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Stout, Rex

Page history last edited by Jon 9 years, 6 months ago

Rex StoutSource: Wikipedia, Christian's bibliography

 

Rex Todhunter Stout (December 1, 1886 - October 27, 1975) was an American writer best known as the creator of the larger-than-life fictional detective Nero Wolfe. Stout was born in Noblesville, Indiana, but shortly after that his Quaker parents (John Wallace Stout and Lucetta Elizabeth Todhunter Stout) moved their family (nine children in all) to Kansas.

 

His father was a teacher who encouraged his son to read, and Rex had read the entire Bible twice by the time he was 4 years old. At the age of 13 he was the state spelling-bee champion. He served two years in the U.S. Navy (as a yeoman on President Teddy Roosevelt's official yacht) and then spent about four years working at about thirty different jobs (in six states), including cigar store clerk, while he sold poems, stories, and articles to various magazines.

 

It was not his writing but his invention of a school banking system in about 1916 that gave him enough money to travel in Europe extensively. (About 400 U.S. schools adopted his system for keeping track of the money school children saved in accounts at school, and he was paid royalties.) In Paris in 1929 he wrote his first book, How Like a God. After writing three more successful novels, he returned to the U.S. and began writing detective stories. The first one was Fer-de-Lance, which introduced Nero Wolfe and his side-kick Archie Goodwin. That novel was first published as a serial in The Saturday Evening Post and then as a book in 1934. Stout continued writing the Wolfe series until shortly before his death in 1975, yielding a total of approximately 33 novels and 39 collected novellas or short stories.

 

Nero Wolfe has been featured in film adaptations from the 1930s through the 1980s and was recently the subject of a television series on the A&E Network. An organization of Stout and Wolfe aficionados, The Wolfe Pack, holds events for readers of the series including bimonthly book discussions and an annual Assembly and Banquet in New York, and publishes the biennial "Gazette."

 

In 1937, Stout created Dol (Theodolinda) Bonner, who may have been the first female private detective to star in a novel. She would reappear in several Wolfe books. A third series detective was the skinny, folksy, Tecumseh Fox.

 

As an established writer, Stout's policy was to write one Wolfe novel and one novella a year. The novellas were published in magazines and later collected in groups of three for book publication.

 


Novella rankings by Bob Schneider

 

An updated version of this can be found here.

 

Thoughts on Rex Stout

 

After finishing 40 of the 41 Nero Wolfe novellas I want to offer my thoughts on Rex Stout’s ability and talent as a detective story writer. He was and is often accused of being a weak plotter, poor at characterization and too formulaic. Certainly there is a basis for that criticism. I would add another; he seemed to give little attention to re-writing and polishing his stories. Yet, many of his stories are entertaining, well plotted and contain some good characterization. As to the formulaic criticism, well there is no denying that fact. The Nero Wolfe stories are formulaic. In fact, here is the formula: Create a cast of vaguely suspicious characters. Kill one of them. Give the remaining characters motive and opportunity to commit the act but provide none with an alibi. Show Archie cracking wise. Throw in a paragraph about the orchids and Fritz’s cooking. Bring in Saul Panzer and friends if the investigation stalls. Have Wolfe concoct an elaborate stratagem.

 

Gather everyone in the brownstone to expose the murderer.

 

Well, there it is; Stout’s formula. Now, why can’t we all just follow the formula and make some money. We can’t because, despite what Stout’s critics say, there is more to it. Stout injected the formula with snappy dialogue, detection, clever deductions, action, humor, suspense and good storytelling. Well, maybe not all of the time but often enough to satisfy me. Often enough for his books to still be in print and for people to still be reading and discussing them.

 

The A Team

 

1 A+ "Die Like a Dog" 1954 (THREE WITNESSES 1956)

Near perfect, echoes Anna K Green & EQ. Complex plot for a 20,000 word story. AKA "The Body in the Hall", "A Dog in the Daytime"

 

2 A+ "This Won't Kill You" 1952 (THREE MEN OUT 1954)

Baseball & murder, solid deductions & detection. Not one misplaced word in the ballpark chapters. AKA "This Will Kill You", "The World Series Murder"

 

3 A "Black Orchids" 1941 (BLACK ORCHIDS 1942)

Top-notch early Wolfe. Evocative of Emma Lathen at her best & a bit of Gladys Mitchell. AKA "The Case of the Black Orchids", "Death Wears an Orchid"

 

4 A "The Zero Clue" 1953 (THREE MEN OUT 1954)

Surrealistic, almost sci-fi Asimov-ish story featuring mathematics, numbers, probabilities, coincidences & EQ-like dying message. Least typical of all the Wolfe stories. AKA "Scared to Death"

 

5 A- "Too Many Detectives" 1956 (THREE FOR THE CHAIR 1957)

Dol Bonner & Sally Colt join the boys. Solid, complex plot worthy of EQ.

 

5.5 A- "Bitter End", 1940 (DEATH TIMES THREE 1985)

A re-write & condensation of a former Tecumseh Fox novel. Complex plot, complicated character relationships and fairly-clued. The first novella length adventure for Wolfe & Archie.

 

The B Squad

 

6 B+ "Counterfeit for Murder" 1961 (HOMICIDE TRINITY 1962)

Hattie Annis character elevates a C+ plot to a B+ story. Re-write of what is now known as "Assault on a Brownstone". AKA "The Counterfeiter's Knife"

 

7 B+ "Cordially Invited to Meet Death" 1942 (BLACK ORCHIDS 1942)

Leisurely paced, Christie-like story. American version of the English Manorhouse setting featuring unusual household.

