.

As the years go by, we learn more and more. Seven front steps lead to the door, which has a one-way glass and a chain bolt. Pressing the button activates a doorbell, which replaced the buzzer of the first book. The best chair in the office is red, with a small table positioned at a client’s elbow for easy check-signing. At one end of the office is a big globe (first two feet, then three feet in diameter) that Wolfe likes to gently spin. On his desk is a thin gold strip that he uses as a bookmark. One drawer is reserved for the beer-bottle caps Wolfe occasionally counts. There’s a safe, a cabinet for files, and built-in bookshelves holding hundreds of volumes. A painting conceals a peephole. Eventually the office and front room become soundproofed.

We could specify forever. The chain bolt is two inches long, the painting depicts a waterfall, the study has eight light fixtures. A bar cart draped with a yellow linen tablecloth is wheeled out to serve visitors. The office floor is covered with an ever-changing rug, Persian or Armenian. Under Archie’s bed is a gong wired to go off if Wolfe’s room is approached. The orchids bloom in three rooms (moderate, tropical, and cool), with a potting room at the end.endnote45

Stout’s casually stroked-in details pay homage to the master. Morley called the Holmes stories “this great encyclopedia of romance,” but another detective novelist, Edmund Crispin, pointed out that the Wolfe digs are “so encyclopedic and thoroughgoing that the Holmes-Watson ménage on Baker Street, in comparison, is reduced to the sketchiest of shadow-shows.”endnote46

Revising the conventions

A richly furnished milieu to match the regimen of routines: these self-imposed limits carry echoes of High Modernist severity of space and time (Ulysses, Mrs. Dalloway) and their middlebrow counterparts (Twenty-Four Hours, Dangerous Corner). But the constraints also allow Stout to quicken every moment “in any man’s life.” Habits and habitat are dramatized through details. Apart from characterizing his Holmes and Watson in full array, Stout uses world-making to fill out the novel’s length. In the process, he can enliven central conventions of the classic puzzle mystery.

For instance, the Armchair premise motivates not only Archie’s excursions but the need to hire other operatives who become fixtures of Wolfe’s World. Saul Panzer the unassuming but exceptional free-lance, is flanked by sturdy Fred Durkin and overconfident Orrie Cather and a couple of other sides of beef, along with Dol Bonner of the caramel eyes. These operatives become helpers, occasional obstacles, and Archie’s comrades in arms. They allow Stout to keep offstage all the boring Q & A, all the tailing and stakeouts and alibi-checking that fill up the more plodding hardboiled books and police procedurals. As needed, a helper can be promoted to client (as Orrie is in Death of a Doxy) or conspirator (as in The Doorbell Rang). Outsourcing the humdrum tasks of detection, Archie and Wolfe can concentrate on confronting the key suspects, bantering with one another, and occasionally discovering a corpse.

Similarly, Wolfe’s willful immobility recasts the convention of the bumbling police. Archie can be summoned to headquarters and even jailed as a material witness, but Wolfe can usually avoid that fate. The cops must come calling. Wolfe can subject Inspector Cramer and Sergeant Purley Stebbins to his schedule and, when he finally grants them an audience, intimidate, bargain, and dodge accusations in comfort.       

Once more the filigree detail flows in. Archie will watch amusedly from his desk, swiveling to take notes or do some typing. (“I made a note to grin when I got the time.”endnote47) Cramer must sit fuming in the big red chair and sooner or later he will fling his unlit cigar at Archie’s wastebasket (and will miss). One thing that makes the novels endlessly rereadable, as the fans attest, is looking forward to these rituals, and enjoying how Archie renders them this time. Will Cramer call him Archie or just Goodwin? Will he let Archie take his coat in the hall? Will Archie describe the reddening of Cramer’s face, or his teeth clenching his cigar, or where he situates his fanny on the chair?

The personal habits of the Great Detective have always helped flesh out the standard plot and build fan loyalty. In 1941, in one of the milestones of critical writing in the genre, Howard Haycraft warned the would-be author that readers want to know everything about our heroes, including what they eat for breakfast—“though we mustn’t be told too often.”endnote48

He likely had Stout in mind. Stout delineates every exotic dish served at Wolfe’s table, every sandwich Archie gobbles in custody, even Cramer’s stomach-turning snack of salami and buttermilk. Groceries, brought home by Fritz or picked up in flight from the police, are lovingly itemized. The Continental Op briefly notes his abalone soup and minute steak, but Archie dwells on his dining options.

I had had it in mind to drop in at Rusterman’s Restaurant for dinner and say hello to Marko that evening, but now I didn’t feel like sitting through all the motions, so I kept going to Eleventh Avenue, to Mart’s Diner, and perched on a stool while I cleaned up a plate of beef stew, three ripe tomatoes sliced by me, and two pieces of blueberry pie.endnote49

No moment too empty to be dramatized: Archie invokes another Wolfe domain, Rusterman’s, only to head to the diner counter and indulge the Ohio boy’s fondness for comfort food. The “sliced by me,” reiterating Archie’s impulse to act, is a touch nobody but Stout would include.

Building this unique world obliges Stout to alter the role of detecting as a profession. Wolfe runs a business, and he does it better than almost any of his fictional counterparts. As the boss (which Archie is never allowed to call him), Wolfe adheres to the hours he has fitted into his schedule. He scrupulously answers correspondence, with Archie taking dictation in his own bespoke shorthand. Archie the legman is also the firm’s bookkeeper, and he constantly reports income, losses, and terms of payment.

Philip Marlowe accepts what business he can scrape up, while Perry Mason can afford to take indigent clients, even a caretaker’s cat. Wolfe and Archie rely on high-end customers. After all, as Archie confides in 1950, maintaining the household costs $10,000 per month, and Wolfe must pay top income-tax rates. Fees of $50,000 aren’t unusual, and in 1965 one retainer comes to twice that. True, some cases yield no payment, and Archie may nudge Wolfe to take on small-dollar business on principle. But then, if only to save face, Wolfe will declare that his self-esteem, or the need to evade jail, overrides the loss of income.

Wolfe’s fee structure means that the clientele comes mostly from the plutocracy and the professions—lawyers, professors, media producers, company executives, and a surprising number of writers and publishers. The hardboiled dicks like to expose affiliations between the upper crust and organized crime, but Wolfe and Archie seldom do. (Only the master adversary Zeck runs a racket, and even he operates chiefly as a CEO.) Wolfe deals with crime in the suites, not the streets. Typically a financial or personal problem leads to a murder, and Wolfe and Archie are obliged to solve the crime in order to collect payment for the original assignment. In one book Wolfe calls this “effecting a merger.”endnote50

More than most detectives, Wolfe takes on clients in teams. He may be retained by a committee delegated to manage a crisis, or representatives of a firm or professional association, or a family of heirs, or a band of old college classmates. Accordingly, the question-and-answer scenes of the classic mystery get recast as business meetings, or what Archie sometimes calls conferences. Wolfe summons a group of people with stakes in the matter, and the result shows how Stout manages to dramatize the quizzing that is the mainstay of the classic puzzle. The open-ended quality of these sessions made Jacques Barzun call it Wolfe’s seminar method.endnote51

“I doubt I’ll have a single question to put to any of you, though of course an occasion for one may rise. I merely want to describe the situation as it now stands and invite your comment. You may have none.”endnote52

Refreshments are served—more detailing of beverages and preferences—and participants are free to examine Wolfe’s library and furniture. Chandler, who had been an oil-company executive, confessed he had trouble writing scenes with more than two people, but Stout, who founded a successful company, excelled in rendering roundtable discussions. endnote53

The mercantile tenor of the books also reshapes the conventional denouement, the gathering of all the suspects. Archie, reflecting as usual on the artifice of detective conventions, calls these Wolfe’s parties or charades. Theatrical they often are, but they don’t have the inexorability of Ellery Queen’s “exercises in deduction.” Often Wolfe’s evidence is flimsy and he must provoke the guilty party to self-betrayal. Assembled in Wolfe’s office, usually under the eyes of Cramer and Stebbins, the principals are lectured, hectored, bluffed, and misled. After the book’s procession of meetings presided over by Wolfe, the climax seems less a blinding revelation than a boardroom power play, even a hostile takeover.

The practicalities of business thus help extend the plots, surrounding the mystery in—what else?—more routines. Similarly, two of Wolfe’s avocations get expanded to novelistic length. His passion for food is the basis of Too Many Cooks (1938), in which murder takes place at a ceremonial gathering of master chefs. Wolfe’s solution earns him a rare secret recipe. As for orchids, they provide Stout several premises, most extensively in Some Buried Caesar (1939). Here Wolfe attends an upstate agricultural exhibition in hopes of trouncing a rival orchid grower. Wolfe wins a medal and three ribbons and almost incidentally forces a killer to commit suicide.  

All this local color adds up to the pleasure of predictability, the routines and milieu we know so well. Just as important, though, is the thrill of a tidy world disrupted. The brownstone may be threatened by a bomb or a snake, the plant rooms strafed by machine-gun fire, the office’s Persian rugs soaked with a victim’s blood. Wolfe’s adherence to schedule is broken by emergencies, not least the death of friends. Nearly every story includes Archie’s assertion that in this case some custom or other was breached for the first time.

Actually, Wolfe abandons his armchair far more often than we’d expect. He leaves home no fewer than thirty times in seventy-three stories. Sometimes the pretext is ludicrous (playing Santa Claus at a party?), but it’s often significant: a meeting of gourmets, an orchids competition, an attempt to rescue Archie, a contribution to the war effort, a ruthless scheme to eliminate a master criminal, and a surreptitious trip to Montenegro to avenge two deaths. He justifies rule-breaking as supremely rational. “One test of intelligence…is the ability to welcome a singularity when the need arises, without excessive strain.”endnote54

Detective stories usually make investigations routine; here investigations shatter routines. Thereafter the plot must work to restabilize Wolfe’s world—coordinating the “family” (Fritz, Doc Vollmer, the lawyer, the operatives), or setting up surrogate spaces. Wolfe holds court in a spa in Too Many Cooks and in an inn’s guest bedroom in Some Buried Caesar. If all detective stories are, as Auden suggested, about restoring Eden, the vividly etched all-male paradise at West Thirty-Fifth Street is made especially worth redeeming.

You can argue that Stout’s near-maniacal loading of every moment with world-building value led him to shambolic plotting. Despite his enjoyment of the “special problems” of designing a detective story, critics and fellow novelists complained that the Wolfe plots are diffuse, inconsistent, and riddled with coincidence. Sometimes Archie dumps background data and timetables in front of us with a lordly contempt for the rules of the game. “I give it here…not for you to exercise your brain—unless you insist on it—but for the record.”endnote55

The stage is overcrowded. Apart from the repertory company, there may be a dozen clients and suspects, and many are sketchily characterized. Since Wolfe leaves alibi-breaking to the police, the standard mechanism for eliminating suspects (and stretching out the book) isn’t operative. Often, anyone could have committed any of the crimes in question. Indeed, in the hit-and-run murders that crop up frequently, the adult population of Manhattan might need to be rounded up. Yet we tend to trust the Wolfe-Archie assumption that the closed circle of suspects characteristic of the classic puzzle holds good here too.

Many of the plots have dead spots, days or weeks of waiting for something to develop. Pressured, Wolfe may run an advertisement or assemble suspects and make idle threats to provoke impulsive mistakes. Or events may crowd in to force a finale. Murders tend to pile up in later chapters, but they don’t necessarily clarify the case. Wolfe’s conclusions are often risky intuitions, underdetermined by evidence that would convince a jury. Hence the frequent recourse to extralegal pressures that would give even Perry Mason pause. Wolfe will coolly order burglary, send out anonymous messages, and press the guilty party to commit suicide.

In even more severe violation of fair-play conventions, later phases of the plot are likely to hide crucial information from Archie, and us. Wolfe often dispatches Saul, now a Jamesian ficelle, to unearth information that will prove decisive in the final “conference.” This hugger-mugger pays perverse tribute to the need to restrict the Watson viewpoint, but it distracts from the articulation of the puzzle.

Stout admitted that his own strictures on fair play were often violated by the best mystery-mongers.endnote56 Doyle ended his career by concocting “preposterous” mysteries, but that didn’t lessen the magnetism of the Holmes/Watson relationship.endnote57 Accordingly, Stout never wanted to sacrifice character byplay to the exigencies of the genre. Wolfe’s dodgy shortcuts, implausible as they sometimes are, create fine scenes. They generate suspense, offer Archie new challenges, allow Wolfe to earn his fee, prove his cunning, and provoke Cramer’s wrath. Likewise, keeping Archie in the dark at the climax adds value, tightening household friction and giving him occasion for eloquent complaint.

So the shagginess of plotting in the Wolfe saga can be seen as a cost, but also a benefit of the decision to weight world-making. In a genre that depends on what Stout called “designed concealment,” what better camouflage than a sparkling surface?endnote58 A critic sympathetic to Stout noted of the late novels: “One wonders if Mr. Stout has all but given up writing detective stories for the weirdly challenging sport of stretching short stories into novels. It would seem so, but the padding is pretty entertaining.”endnote59 That’s because it seeks to dramatize what other writers treat as filler.

Venom in the desk drawer

Nearly all the typical Stout dynamics are on display in the first book, Fer-de-Lance of 1934. The esoteric title distinguishes it from the run-of-the-mill detective novel of the moment.endnote60 Stout’s trust in the reader’s patience is apparent in the fact that the viper doesn’t appear or get mentioned for over two hundred pages.

I tried it again. “Fair-du-lahnss?”

Wolfe nodded. “Somewhat better. Still too much n and not enough nose.”

Stout takes the opportunity to contrast Heartland Archie and worldly Wolfe while letting smart readers enjoy linguistic play and instructing the rest of us in pronunciation. Of his next book a reviewer would write: “Mr. Stout adorns his tale with lots of good writing adapted to highbrow and lowbrow alike.”endnote61

Fer-de-Lance, rather long for a mystery of its day, presents a cascade of coincidences and delays. The murder isn’t revealed as such until the fourth chapter. Not until the twelfth, over a hundred and fifty pages in, do we learn that the victim was not the intended target. Red herrings include a golf bag that seems missing but isn’t. One witness is questioned at intervals across the book, and she eventually admits something crucial she could have provided much sooner. Another key witness is conveniently out of town for the first two hundred pages; upon returning, he provides the solution. Stymied, Wolfe forces a crisis by running a newspaper advertisement, but he needs another sixty pages to force the culprit to kill himself, with the death of the original target as collateral damage.

These plot zigzags are enfolded in the minutiae of Wolfe’s world. The opening plunges us right in.

There was no reason why I shouldn’t have been sent for the beer that day, for the last ends of the Fairmont National Bank case had been gathered in the week before and there was nothing for me to do but errands, and Wolfe never hesitated about running me down to Murray Street for a can of shoe-polish if he happened to need one. But it was Fritz who was sent for the beer. Right after lunch the bell called him up from the kitchen….

Beer, Wolfe, Fritz, a successful case, an order issued by the employer, and household custom are all breezily taken for granted from the start. In an ordinary book, this would be a more typical middle chapter. The mystery isn’t Whodunit? but What’s the big deal about the beer? The scene centers on Wolfe (the “Nero” isn’t supplied for three chapters). Archie hints at his bulk but concentrates on chronicling his eccentric thoroughness in sampling the entire array of legal 3.2 beer. “None shall lack opportunity.” He could have waited; Prohibition is only a few months from ending.

We approach the main action at several removes. Fred Durkin brings in Maria Maffei, whose brother Carlo is missing. Maria leads Archie to the key witness Anna Fiore, whom he brings back to the office. Based on a phone call she overheard, Wolfe concludes that a man who dropped dead on a golf course has likely been murdered. But Maria is poor, so now Wolfe has to find someone to pay him to take the case. As in other books, a bona fide client will cover the costs of justice.

As Wolfe’s involvement deepens, the first chapters provide demonstrations of personal styles. Archie’s dogged but fruitless questioning of Anna in the boarding house is contrasted with Wolfe’s patient conversations with her in the office. Archie takes two hours, a period Stout renders in a paragraph of summary, but Wolfe pursues her for five hours, with the crucial exchanges dramatized in several pages. “It was beautiful,” Archie reports. The questioning reveals that the missing brother is indirectly involved in the golfing death.

Swerving the spotlight, Stout gives Archie his own big scene. He delivers to the White Plains investigators Wolfe’s $10,000 bet that the death was a murder and that poison will be found if the body is exhumed. This is the first display of Archie’s gifts for politely annoying the hell out of authorities with a string of arguments, threats, and forced choices. Wolfe’s confidence that he can turn the case to profit gets amplified by Archie’s grinning effrontery. Later we’ll discover that they’re also settling an old score with this District Attorney, who among other transgressions has married money.

The first six chapters are occupied with these business maneuvers. A hardboiled novel would begin with the murder victim’s daughter visiting the office, but here that comes eighty pages in. She’s been lured by Wolfe’s newspaper advertisement, itself the result of his accidental discovery of the murder. Once Wolfe is hired, Archie can rush toward the action he enjoys, and we get the characteristic cycle of his excursions, his reports to the boss, his tapping his newspaper sources, and the conferences with police and suspects. The hero-worshipping tone in the early chapters gives way to exasperation, as we’re introduced to the rhythm of Wolfe stubbornness and Archie badgering that will pervade the series to come.

The opening stretches also display how Wolfe uses his supersedentary role to play puppeteer. He bends everyone to his agenda, with Archie summoning people to meals and interrogations while horning in on their private lives. The Armchair premise, driven by Wolfe’s self-centeredness, ultimately determines how he’ll settle the case. By triggering the killer’s murder/suicide, he will never have to bestir himself to testify in court.

Besides familiarizing us with the routines and introducing us to the protagonists’ personal styles, the opening stretches of Fer-de-Lance set in place distinctive features of Stout’s prose. The first sentence is a sinuous but perfectly compact evocation of immediate circumstances and Wolfe’s imperious habits, and perhaps it hints at Archie’s annoyance at not getting the beer assignment. More generally, Archie’s vulgar zest and Wolfe’s pompous pronouncements dominate these sections, but Fer-de-Lance establishes a finer-grained pattern of echoes and refrains that show something just as distinctive in Stout’s achievement.

Other detective writers adapted modernist schemas to mystery through time shifts, viewpoint switches, replays, dossiers, grids, and the other techniques. Stout was far more orthodox on these dimensions, though his embedding of exposition and flashbacks is exceptionally smooth. More salient are the ways he brought modern novelistic finish to the detective story, bending Archie’s vernacular to verbal patterning that had become part of mainstream literary technique.

Take a straightforward instance. Early in Fer-de-Lance Wolfe says that Archie collects facts but has no “feeling for phenomena.” Wolfe tells Maria that Carlo’s disappearance is only a fact. Apparently it doesn’t become a bona fide phenomenon until physical clues let him grasp Carlo’s role in the murder.

The phrase sounds good, but Archie, having looked up “phenomenon,” suspects Wolfe is just parading. Yet Archie can’t let it go. He will defend his hunches about one suspect as proving he too can pick up on “phenomena.” When no suspect seems a prime candidate, Archie reflects that Wolfe may need to “develop a feeling for a new kind of phenomenon: murder by eeny-meany-miney-mo.” Later, Archie confronts Wolfe and starts talking “just for practice”:

“The problem is to discover what the devil good it does you to use up a million dollars’ worth of genius feeling the phenomenon of a poison needle in a man’s belly if it turns out that nobody put it there?”

In the book’s closing lines, Wolfe says he’s willing to take responsibility for the two deaths that conclude the action and keep him out of court. Archie replies:

“Now, natural processes being what they are, and you having such a good feeling for phenomena, you can just sit and hold your responsibilities on your lap.”

“Indeed,” Wolfe murmured.

The “phenomena” phrase, exploited for different resonance, recalls the taglines that echo through 1930s films. As woven into a book’s narration, though, they also descend from literary tradition. Jane Austen, whom Stout considered “probably, technically,” the greatest novelist, sends the word “likeness” chiming significantly through Emma.endnote62 After Wagner, artists in many media made more self-conscious use of motivic play, and it was a prominent strategy of modern literature and drama.

The most proximate source for Stout was perhaps Ulysses, with its refrains of “Met-em-pike-hoses,” “Your head it simply swirls,”’ and many more. Similar strategies are at work in Conrad and Shaw.endnote63 Stout’s first “art novel,” How Like a God, introduces the rare word “vengeless” very early and brings it back twice across the book to emphasize the protagonist’s passivity.endnote64

Stout relies heavily on refrains, both within and across books. Take “satisfactory,” Wolfe’s highest term of praise. When Wolfe repeats it in a burst of praise, Archie takes the moment as record-breaking. In another book, Archie applies it to their guest: “That girl would have been a very satisfactory traveling companion.” The word recurs at intervals and returns on the last page, where Archie works off his anger by punching an obstreperous guest whose “hundred and ninety pounds…made it really satisfactory.”endnote65 By The Final Deduction (1961), Archie can introduce the word in his narration and conversation before Wolfe finally resorts to it.

Similarly, the later novels reiterate Wolfe’s objections to “contact” as a verb and his insistence that “quote/unquote” is a barbarism. Erle Stanley Gardner’s repetitions from book to book are bland filler, while Stout’s serve more literary ends of characterization and patterning, while quietly assisting world-building.

A refrain limited to a single book is seldom a clue to solving the mystery. More often it will mark characters. A woman is called a snake by her father-in-law, and Archie riffs freely on the word when he encounters her. A showgirl in Death of a Doxy (1966) can recite the alphabet backward, a skill that gets deflated at the climax when she’s tongue-tied.endnote66 The refrain can also create associative links, as in Before Midnight (1955), where “crap” hooks up with “memory” and “drink.” Most often, as we’ll see, the refrain is exploited for comic possibilities.

Fer-de-Lance doesn’t yet deploy “satisfactory” in the Wolfean sense, but it sprinkles in refrains like “lethal toy,” “genius,” “artist,” and “lovin’ babe!” and pauses for a debate about the slang use of “ad” for “advertisement.” Sometimes the iterations are closely packed, knitting together dialogue exchanges, but they can also recur at a distance. Archie reflects that somehow Wolfe could be called elegant, and when the obstinate witness Anna behaves with poise four pages later, he grants: “She was being elegant. She had caught it from Wolfe.” Two hundred pages later, when Archie induces Anna to sign the decisive statement, he notices that their first client Maria has changed dramatically. “She looked elegant.” Evidently she has caught it from Anna.

Or take foreshadowing. The classic detective story scatters clues deceptively, creating a sort of disguised foreshadowing. The gun hanging on the wall in act one might not be the murder weapon; something else is, but it will be barely mentioned or deceptively described. A more self-consciously literary novel can foreshadow action through imagery rather than plot-dependent clues and hints. For instance, the beer bottles brought in to Wolfe on the first page of Fer-de-Lance remain as props in later office scenes, as does the desk drawer in which Wolfe stores his opener and bottle caps. At the climax, that drawer is opened.

“Look out!”

Wolfe had a beer bottle in each hand, by the neck, and he brought one of them crashing on to the desk but missed the thing that had come out of the drawer…. I was ready to jump back and was grabbing Wolfe to pull him back with me when he came down with the second bottle right square on the ugly head and smashed it flat as a piece of tripe.

The beer and the drawer are carefully planted, but most novelists, detectival or not, wouldn’t proffer a remark two hundred pages earlier, long before we have heard anything about vipers and have met any suspects.

I looked at Wolfe and back again at the pile on the floor. It was nothing but golf clubs. There must have been a hundred of them, enough I thought to kill a million snakes. For it had never seemed to me that they were much good for anything else.

I said to Wolfe, “The exercise will do you good.”

Rereading this passage with the knowledge that a snake will indeed pop up in the office and Wolfe will dispatch it furiously gives Archie’s serpent massacre and his teasing comment weight as items of literary artifice.

Stout is composing his first Wolfe book sentence by sentence. He isn’t a minimalist like Gardner or a simile-monger like Chandler or Macdonald, but rather a weaver of softly echoing imagery. These motifs supplement world-making and become another means of dramatizing each moment.

The fortunes of Pfui

If you resent the vulgarity of Mr. Goodwin’s jargon I don’t blame you, but nothing can be done about it.

Nero Wolfeendnote67

A vein of comedy runs through mysteries of the 1920s. Lord Peter warbling about a body in the bath is only the most obvious instance of the silly-ass characterization that crept into the puzzle form. London’s Bright Young Things took up sleuthing in A. A. Milne’s Red House Mystery (1922), while Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion, with his sidekick former burglar Magersfontein Lugg, began as a parody of Wimsey. At a loftier level, Sayers, Anthony Berkeley, and others had thought that the detective story could legitimize itself by becoming a “novel of manners,” with the mild satire that that term implied. A rougher, more sarcastic humor could be found in Hammett and other hardboiled authors, at about the same time slick magazines were running folksy tales of comic detection.endnote68

Film had offered some comic crime efforts as well. Howard Hawks turned Trent’s Last Case (1929) into a Charley Chase farce, and Seven Keys to Baldpate (1930) revived the perennially popular stage mystery. But the influence of screwball comedy had the strongest effect. The film of The Thin Man (1934) showed the lively possibilities of socialites solving murders in the midst of high-end shopping, fine dining, and tipsy chatter. Even the hard-bitten Perry Mason of the novels became the louche drunk of The Case of the Lucky Legs (1935).

Stout had a funny side. He wrote humorous short stories in his pulp days, and after the second Wolfe novel, The League of Frightened Men (1935), he published a light romance, O Careless Love! (1935) about three schoolmistresses looking for adventure in New York. Later came Mr. Cinderella (1938), a Capraesque novel about a bashful inventor of kiss-proof lipstick. Stout’s first published article, a satiric guide to seducing women, was published in a sniggering misogynist anthology, and in the same year he gave the Saturday Evening Post a boyhood memory of being chased by a bull.endnote69 Far more ambitious was his effort in the Wolfe books to meld the conventions of the post-Doyle detective story with vernacular American comedy.

Stout claimed to have hated movies, but he didn’t disdain pratfalls and funny situations that are easy to visualize. Some Buried Caesar (1939) begins with Archie crashing the sedan, with Wolfe jouncing in the back seat. As they start out to a nearby farm, Wolfe notes that they’re crossing a cow pasture. “Being a good detective, he produced his evidence by pointing to a brown circular heap near our feet.” Soon, though, a bull charges them. (“He started the way an avalanche ends.”) Archie runs to the fence and vaults clumsily over, to the amusement of two young women watching. Meanwhile Wolfe has somehow found a perch on a boulder in the field and is now standing as still as a statue, awaiting rescue.

Later in the book, a twenty-five-page interlude finds Archie jailed with a despondent conman named Basil. When Wolfe visits, it’s not just to console Archie but to get ready cash. As Wolfe starts to recall his experience in a Bulgarian prison, Archie shuts him up by shouting through the bars, “Oh, Warden! I’m escaping!” Lily Rowan, whom we first meet in the book, calls on Archie as well, using the nickname that will always recall the bull episode, “Escamillo.”

 All this is the prose equivalent of a screwball comedy. So too is the moment in Champagne for One (1958) when Wolfe, attacked by a murderous woman, rears back and kicks her chin. One scene in And Be a Villain (1948) could be a script for a 1940s satire of bobby-soxers. Wolfe is trying without much success to question a teenager who has started a fan club. Her idol is “simply utterly,” the girl explains:

“You see how that is. The old ego mego.”

You can see why I’d like to be fair and just to her.

Wolfe nodded as man to man.

He asks her about the soft drink her idol peddles, and she replies: “Oh, I guess I adore it.”  Wolfe wonders if there’s pepper in it. “I don’t know, I never thought. It’s a lot of junk mixed together. Not at all frizoo.”

“No,” Wolfe agreed, “not frizoo.”endnote70

This example reminds us that the slapstick episode launching Some Buried Caesar is atypical. Stout’s comedy is largely verbal, a torrent of wisecracks, teasing, mimicry, malapropisms, and barefaced silliness. You have to be fast. Wolfe can occasionally crack a mild joke, often at Archie’s or Cramer’s expense, and once in a great while Cramer fires back. When Archie says he can start breathing again, Cramer says: “The day you stop I’ll eat as usual.” (Food again.) endnote71 Lieutenant Rowcliff, the only thoroughly bad cop, wears the mark of Cain in this chattering crowd: he stutters. Of course Archie enjoys provoking this reaction. He has timed how long it takes.

Doyle recalled, somewhat unfairly, that Watson never showed a gleam of humor, but Archie personifies fun. In nearly every story somebody accuses him of clowning. Herewith samples.

To Lily Rowan: “You’re always right sometimes.”

To Wolfe, after a stretch of inactivity: “I’m just breaking under the strain of trying to figure out a third way of crossing my legs.”

To Wolfe, who mentions when he went out in the rain. “Yeah. Will I ever forget it. There was such a downpour that the pavements were damp.”

To O’Hara, bearing a message from Wolfe: “He said to tell you you’re a nincompoop, but I think it would be more tactful not to mention it, so I won’t.”

To a visitor who wants to see Wolfe: “You C A N apostrophe T, can’t. Don’t be childish.”

To Wolfe, who opens a book instead of tackling a case and instructs Archie to order some orchids: “Right. And Sitassia readu for you and Transcriptum underwood for me.”

To a suspect: “You’re too careless with pronouns. Your hims. Your first him’s opinion of your second him is about the same as yours.”

The man is shameless. “I agree with whoever it was, millions for de-femmes but not one cent for tribute.” A thug decides to lecture Archie about showing too much humor. “Someday something you think is funny will blow your goddamn head right off your shoulders.” Esprit de l’escalier makes Archie ponder. “Only after he had gone did it occur to me that that wouldn’t prove it wasn’t funny.”

Archie’s comment tops the topper, indicating that the smartass dialogue is set inside an even richer verbal texture. The Wolfe books are the only novels in which Stout employed first-person narration. “It’s Archie who really carries the stories, as narrator,” Stout noted. “Whether the readers know it or not, it’s Archie they really enjoy.”endnote72 Why? I think because his performance calls on many tricks of yarn-spinning in the American grain.

There’s exaggeration, as when Archie declares of Wolfe’s gift of a card case: “I might have traded it for New York City if you had thrown in a couple of good suburbs.” There’s vaudeville backchat. “I wanted to ask her what the difference was between asking her advice and wanting to see what she would say, just to see what she would say.” Homely synecdoche is recruited too. The sentence “I told the temples, ‘This is absolutely childish’” makes sense only because fifty pages earlier Archie has confided that slightly depressed temples on a young woman always appeal to him.

That Archie calls his books “reports” merely adds to the joke; nothing could be further from neutral description. Trying to tell all leads to digression.

Smith shook his head. That was one way in which he resembled Wolfe. He didn’t see any sense in using a hundred ergs when fifty would do the job. Wolfe’s average on head-shaking was around an eighth of an inch to the right and the same distance to the left, and if you had attached a meter to Smith you would have got about the same result. However, Wolfe was still more economical on physical energy. He weighed twice as much as Smith, and therefore his expenditure per pound of matter, which is the only fair way to judge, was much lower.endnote73

A report thrives on clichés, but Archie plays with them.

I didn’t want to give her the impression that I was at her beck, let alone her call.

“I am prepared,” Nat Traub announced, in the tone of a man burning bridges, “to say that I will vote for Meltettes.”

Above all, there’s the mixture of spoken language and literary calculation. Chandler could tell us that a man has a face like a collapsed lung, but Stout gives us something more conversational. “He didn’t look tough, he looked flabby, but of course that’s no sign. The toughest guy I ever ran into had cheeks that needed a brassiere.” Stout claimed to hate similes, but when he gives them, they supply a characterizing bonus. A woman laughs, then she stops. “A sort of chuckle came out of her, like the laugh’s colt trotting along behind.” The “sort of” preserves the oral dimension, but you can hear the chuckle in the verb “trotting.” You might even remember Archie’s Chillicothe childhood.

Archie’s demotic can slam the gearwork between high and low, lofty and ingenuous. In one of the most brilliant passages Stout ever wrote, Archie is sharing a dinner with Wolfe and Cramer.

If you like Anglo-Saxon, I belched. If you fancy Latin, I eructed. No matter which, I had known that Wolfe and Inspector Cramer would have to put up with it that evening, because that is always part of my reaction to sauerkraut. I don’t glory in it or go for a record, but neither do I fight it back. I want to be liked just for myself.endnote74

How to define the tone of this passage of mock defense—cast, inevitably, as a mingling of food and word choice? That last sentence is at once proud, self-deprecating, sincere, and a jab at the American conviction that one’s individuality is precious, even during a burp.

This is the relaxed performance of a tall tale. Admirers have compared Archie’s idiolect to that of Huck Finn, but I hear the shuttling among registers we find in Twain’s platform speeches and literary critiques. Writing of Fenimore Cooper, he notes:

In his little box of stage properties he kept six or eight cunning devices, tricks, artifices for his savages and woodsmen to deceive and circumvent each other with, and he was never so happy as when he was working these innocent things and seeing them go.endnote75

Alongside “artifices” and “circumvent” we get the unexpectedly vague “things” and the colloquial “seeing them go.” Even the loftiest word loses some dignity when caught in the phrase “circumvent each other with.”

Lionel Trilling called Twain “the master of the style that escapes the fixity of the printed page, that sounds in our ears with the immediacy of the heard voice, the very voice of unpretentious truth.”endnote76 The central word here is unpretentious, something we can’t easily assign to most hardboiled writers in Hammett’s wake. Instead of declaring the detective’s noble creed (avenging a partner, fighting for a questionable client), Archie demonstrates he’s a “trained investigator” by other means. He focuses on essential clues, like a woman’s attractive mouth. “A habit of observation of minor details is an absolute must for a detective.” Thus does he deflate his own profession, and its literary cliché.

This ingratiating performance asks for our complicity. Once tipped off, we know how to take belching after sauerkraut or boasts about detecting. We can even fill in the opposite of what Archie “reports.” Lew Archer can be painfully sincere: “I didn’t try to pretend anything.”endnote77 By contrast, Archie transparently fibs to us about his state of mind. The trick is to tag a lie with fake sincerity.

“Wonderful,” I said with enthusiasm. [He is not enthusiastic.]

“Not an inch.” I was regretful, even gloomy. [He is elated.]

“That’s too bad,” I said sympathetically. [He is far from sympathetic.]

“I bubbled with eager frankness.” [He is eager but far from frank.]endnote78

No quicker way exists to share the narrator’s duplicity. Once we know Archie’s game, we can read behavior as well as words. If he “absent-mindedly” slips a piece of paper into a pocket, we know he’s doing it in full knowledge.

Confiding in us would just complicate matters anyway. Wolfe says he’s glad Archie has come. Archie replies: “I was glad he was glad I had come, but I wasn’t glad, if I make myself clear.”endnote79

Throughout, the echoes that crisscross Archie’s wordage enhance the comic texture. “Satisfactory” can work this way, but the most pervasive refrain is Wolfe’s favorite exclamation.


“Yes, sir. I agree.”endnote80

Clearly, Pfui is pronounced differently from Archie’s equivalent.

“What do you think of her?”


“Go on and phooey.”endnote81

As with everything he hears, Archie recycles it: “As Wolfe would say, pfui.”endnote82 Wolfe is handed his pet phrase back when a young woman arrives to tell him his daughter is in New York. Her “Pfui” seems to corroborate her outlandish Montenegrin story, and leaves Wolfe, for once, silent.

Sometimes a refrain shows up as it would in a 1930s movie. In Too Many Cooks (1938), a glass of spilled ginger ale in an early train scene is invoked in later dialogue and Goodwinian commentary. It pays off on the last page when, back on the train, Archie teaches his new “friend” (another motif) the district attorney how to get a young woman’s attention.

More commonly, Wolfe enunciates a word or phrase, preferably something pedantic, and it returns to mocking effect in Archie’s conversation and commentary. A prototype is Wolfe’s grandiloquent assertion in Too Many Cooks that a guest is “a jewel on the cushion of hospitality.” Archie fobs it off on a dinner guest, who doesn’t get it, and later, after seeing the distress of Wolfe’s adversary, grins and reflects on “how it probably felt at that moment to be a jewel on the cushion of hospitality.”

Many refrains become running gags. The Second Confession boasts several, including references to angels and Confucius, but the fanciest one starts when a young woman shows Archie a news photo of himself. He nods. “A born hero if I ever saw one.” Soon she is telling him off: “Listen, you born hero….” We forget it until a hundred and fifty pages later:

Searching the grounds for a likely weapon was a perfectly sound routine idea, but it needed ten trained men with no inhibitions, not a pretty girl in a cotton print looking for a card case and a born hero pretending he was doing likewise.

In Champagne for One, the god-word is “protocol,” introduced seriously by a publisher explaining its etymology. It winds its way through the book until eventually Archie grabs a suitcase on grounds that “protocol is protocol.” In the final pages the word is Archie’s term for the charade that traps the killer.

At least once the refrain is a pun. The title of The Final Deduction strikes the chord, with “deduce” (as in making inferences) chiming throughout the text. It will take on a new significance when we learn the tax-related motive for the murder scheme, but before that Archie rings a variant that once more punctures Wolfe’s intellectual pretensions.

At the dinner table, in between bites of deviled grilled lamb kidneys with a sauce he and Fritz had invented, he explained why it was that all you needed to know about any human society was what they ate. If you knew what they ate you could deduce everything else—culture, philosophy, morals, politics, everything. I enjoyed it because the kidney were tender and tasty and that sauce is of one of Fritz’s best, but I wondered how you would make out if you tried to deduce everything about Wolfe by knowing what he had eaten in the past ten years. I decided you would deduce that he was dead.

Even here, though, the “deduce” refrain is not a proper clue to solving the mystery, at least not the way the Golden Spiders title is. It’s rather a clue for how to enjoy your memory of early scenes.

The Wolfe books are tissues of comic refrains. In And Be a Villain, the two primary motifs are drawing pictures of horses and making fun of characters’ arithmetic skills. Stout crammed verbal motifs into his shorter fiction too; his last novella, “Murder Is Corny” (1964), interweaves at least ten, including “ambrosia,” “calamity,” and “a joint affair.”

A particularly dense cluster, one recalling the somber eroticism of Stout’s first novels, occupies Too Many Clients (1960). Learning that the dead man met his mistresses in a customized “bower of carnality,” Wolfe educates Archie about “modern satyrs.” Curious, Archie does some futile research and later defends a young woman (third in line for him to marry) who cleaned the apartment. “If and when she orgies with a satyr he’ll be leaning gracefully against a tree with a flute in his hand.” Archie makes free with Wolfe’s pet phrase for the love nest, referring to it throughout the book just as the bower. When Archie finally gets inside to search it, he reports, “That bower of carnality grew on you.” On the book’s final page, he warns us not to look for it on our own because he has concealed the address.

At the limit, the refrain can verge on nonsense. The young woman from Montenegro salutes Wolfe with “Hvala Bogu,” Learning that it’s Slovenian for “Thank God,” Archie tries it out on a G-man, then on Wolfe. When another woman says what sounds to Archie like “Gribblezook,” he replies “Hvala Bogu”: “Apparently it was satisfactory.” By the end of Over My Dead Body, Archie is using Hvala bogu as an all-purpose conversation-starter.

Treating a verbal tic as a motif is a comic technique identified with another master.  Archie channels P. G. Wodehouse when he speaks of “cleansing the form and assuming the day’s draperies,” and in one book he greets a butler with “Good morning, Jeeves. I’m Lord Goodwin.”endnote83 Like Archie, Bertie Wooster is fascinated by language. He’s constantly picking up phrases from Jeeves and then trying them out (“if that’s the word I want”), usually in ill-fitting contexts.endnote84 Bertie’s fumbling vocabulary lessons begin in earnest in Right Ho, Jeeves, which was published in 1934, the year of Fer-de-Lance. It seems likely that Stout borrowed the tactic and applied it to Archie’s keener, more flippant intellect. In exchange, Wodehouse praised Stout’s books for bringing “excellent comedy into the type of narrative where comedy seldom bats better than .100.”endnote85

Cutting the comedy

“It won’t do, Archie. You are trying to coerce me, and I won’t have it. I will not undertake a major and expensive operation, with no chance of income, merely because you have been piqued by circumstance. Your bluff won’t work. It would of course be folly for you to try any—what’s that for?”

I was too busy to answer him. With my jacket off, I had got a shoulder holster from a drawer and was strapping it on.endnote86

Like many mystery writers, Stout experimented with darker material after World War II. While his essays were celebrating reason as the ruling force of the genre, the Wolfe books were yielding to fairly dark passions. The Silent Speaker (1946), the first postwar Wolfe novel, finds Archie much taken with Phoebe Gunther, a plucky government assistant protecting her boss. She is murdered at Wolfe’s door. Archie is more distraught than we’ve ever seen him, telling Fritz to go to hell and pressing Wolfe to investigate.

Deepening Archie’s emotional investment in the case poses Stout a formal problem. How to incorporate somber moments into the basically comedic register of these tales? The writer must steer a course between sentimentality and coldness. In these cases Archie’s insouciant conceit is shaken by anger and a sense of righteousness that goes beyond the cash matrix that both he and Wolfe prize. Archie becomes something close to the one good man of the hardboiled tradition. The trick is how to tell it.

Stout solves the problem by regulating narrational depth. Normally Archie shares with us his immediate perceptions. When he sees a person or place, he files his report immediately. But in confronting Phoebe’s violent death, his narration shifts, in the approved Sayers manner, to externalities. Here what’s neutrally described is not Trent finding a clue, but a man responding naturally to murder.

The technique is introduced brutally. Archie keeps from us the fact that Phoebe is the crumpled shape he finds under the stoop. Instead we get pure behavior.

Fritz had pulled the front door shut, and when I found myself fumbling to get the key in the hole, I stood erect to take a deep breath and that stopped the fumbling.endnote87

This behaviorist handling seems indebted to Hemingway and Hammett. At the end of A Farewell to Arms, Frederic Henry’s stoic grief is given in single lines of dialogue (“You get out” to the nurse) and a final line: “After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.”endnote88 Leaving the reader to imagine Henry’s devastation adheres to Hemingway’s “iceberg” principle, in which most of the meaning is submerged. “Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg."endnote89

Similarly, Hammett’s detached third-person narration in The Maltese Falcon and The Glass Key forces us to judge the characters’ responses by the way they act. Even The Thin Man’s first-person account avoids giving us direct access to Nick’s thoughts and feelings. In Red Harvest, except for the laudanum dream, the Continental Op seldom confides in us either. Borrowing this hardboiled objectivity, Stout has dosed Archie’s insouciant monologue with moments that evoke his emotions through flat accounts of action.

Stout isn’t wholly unforthcoming, though. Once we’ve imagined the depth of Archie’s sense of guilt about Phoebe’s death, he can open up a little. Sitting with his milk in his bedroom, he briefly probes his reactions.

This seemed to hit me in a new spot or something, and anyhow there I was, trying to arrange my mind. Or maybe my feelings. All I knew was that something inside me needed a little arranging.endnote90

Archie’s emotional arranging condenses into a resolve to act. He is shaken but not shaking.

I had been sitting in my room twenty minute when I noticed that I hadn’t drunk any milk, but I hadn’t spilled any from the glass.endnote91

Shock and recrimination turn Archie into the hardboiled hero, but one bereft of self-pity. By this standard, a Chandler ending like “I felt tired and old and not much use to anybody” looks crybaby.endnote92

The Silent Speaker supplies a template for three more cases that introduce Archie to emotional pain. In Murder by the Book (1952), he is moved by the quiet devotion of a victim’s father, and he comes to feel guilty for a death that he might have prevented. Prisoner’s Base (1952) brings a scatterbrained young heiress to West Thirty-Fifth Street ready to pay for shelter. Although Archie finds her attractive, he kicks her out. When she is strangled, Wolfe is unmoved, but Archie calls it “his personal problem” and investigates on his own. In The Golden Spiders (1953), Pete Drossos, a kid who wipes windshields at stoplights, hires Wolfe to find a lady driver with unusual earrings. Next day, Pete is killed in a hit-and-run.

Throughout these righteous-Archie books, Stout will imply deep feeling through neutrally described behavior. The most laconic variant comes when Sergeant Stebbins visits with bad news about a boy.

“His name was Drossos. Peter Drossos.”

I swallowed. “That’s just fine. The sonofabitch.”endnote93

“That’s just fine” is bitter sarcasm. “The sonofabitch” is pure rage. But Archie’s swallow has already shown him recoiling from the blow.

All these books delicately modulate Archie’s tremors of response. In Prisoner’s Base, when meeting Cramer at the hall door Archie has a sudden intuition that Priscilla Eads, the charmer he turned away, is dead. The only clue to his turmoil is the fact that he blurts out his thought that Cramer looks like a baboon. Then he calmly buzzes Wolfe in the plant rooms. He asks if he should tell Cramer everything.

“Certainly. Why not?

“Yeah, why not? She’s dead.”

I hung up and turned to Cramer.

We have to inject bitterness into those two syllables, “She’s dead.” To confirm that Archie’s not utterly callous, Stout has him again withdraw to his room. There he looks for anything Priscilla might have left behind. He finds her toothbrush and handkerchief. “I still have them, in a drawer where I keep a collection of assorted professional relics.”endnote94 Trained investigators mourn in secret.

In Murder by the Book, when Archie learns that Rachel Abrams has been shoved out a window before he entered her office, he describes the results on the sidewalk in cold blood: “She was smashed good.”  But reporting to Wolfe, he fills in the reactions that his account had suppressed. As often happens in these darker books, his recriminations replay the turning points as a series of ifs.

“I should have stuck around, but it wouldn’t have done any good because I was too goddamn mad to function. If I had been three minutes earlier I would have had her alive. Also, if she was pushed out the window I would have had the pusher alive, and you told me to get you something, and it would have been a pleasure to get you that.”endnote95

By The Golden Spiders, Purley Stebbins knows Archie’s way with guilty hypotheticals and goads him into blurting one out.

“If we had insisted on her taking it back she would have—“

I chopped it off at his grin of triumph. “Got you that time!” he croaked, and brushed past me and went.

So as I stepped into the office I was biting a nail. It is not often that Purley Stebbins can string me, but that day he had caught me off balance because my sentiments had been involved. Naturally I reacted by taking it out on Wolfe.endnote96

Archie goes to his desk, removes the four dollars and thirty cents Pete had given them as a retainer, and pushes Wolfe into pursuing justice.

The murder of Rachel Abrams becomes more distressing when Archie discovers that Rachel’s mother has not yet learned of her death. Here he confesses a pang, but presses forward: “I had a job to do, and if I muffed it merely because I didn’t like it, I was in the wrong business.” His intent to do such a job in Prisoner’s Base refuses fantasy heroics.

Until further notice I had only one use for my time and faculties: to find out who the strangler was that I had sent Priscilla Eads to in a taxi, and wrap him up for delivery to the proper address, with or without help. I had no great ideas about galloping down Broadway on a white horse with his head on the point of a spear. I just wanted to catch the sonofabitch, or at least help.endnote97

He puts it more elliptically in Murder by the Book when he is a step closer to the solution: “She looked beautiful. The phony logs in the phony fireplace looked beautiful. Even the pouring rain—but no, I won’t overdo it.”endnote98 Self-conscious as ever, Archie lays bare the limits of sharing his feelings. Now that he’s near to settling accounts, he can regain his cheerfulness.

The Silent Speaker has the most nuanced emotional arc of the righteous-Archie books. Here the recovery of the affirmative tone is more gradual. After Archie’s recriminations (“the dirty deadly bastard…she had been utterly all right”) and another display of callousness on Wolfe’s part, the two men cooperate when they realize that Phoebe has hidden the telltale recording cylinder.

In the final pages, they reconcile. Archie realizes that Wolfe has avenged Phoebe’s death by punishing the professional association that attacked her government agency. But was it ethical for Wolfe to collect a reward from the same association? Wolfe explains that in his own way he was moved by Phoebe’s death.

“She had displayed remarkable tenacity, audacity, and even imagination…. Surely she deserved not to have her murder wasted.”

I stared at him, “Then I’ve got a hypothesis too. If that was it, either primary or secondary, to hell with ethics.”endnote99

By now, we don’t need access to Archie’s thinking to appreciate his reaction. The partnership endures by asserting the worth of Phoebe’s sacrifice—by the light of each man’s ethos.

By recruiting dashes of hardboiled impassivity, Stout can mingle stoic resolve with a recognition of the good that Archie and Wolfe can do. This balancing act will be harder in the very last book, where the partnership is tested by a death striking closer to the family circle.

Words as weapons and playmates

The success of any investigation depends mainly on talk, as of course you know.

Nero Wolfeendnote100

Gambit (1962) centers on murder at a chess club, but it doesn’t exploit the game’s rules and rituals. The book’s presiding concern is language. The novel opens with Wolfe burning, page by page, the controversial third edition of Webster’s International Dictionary. Its editors’ crimes include finding “ain’t” acceptable and permitting “infer” and “imply” to serve as synonyms. The client who comes calling wins Wolfe over, Archie reports, by “calling him a wizard and implying (not inferring) that he was the one and only.” Naturally, the imply/infer couplet will become a refrain.

Gags follow. Archie, visiting a “marble tenement” on Fifth Avenue, will encounter a fireplace three times as wide as “the one Wolfe used for burning dictionaries.” When Wolfe needs to look up a word, the second edition of Webster’s will suffice. Neronian table talk turns to Voltaire, an admirable “word-assembly plant” but not a great man, because he had no palate. Archie prepares us for Wolfe’s verdict early:  “Which he loves most, food or words, is a tossup.”

Much the same was true of Stout, zealous eater and self-confessed linguaphile. Granted, his writing experimented a little with pictorial gimmicks. Two stories give clues through printed photographs, and others include document facsimiles in conventional gestures of clue-exposure.endnote101 But for Stout language was paramount. It made world-building possible; it gave sap and savor to characterization; it created sidelong humor. Not least, it permitted a literary gamesmanship that moved to the border of metafiction.

The Wolfe books are, not least, bookish. They’re about people who write and publish, people who read, and the seductive power of prose. More than any of their mass-market counterparts, these detective stories preserve in their verbal maneuvers a characteristically modernist fascination with the constitutive power of words.

Again and again Archie steers our attention to the sounds and sights of language. One book’s central clue is a diphthong that links four names. Punctuation plays a big role too. Wolfe’s longstanding contempt for “unquote” in lieu of “end of quote” becomes a refrain in The Mother Hunt.  As Wolfe dictates a letter, he stipulates punctuation marks, and when Archie reads it back, he signals every one. A cowhand writing to Archie asks about colons (“them two dots”). Archie’s own discourse is perfectly punctuated, which warrants his criticism of Wolfe’s typing: “I don’t care for the semicolon after ‘appointment.’”endnote102

For Christmas 1939 Wolfe gives Archie a dictionary, and it clearly gets a lot of use over the years, as Archie follows up items in Wolfe’s orations.endnote103 We too are sent scurrying to check the meaning of contumacy, usufruct, and obreptitious. Yet Wolfe’s discourse is slangier than we sometimes realize. He has pet expressions like “scoot,” “skedaddle,” “up a stump,” “in a pickle,” “rubbing it in,” and the ever-popular “flummery.” He knows, says Archie, more words than Shakespeare, and like the Bard’s, his vocabulary runs between high and low.

Listening to Wolfe and conning the lexicon have exposed Archie to some fancy footwork. The belched/eructed cadenza shows how good a pupil he has been. Challenged on a point, he waves a hand. “Persiflage. Chaff.”  In The Red Box, Archie tosses around yclept and mise en scène. He will accuse Wolfe of just spouting adjectives and rhetorical questions. He can seize the initiative if Wolfe lapses:

“Do you realize that that fool is going to let that fool make a fool of him again?”

I yawned. “Listen to you. If I did a sentence like that you’d send me from the room.”endnote104

For Wolfe, words are weapons. He springs verbal traps and uses schoolmarm pugilism to browbeat the spoiled rich who treat him as a hireling. In one of the most beautiful exchanges, he slaps down an offensive suspect who accuses him of “alienating the affection of my wife.”

“Affections,” Wolfe said.


“Affections. In that context the plural is used.” He lifted his glass and drank and licked his lips.

Kearns stared at him. “I didn’t come here,” he said, “to have my grammar corrected.”

“Not grammar. Diction.”endnote105

The cheers you hear are from Professor Barzun and his fellow littérateurs. Pedantry needs its ornery champions.

Asked if he plays Scrabble, Wolfe replies, “I like using words, not playing with them.” Archie likes both. He knows the rules but is willing to break them. When Archie uses “orgies” as a verb, Wolfe objects. “Orgy is not a verb.” “It is now.” No feeling for phenomena? Archie turns a visit to a fashion house into mockery of synthetic postwar merchandise.

The show window, all dark green, had just one exhibit: a couple of yards of plain black fabric—silk or rayon or nylon or cottonon or linenon—draped on a little rack inside.

In both dialogue and his reports to us, Archie is ready to mobilize words for the attack. But he also likes to hang around them and watch them fraternize.endnote106

Archie, who loves to dance, can cut quite a literary rug. The next person who suggests that he’s a hard-boiled hero should consult this passage, his response to an invitation downtown from Lieutenant Rowcliff.

I said, “Poop and poo. Both for you. You sound like a flatfoot catching kids playing wall ball. Maybe I wanted the glory of taking him to headquarters myself. Or maybe I wanted to help him escape from the country by putting him on a subway for Brooklyn, where I believe you live. You’ve got him, haven’t you, with a handle I gave you to hold him by? Poops and poos for all of youse. It’s past my bedtime.”endnote107

A domesticated Joycean farrago, a burlesque-house burst of 1930s doubletalk, with phrases that might have been pulled from Four Saints in Three Acts (“Poops and poos for all of youse”): Archie is as good at persiflage and chaff as Wolfe, but in a scatty, honky-tonk register.

When feminists began challenging patriarchal language, Archie was game to learn. Sylvia Venner in Please Pass the Guilt proposes that p-words like pecker and prick (“as a noun. Not as a verb”) betray a bias toward the penis. Having looked them up in Webster and the OED, she’s confident that words like pee and piss would have been vee and viss if the vagina had been given its proper status. “I admit,” Archie says, “it is a point. A voint.”

The scene is pure tall-tale stretching already, but Stout won’t give up. After Archie reports the conversation verbatim to the boss, Wolfe seriously considers that patriarchy may have biased language. He decides to consult a classic history of marriage to check whether matriarchal societies have done something similar. In the meantime Archie heads for his room. “I brought a bottle of beer to help out the language problem.”endnote108

 Unsurprisingly, many of Archie’s refrains take on literary valence. Sometimes it’s in vocabulary, as in trepidant vigilance (In the Best Families), or in the uncoiling snake imagery of If Death Ever Slept. The same book plays with pronouns for man and woman. In The Rubber Band, mention of darts flung at a board can prepare us for a pun on a darting movement at a crucial moment. And Archie can even try to distinguish two characters’ dialogue by assigning them different spellings (but not pronunciation) of another character’s name: Fred calls Dinah “Dye,” Archie calls her “Di.”endnote109 No surprise that the Wolfe books were incessantly reread and quoted by critic William Empson, connoisseur of wayward verbal associations.endnote110 “A word in a speech which falls outside the expected vocabulary,” he points out, “will cause an uneasy stir in all but the soundest sleepers.”endnote111

The speaking voice that pervades these books is altogether aware of being read. Gide’s The Counterfeiters exploited the conceit of a book about its own self-generation, recasting the dossier novel as a psychological test. But Twain had gotten there before, letting Huckleberry Finn confess that making a book was “a trouble.” Stout, having reinvented himself in Bohemian Paris, came more and more to endow Archie’s reports with an intimacy not displayed in most first-person hard-boiled fiction. The writer who in How Like a God identifies its protagonist as “you” is likely to be sensitive to address.

So Archie frets that his account of a case will be read by Wolfe or Cramer or the Internal Revenue Service. He wonders whether to include this or that detail, and he can acknowledge when he’s hit a wall. “If you are inclined to quit because I seem to be getting nowhere, no wonder.” Back from Montenegro, he explains that the conversations he reports were translated for him by Wolfe—a procedure he mentions in another book as “a stunt that I got good and tired of.” At other points he seems to be communicating directly with his audience, asking us to vote on whether he should proceed. Readers write to him, and some readers become clients. “I know how he charges just for wiggling his finger.”endnote112

In the Sherlockian tradition, these maneuvers play along with the amiable pretense that Archie and Wolfe and the whole ménage exist. But given the incessant vocalise of the narration, the outing of Archie as a literary creator comes off as one more effort—in a comic register, again—that adapts the self-conscious literary artifice of modernism to the demands of a large audience.

Three metafictions

Nothing corrupts a man so deeply as writing a book; the myriad temptations are overpowering.

Nero Wolfeendnote113

“I want to know how he used words,” Wolfe asserts when he asks for samples of a murder victim’s writing. Stout’s logophilia comes to the surface most explicitly in three bookish books in which his heroes’ methods of detection are trained on language itself.

Wolfe’s demand comes in Murder by the Book (1951). Among the papers of lawyer Leonard Dykes is a list of names. They turn out to be tryouts of pseudonyms. Dykes has written a novel containing compromising information, but it can’t be found. Worse, the editorial assistant who read and returned the manuscript has been killed as well. Her father hires Wolfe to fortify the police’s feeble efforts.

The investigation carries Archie through the process of moving a manuscript from author to professional typist to publisher. Dykes’ papers don’t reveal much, although Archie thinks he’s too wordy, but they do turn up a note that sends Archie to the Bible. “I admit I had to use the Index.” Soon they are on the trail of both the book manuscript and the person who wrote the note.

The usual play with language ensues, with refrains about virginity, powers of observation, ears, contrivances, and even a palm tree. There is a tour de force of Archie entertaining the secretarial staff of the law firm at Wolfe’s dinner table, with each guest characterized by voice, as well as a visit to Chandler/ Macdonald California, where it is always raining.

As a postwar Wolfe novel, Murder by the Book takes killing seriously. Archie gets “goddamn mad” when he arrives on a crime scene moments too late, and the portrait of a grieving father is movingly done. The literary references aren’t as plentiful as we might expect, but Archie does hire a serious operative who is reading Twilight of the Absolute (1951), the last volume of Malraux’s history of the visual arts. A throwaway in-joke pops up when Archie’s tour of the publishing scene inclines him to think that Viking, Stout’s own publisher, “had a good eye for contours and comeliness when hiring female help.”endnote114

More deeply bookish is the second Wolfe novel, The League of Frightened Men. Paul Chapin is lame because of a hazing prank at Harvard, and the men responsible have tried to atone by financing his literary career. When members of the group start to die mysteriously, the survivors receive mocking poems with the refrain, “Ye should have killed me.”

Wolfe investigates Chapin by reading the novels he’s written—tales of erotic obsession that echo Stout’s early books. Wolfe concludes that Chapin took his revenge in his writing, not in the world. But Wolfe exposes Chapin’s fixation on another man’s wife, expressed through his fetishistic treasuring of her gloves and underwear. Chapin vows to avenge himself by murdering a Wolfe surrogate in his next novel “in the most abhorrent manner conceivable.”

The League of Frightened Men is laced with conversations about fiction, poetry, plays, magazine articles, and literary devices. Archie and Wolfe argue about analogies and metaphors, and a client’s visit is presented as a play-like dialogue transcript. There’s an oblique reference to Ulysses’ current best-seller status in Wolfe’s remark: “What good is an obscenity trial except to popularize literature?” The refrains are notably arch: alongside Wolfe’s “feeling for phenomena” we get references to Spenser, romanticism, the soul, and stigmata.

Most indebted to modernism, I think, is a motif that gets punned via Archie’s vernacular. In the opening pages, alongside a news story covering Chapin’s audacious obscenity case, there’s a report Archie asks about. “Did you see the piece in the paper about a woman who has a pet monkey which sleeps at the head of her bed and wraps its tail around her wrist? And keeps it there all night?” Since we’ll later learn that Chapin forces his wife to steal the garments of the woman he worships, we’re invited to wonder if the monkey story isn’t a subterranean parallel.

The wondering ends when the woman whom Chapin desires asks Archie not to pity his wife: “A monkey might as well pity me because I haven’t got a tail.” The motif gets its twist on the last page, when Archie reflects that he and Chapin have something in common, because both men were misled by Wolfe and Fritz. “They had made a monkey of me all right.” Archie vows to give Chapin some suggestions for how to dispatch Wolfe in print. Stout’s symbolic imagery is transmuted into slang by Archie’s comic commentary.endnote115

Plot It Yourself (1959) lures Wolfe into comparative stylistics, a field ripe for Archie’s satire. Instead of reading one author’s oeuvre, Wolfe must undertake what he calls “textual study” of five unpublished manuscripts. Unknown authors are accusing famous ones of plagiarism. Wolfe determines that all the manuscripts were written by the same hand, but not by any of the writers claiming damages. Another writer prepared the fake manuscripts after the target books came out (“reverse plagiarism”). After Wolfe reveals the common authorship, the claimants start to be murdered.

The book teems with refrains. Nearly every page highlights a rare word choice (“gallant and honorable,” “puke,” “spurn,” “swagger”) that will echo elsewhere, sometimes many pages away. Characters quote each other, and Archie absorbs their idiolects into his narration. Special barbs are reserved for literary pretension, as when Archie recycles a vapid author’s catchphrase “more felt than perceived” and reflects on a children’s book: “She had written a book entitled The Moth That Ate Peanuts, which showed that she would stop at nothing.” That book becomes a running gag, which doesn’t prevent its supplying Wolfe a major clue.

There’s the usual bitter humor when Archie confronts death. He notices that one of the suspects lives in a “nice big room” with its “nice big chair” and “nice big couch.” Later the man’s body is “lying on the nice big couch, on his back.” Archie first informs us of another murder when he tells of waiting outside one plagiarist’s door. He reflects that his plans for confronting him might have worked if the man hadn’t been dead about fourteen hours. His next visit to a suspect is futile “since she had already been dead about twelve hours.” He reports to Wolfe about approaching a third suspect: “We can get her a little sooner than we have the others—say when she’s been dead only an hour or so.”

Who but Stout the word-lover would turn his detective to scrutinizing diction, syntax, and punctuation? Wolfe holds forth on tics of wording (“better than fingerprints”), but Archie’s own style, in conversation and in narration, overwrites his boss’s inferences. Wolfe finds that three manuscripts, supposedly composed by three authors, use the phrase “Not for nothing…” Archie takes the point: “Well. Not for nothing did you read the stories.” Stout pokes fun at clumsy writing by having Wolfe claim that weak authors have favorite substitutes for “say.”

“They have him declare, state, blurt, spout, cry, pronounce, avow, murmur, mutter, snap—there are dozens of them. Would you accept it as coincidence that this man and these two women have the same favorite, ‘aver’?”

Archie agrees, while nudging us.

“I’m sold,” I averred. “Coincidence is out.”

An extra fillip is included for deep-dyed fans: Wolfe includes in his catalogue Archie’s own pet substitute, “blurted.”endnote116

The metafictional machinery switches into high gear when Wolfe argues that habits of paragraphing are the most personal features of a writer’s presentation. Wolfe goes to bed, leaving Archie to puzzle over the manuscripts and notes. But that action is swallowed up in the longest paragraph in the book, launched by two sentences that cry out to be severed.

I put the stories in the safe and then considered the problem of the table-load of paper. The statuses and functions of the inhabitants of that old brownstone on West 35th Street are clearly understood.

Archie tacks on 156 words of exposition about household routines, duties, and eating arrangements utterly unconnected with the paperwork problem that headed the paragraph. He ends his catalogue of “the castle” with this:

The next sentence is to be, “But the table-load of paper, being in the office, was clearly up to me,"—and I have to decide whether to put it here or start a new paragraph with it. You see how subtle it is. Paragraph it yourself.

The command echoes the book’s title, which is derived from a review Archie claims to have read in the Times.

These interactive high jinks come early on, making us vigilant for all the wordplay and fussy distinctions to come. The climax of Plot It Yourself arrives when Wolfe discovers unexpected correspondences among the manuscripts and the published books. In the office showdown, the guilty party reveals the error. “I realized how stupid I had been not to write them in a different style, but you see I didn’t really know I had a style. I thought only good writers had a style.” Archie adds that hearing that reply “you might have thought Wolfe was conducting a class in the technique of writing.” A story that begins with Archie grading Wolfe’s reading on a scale from A to D ends in patient close reading and a discussion of style. Pace Professor Barzun, the business conference has become a seminar.

Rounded with a sleep

There is always a temptation to regard an artist’s final work as a summing up. Usually that’s too neat and opportunistic, but it’s hard not to see A Family Affair (1975), written while Stout’s health was declining, as a deliberate ending to the Wolfe saga. At eighty-eight, he knew he would probably write no more. “I haven’t got the energy. I’m on the slide.”endnote117 As a conclusion, it’s both comforting and uneasy.

The plot is unusually flimsy and barely fills out one of Stout’s shortest novels. Watergate serves as a pretext to introduce lawyers, recording engineers, and lobbyists as suspects, but their relationship to the central crime is tangential. As if anxious to get past the customary description of seating during the conference, Archie provides a diagram. At one point Archie shrugs off identifying the killer as a mere game the reader might choose to play. An absurdly simple clue, a slip of paper bearing the killer’s name, is hidden in, of all things, a book, The Feminine Mystique. (Wolfe: “I read about a third of it.”) But the perfunctory handling of the mystery is counterbalanced by world-building digressions, verbal texture, and an unprecedented vein of sorrow.

The percentage of text devoted to brownstone routines must be one of the highest in any Wolfe book. An entire chapter rests its nugget of action (setting a visitor’s appointment) on a cushion of office chores, mail sorting, discussion of the Iliad, germination records, citations of the Bible, comments on President Ford, postponing a poker game, and new information about the household: how many steps Fritz takes when he enters to announce a meal. In a book that will dramatize the ultimate disruption of routine, Archie is at pains to record every wrinkle of their days.

The web of refrains is as dense than ever. One summons up a motif that has run through the books since the 1930s. After reporting that Wolfe pointed straight at Cramer with his index finger (“another first”), Archie notes that Wolfe later wiggled a finger. “That was regression—I just looked it up. He had quit finger-wiggling a couple of years back.”endnote118  When Wolfe wiggles a finger again: “Regression again. Watergate had really loosened his hinges.”

Another refrain emerges when Wolfe speaks of Roman Vilar’s occupation, “what is euphemistically called security.” Soon enough Vilar is phoning and Archie tells Wolfe: “Fred has flushed one. Roman Vilar, euphemistic security.” It’s the usual relay, from Wolfe speech to Archie speech. The next link, in Archie prose, activates a new refrain.

Vilar, euphemistic security, was all points—pointed chin, pointed nose, pointed ears, even pointed shoulders. He was probably the youngest of them—at a guess, early forties. His saying that they couldn’t ask Pierre also pointed, for me, to the fact….

Archie won’t let the point motif go (“He was leaning forward in his chair, all his points pointing”). It reappears as a pun at the Eureka moment. Archie realizes in a flash the killer’s identity.

I’m aware that you probably knew a while back and you’re surprised that I didn’t, but that doesn’t prove that you’re smarter than I am. You are just reading about it, and I was in it, right in the middle of it. Also, I may have pointed once or twice, but I’m not going back and make changes.

In the analytical postmortem, Wolfe resorts to the word: the final murder “pointed up all the other items, brought them into focus.” For once Archie’s narration jumps to Wolfe’s speech.

Archie’s language games go all the way down. A suspect is shocked by Wolfe’s question: “By god, you ask it.” Why the lower-case G? Because earlier Wolfe had said, “By God.” Archie was shocked. “He never says by god, and he said it with a capital G. So I didn’t say anything.”

Granted, A Family Affair doesn’t lack moments of high spirits. Archie celebrates Fritz’s cooking and drinks champagne from Lily Rowan’s slipper. Called a goon, Archie replies, “Goodwin. You left out the D, W, I, but I’ll overlook it.” He mocks Wolfe’s complaint about the cost of sugar and shingles by saying, “I said I was glad to hear him having fun with words, tossing off an alliteration with two words that weren’t spelled the same. He said it had been casual, which was a lie.” Speaking of lies, can we really credit Archie’s defense of his style? “I try to make these reports straight accounts of what happened, and I’m not going to try to get tricky.” This occurs at the moment he declines to reveal the killer’s identity to us.

These light touches are overshadowed because death has invaded the household. Pierre Ducos, a waiter at Rusterman’s restaurant, has been murdered in an upstairs guest room by an explosive device in a cigar tube. Archie, Saul Panzer, Orrie Cather, and Fred Durkin team up, and their investigation shows that the family cannot wholly retreat from the world. The murder is committed by someone whom Wolfe has trusted for years.

Hints of this discord break through. Wolfe confesses that for once he is goaded by emotion—not just because the homicide struck his home, but because the explosion could have killed Archie. We know he’s shaken. He is working for no client, and it’s “the first time in my long experience that he was at a loss for words.” The “By God” outburst is telling. So are stumbling sentences Wolfe would otherwise revile, like “Whom did you hear say what?”

As ever, when emotion rises, Stout employs behavioral cues. Saul Panzer’s speech is normally a model of concise clarity, but this case pushes him toward prolixity and bad diction. He presses Archie: “I supposed you had it figured and was enjoying it. You actually didn’t know that he thought you’d kill him? That he thinks he knows you would!” All Archie can reply is: “Balls.”

Language fails Archie too. One passage hovers in a proto-modernist suspension between direct address and inner monologue.

My choice was plain. I could bow out for good, go to Twentieth Street, to either Stebbins or Cramer, and open the bag, or I could stick and take it as it came. Just wait and see.

The last four words could be a report of his mental state, or a command addressed to his reader, like “Paragraph it yourself.”

At moments Archie’s usual smooth patter becomes choppy, throwing up odd, jagged phrases. After the explosion he knocks on Wolfe’s bedroom door.

My usual three, a little spaced. I really did, and his voice came.

Next day, at Rusterman’s, Wolfe questions the other waiters.

Wolfe took in a bushel of air through his nose and let it out through his mouth. Felix, and now Philip, and they knew him.

You have to pause. “I really did”—what? “Felix, and now Philip”—did what? As the book approaches its climax, Archie blurs the boundaries as never before, muddling Wolfe’s style with his, and again he mingles direct discourse with inner monologue.

Our licenses had been suspended, if we crossed the river to Jersey or drove up to Westport or Danbury we would be locked up without bail, and we had three men out on the same limb with us, but pfui. Skip it. It will all come out in the wash. And Fritz was right, he wasn’t fou, he had merely decided that, since the situation was absolutely hopeless, he would ignore it.

Archie’s loss of control in the fiction sends a tremor through his telling.

These glitches suit the nervous ambience of A Family Affair, which caps the cycle of righteous-Archie books. As with the other cases in which Archie gets angry, this crime threatens his relationship with Wolfe. Wolfe discovers the killer before Archie does, but won’t speak of it. The refrain “standing mute” at first refers to Wolfe’s legal ploy but comes to be a signal of the gulf between him and Archie. At the climax, we learn that Wolfe has confided in Saul, not Archie, because he believes that the knowledge could drive Archie to murder.

Archie is furious. “Nuts.” Wolfe has misjudged him. He’d never kill the traitor. But his hand trembles, he turns to strike Saul’s piano keyboard, and once more he loses his golden tongue and turns a refrain into babble.

“I was just following instructions. He instructed us to ignore his decisions and instructions.”

“That’s a funny sentence.”

“I feel funny.”

As so often, Archie’s turmoil is articulated purely through behavior, but is then capped by a comment about language.endnote119

Aficionados rejoice when at the close of The Doorbell Rang (1965) Wolfe leaves J. Edgar Hoover steaming on the stoop of the old brownstone. A Family Affair ends there as well, but it becomes the site of a killer’s suicide, a rhyming cigar-case explosion. The classic convention of the Least Likely Person is fully operative, but the tone is—to use a word Archie considers poetic—bleak. Wolfe’s home is no sanctuary from pain.

The bleakness isn’t dispelled by Wolfe’s final assurance to Cramer that the years ahead hold more food and drink and logomachizing with Archie. The very last scene bookends the opening of Fer-de-Lance. Now Wolfe asks Archie to fetch not beer but brandy, and he invites Fritz to join them. Several early chapters have ended with Wolfe announcing that he’s going upstairs to sleep. As Cramer leaves, he flings Wolfe a challenge. “You probably never had to try to get some sleep. You never will.” The book, and the saga, ends on a troubled chord that gives Wolfe the final Shakespearean word: “We’ll try to get some sleep.”

Ambitious detective-story authors who wanted to legitimize the genre sought the key in abnormal psychology, or serious themes, or urban naturalism, or Oedipus, or flights of metaphor. Given Stout’s achievement, these aims seem deaf to the more holistic powers of popular storytelling.

Not for Stout the shuffled time schemes and booby-trapped viewpoints and baroque chapter divisions found in up-to-date mysteries. He worked a modernist sensibility into the very tissues of his prose. And that sensibility had less affinity with the heavy solemnity of Eliot than with the “light modernism” of Cocteau and Pirandello, a playful blending of old and new. Perhaps Stout’s stay in Paris acquainted him with that rappel à l’ordre sometimes called “neoclassicism” but better thought of as a romping willingness to bring suavity and faux naivete to formal experiment. Light modernism is openly eclectic, and so is Stout: Archie echoes Twain, Hammett, Hemingway, Wodehouse, and even Joyce and Gertrude Stein. Style in the Wolfe novels becomes like one of Fritz’s sauces, or rather marinades: the flavors of many literary traditions soak in and sharpen our appetites.

Accepting the framework of whodunit conventions, Stout delivered literary pleasure through old-fashioned appeals: agreeably eccentric characters, gripping scenes, a fully furnished world. He rendered it all in the brisk flow of American yarn-spinning, mixed with Joycean motivic play and a willingness to let common words hang out with rare ones. If detective fiction is a game of wits, why can’t it also be a game of language?

Is Stout a better writer than Chandler or Macdonald? I think so, though you may disagree. But obviously Archie is a better writer than Marlowe or Archer. He wants to be liked just for himself. The result is something we get too little of in any narrative tradition: delight.

Thanks to James Naremore, Lea Jacobs, Dorinda Hartmann, Kristin Thompson, Geoffrey O’Brien, and Glenn Kenny for comments and suggestions on this essay.

The epigraph appears as “Apologia Pro Vita Sua,” New York Times (21 August 1935), 17.

Because there are many editions of Stout’s Wolfe novels, I cite only chapters. Phrases can be fairly easily searched at Google Books by entering “Rex Stout.”

1 : David C. Tilden, “Exploring the Dark,” New York Herald Tribune (8 September 1929), 14.

2 : William Soskin, New York Evening Post, quoted in advertisement for Seed on the Wind, New York Times Book Review (28 September 1930), 16.

3 : Clifton Fadiman, “Realism and Mannerism,” The Nation (25 September 1929), 329; F. H., “Novel on the Stairs,” The New Republic (13 November 1929), 357.

4 : Joseph Warren Beach, “The Novel from James to Joyce,” The Nation (10 June 1931), 35.

5 : John McAleer, Rex Stout: A Biography (Boston: Little, Brown, 1977), 223–228.

6 : Quoted in John McAleer, Royal Decree: Conversations with Rex Stout (Ashton, MD: Pontes Press, 1983), 3.

7 : See for example Fred T. Marsh, “Seed on the Wind,” The Bookman (November 1930), 305.

8 : Fadiman, “Realism and Mannerism”; E. H., “Novel on the Stairs”; Ernest Sutherland Hayes, “A Modern Hamlet,” Saturday Review of Literature (26 October 129), 312.

9 : Quoted in John McAleer, Rex Stout: A Biography (New York: Little, Brown, 1977), 243.

10 : For a comprehensive list of Stout’s publications, see Rex Stout: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography, ed. Guy M. Townsend et al. (New York: Garland, 1980). David R. Anderson provides a solid critical study of themes of politics and family in the Wolfe books in Rex Stout (New York: Ungar, 1984). An early, still useful study is Mia I. Gerhardt, “Homicide West; Some Observations on the Nero Wolfe Stories of Rex Stout,” English Studies 49, 2 (Summer 1968), 107–127.

11 : Nero Wolfe, in Rex Stout, Fer-de Lance (1934), Chapter nbsp;5.

12 : Rex Stout, The Rubber Band (1936), Chapter 8.

13 : The fullest published description of the protagonists is given in “Fourth of July Picnic” in And Four to Go (1958). In a 1948 memo sent to a radio producer, Stout prepared physical descriptions of Wolfe and Archie; these are reproduced in McAleer, Rex Stout, 383.

14 : Rex Stout, “Grim Fairy Tales,” Saturday Review of Literature (2 April 1949), 34.

15 : Rex Stout, “Blood Will Tell,” Trio for Blunt Instruments (1964).

16 : Quoted in McAleer, Royal Decree, 43.

17 : Stout, “What to Do about a Watson,” in The Mystery Writer’s Handbook, ed. Herbert Brean (New York: Harper’s, 1956), 162.

18 : Stout, “Grim Fairy Tales,” 8.

19 : Stout, “Grim Fairy Tales,” 34.

20 : Rex Stout, “Introduction,” in Introducing Mr. Sherlock Holmes, ed. Edgar W. Smith (Morristown, NJ: The Baker Street Irregulars, 1959), n.p..

21 : Donald E. Westlake, “Introduction,” The Father Hunt (New York: Bantam, 1993), vii.

22 : Leroy Lad Panek, An Introduction to the Detective Story (Bowling Green: Bowling Green State Univesity Popular Press, 1987), 137–138. More generally, Panek’s books on crime and mystery fiction seem to me the most rigorous and intellectually ambitious research in the area. Watteau’s Shepherds: The Detective Novel in Britain 1914–1940 (Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1979) is particularly relevant here.

23 : See the extraordinary in-depth handling of Archie’s poisoning in The League of Frightened Men, Chapters 18–19.

24 : Rex Stout, “What to Do About a Watson,” 162.

25 : Rex Stout, In the Best Families, (1950), Chapter 15. Archie walks away from the encounter grinning. “”The game was on.”

26 : Rex Stout, The Mother Hunt (1963), Chapter 10.

27 : Rex Stout, “Instead of Evidence,” Trouble in Triplicate (1949).

28 : Rex Stout, Where There’s a Will (1940), Chapter 1; In the Best Families, Chapter 16.

29 : Rex Stout, The League of Frightened Men (1935), Chapter 20.

30 : Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor, “Rex Stout: Too Many Cooks,” in A Book of Prefaces to Fifty Classics of Crime Fiction 1900–1950 (New York: Garland, 1976), 101.

31 : An in-depth historical account of these developments is Michael Saler, As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). See also the very comprehensive survey provided by Mark J. P. Wolf, Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation (New York: Routledge, 2012).

32 : A valiant effort to chart the Mason universe shows only how depopulated and thinly furnished it is. See Frank E. Robbins, “The World of Perry Mason,” Quarterly Review: A Journal of University Perspectives (Ann Arbor: Alumni Association of the University of Michigan) 56, 21 (Summer 1950): 345–352.

33 : Matthew Wimsey [pseud. Dorothy Sayers, Helen Simpson, C. W. Scott-Giles, and Muriel St. Clair Byrne], Papers Related to the Family of Wimsey (London: Humphrey Milford, 1936).

34 : The process is traced in Mattias Boström, From Holmes to Sherlock: The Story of the Men and Women Who Created an Icon (New York: Mysterious Press, 2017), 201–202.

35 : Christopher Morley, “In Memoriam Sherlock Holmes,” in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Complete Sherlock Holmes (New York: Garden City Books, 1960), ix.

36 : Quoted in McAleer, Royal Decree, 43.

37 : Stout, “Watson Was a Woman,” in The Art of the Mystery Story: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Howarad Haycraft (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1946), 311–3dash;318.

38 : Stout, “Genesis of a Detective,” The New Republic (9 May 1960), 15.

39 : Stout, Fer-de-Lance, Chapter 5.

40 : W. S. Baring-Gould, Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street: The Life and Times of America’s Largest Detective (New York: Viking, 1969).

41 : Ken Darby, The Brownstone House of Nero Wolfe: As Told by Archie Goodwin (Boston: Little, Brown, 1983).

42 : Julian Symons, “In Which Archie Goodwin Remembers,” Great Detectives: Seven Original Investigations (New York: Abrams, 1981), 52–61.

43 : Rex Stout, A Family Affair (1975), Chapter 17.

44 : Stout himself was a creature of routines, at least in his later decades: to bed at 11, up at eight, breakfast followed by gardening, an afternoon snack, dinner at 6:30. See McAleer, Rex Stout, 349.

45 : The fullest inventory, chronology, and cast list I know is to be found in O. E. McBride, Stout Fellow: A Guide Through Nero Wolfe’s World (Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2003).

46 : Morley, “In Memoriam,” viii; Edmund Crispin, “Archie, your notebook,” The Sunday Times (4 June 1967), 26.

47 : Rex Stout, The Rubber Band (1936), Chapter 6.

48 : Howard Haycraft, Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story (New York: Appleton-Century,  1941), 232.

49 : Rex Stout, In the Best Families, Chapter 15.

50 : Rex Stout, The Rubber Band, Chapter 6.

51 : Barzun, “About Rex Stout,” A Birthday Tribute to Rex Stout (New York: Viking Press, 1965), 7. He adds that Wolfe’s “are the only seminars in which truth of any kind has been found.” Elsewhere Barzun describes Stout as having “acclimatised the Business Conference to the uses of detection” (“Detection in Extremis,” Crime in Good Company: Essays on Criminals and Crime Writing, ed. Michael Gilbert (London: Constable, 1959) 144–145).

52 : Rex Stout, “When a Man Murders,” Three Witnesses (1956).

53 : Raymond Chandler, Letter to Paul Brooks (19 July 1949) in Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler, ed. Frank MacShane (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), 187.

54 : Rex Stout, Some Buried Caesar (1939), Chapter 19.

55 : Rex Stout, If Death Ever Slept (1957), Chapter 14.

56 : Rex Stout, “The Mystery Novel,” The Writer’s Book, ed. Helen Hull (New York: Harper, 1950), 64.

57 : Stout, “Introducing Sherlock Holmes,” n. p.

58 : Stout, “The Mystery Novel,” 66.

59 : James Sandoe, “Mystery and Suspense,” New York Herald Tribune (6 Novembr 1955), E16.

60 : A search on Google N-gram yields no mention of the fer-de-lance in any books published between 1922 and 1934, the year Stout’s novel appeared.

61 : Will Cuppy, “Mystery and Adventure: The League of Frightened Men,” New York Herald Tribune (8 August 1935), F10.

62 : Stout, quoted in McAleer, Royal Decree, 22. I’m grateful to Joseph Wiesenfarth for alerting me to the “likeness” refrain in Emma, a book that Stout was rereading shortly before his death.

63 : Shaw discusses leitmotifs in The Perfect Wagnerite: A Commentary on the Niblung’s Ring (New York: Brentano’s, 1916), 119–128. An example in Shaw’s own work is the boa constrictor slithering through Man and Superman.

64 : Rex Stout, How Like a God (New York: Vanguard, 1929), 4, 41, 237.

65 : Rex Stout, Too Many Clients (1960), Prisoner’s Base (1952), Chapter 16.

66 : Stout, If Death Ever Slept, Chapter 1; Death of a Doxy (1966), Chapter 16.

67 : Stout, Some Buried Caesar, Chapter 9.

68 : The most famous example would be Octavius Roy Cohen’s caricatural portrayal of black detective Florian Slappey in Saturday Evening Post stories.

69 : Rex Stout, “So You’re Going Out for a Record, or The Compleat Philanderer,” in The Bedroom Companion, or a Cold Night’s Entertainment (New York; Farrar and Rinehart, 1935), 13–21; Rex Stout, “Who’s Who—And Why,” The Saturday Evening Post (19 October 1935), 86–97.

70 : Stout, And Be a Villain (1948), Chapter 9.

71 : To avoid a plethora of endnotes for the flurry of quotations coming up, I again invite the interested reader to search a phrase in Google Books, identifying Stout as author. The source should appear, usually with a page citation.

72 : Quoted in McAleer, Rex Stout, 282.

73 : Stout, The Silent Speaker (1946), Chapter 25.

74 : Stout, Murder by the Book (1951), Chapter 3.

75 : Mark Twin, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences,” in Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, and Essays 1891–1910 (New York: Library of America, 1992), 182.

76 : Lionel Trilling, “Huckleberry Finn,” The Liberal Imagination: Essays in Literature and Society (Garden City: Anchor, 1953), 113.

77 : Ross Macdonald, The Zebra-Striped Hearse (1962), Chapter 28.

78 : Rex Stout, Too Many Clients, Chapter 8; The Final Deduction (1961), Chapter 10; Might As Well Be Dead (1956), Chapter 16; Prisoner’s Base, Chapter 2.

79 : Stout, If Death Ever Slept, Chapter 10.

80 : Stout, Too Many Clients, Chapter 6.

81 : Stout, Too Many Cooks, Chapter 2.

82 : Stout, If Death Ever Slept, Chapter 17.

83 : Stout, League of Frightened Men, Chapter 20; Where There’s a Will, Chapter 7.

84 : On linguistic play in the Jeeves novels, see Kristin Thompson, Wooster Proposes, Jeeves Disposes; or, Le Mot Juste (London: Heineman, 1992), 282–290. She also discusses the parallels between the Jeeves/Wooster stories and the Holmes/Watson partnership (pp. 105–109).

85 : P. G. Wodehouse, “Foreword,” McAleer, Rex Stout, xv-xvi. Not incidentally, Wodehouse had already written a book called The Indiscretions of Archie (1928).

86 : Stout, Prisoner’s Base, Chapter 4.

87 : Stout, The Silent Speaker, Chapter 18.

88 : Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms (New York: Scribners, 2014; orig. 1929), 284. The several alternate endings Hemingway considered are appended on pp. 303–322.

89 : Quoted in George Plimpton, “An Interview with Ernest Hemingway,” Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises: A Casebook, ed. Linda Wagner-Martin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 29.

90 : Stout, The Silent Speaker, Chapter 19. Exceptional in the novels, this is a two-page Chapter devoted wholly to Archie’s reaction to death.

91 : Stout, The Silent Speaker, Chapter 19.

92 : Raymond Chandler, “Killer in the Rain,” Collected Stories (New York: Knopf, 2002), 215.

93 : Rex Stout, The Golden Spiders (1953), Chapter 2.

94 : Stout, Prisoner’s Base, Chapters 3–4.

95 : Stout, Murder by the Book, Chapter 4.

96 : Stout, The Golden Spiders, Chapter 2.

97 : Stout, Prisoner’s Base, Chapter 4.

98 : Stout, Murder by the Book, Chapter 14.

99 : Stout, The Silent Speaker, Chapter 36.

100 : Stout, Gambit (1962), Chapter 9.

101 : The original editions of Where There’s a Will and the short story “Easter Parade” incorporate photos as clues. Earlier, Stout inserted both staged and actual news photos into The President Vanishes. Perhaps these were hangovers from the New Romance tradition, which reveled in fake documents as playful gestures toward authenticity. Such addenda were also, of course, part of the whodunit tradition of offering the reader palpable clues like floor plans, facsimile documents, and drawings.

102 : Rex Stout, A Right to Die (1964), Chapter 14; “The Rodeo Murder,” Three at Wolfe’s Door (1960); “Disguise for Murder,” Curtains for Three (1951).

103 : Stout, In the Best Families, Chapter 12.

104 : Stout, Over My Dead Body, Chapter 2; Some Buried Caesar, Chapter 12.

105 : Rex Stout, “Method Three for Murder,” Three at Wolfe’s Door (1960).

106 : Rex Stout, Death of a Dude (1969), Chapter 5; “Frame-Up for Murder,” And Four to Go (1958).

107 : Stout, The Red Box, Chapter 13.

108 : Rex Stout, Please Pass the Guilt (1973), Chapter 10.

109 : Stout, Too Many Clients, Chapter 9.

110 : “His main joy was Rex Stout, whose books he would read again and again, until Nero Wolfe assumed near-reality and figured as a quotable authority in his conversation.” See John Henry Jones, “The Empsons,” London Review of Books (12 August 1989).

111 : William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity: A Study of Its Effects in English Verse (New York: Meridian, 1955), 7.

112 : Stout, Please Pass the Guilt, Chapter 10; The Black Mountain, (1954), preface; Too Many Clients, Chapter 6; “When a Man Murders,” Three Witnesses (1956); Prisoner’s Base, Chapter 1.

113 : Stout, The Mother Hunt, Chapter 9.

114 : Stout, Murder by the Book, Chapter 4.

115 : Stout, League of Frightened Men, Chapters 21, 1, 17, and 22.

116 : Abstemiously, Stout refrains from having Archie use “blurted” in Plot It Yourself, but he has recourse to the word in at least seventeen published reports, sometimes more than once per story.

117 : McAleer, Rex Stout, 527.

118 : It’s more or less true: by my count only five books from 1950 up to A Family Affair report finger-wiggling.

119 : Stout, A Family Affair, Chapter 14.

David Bordwell
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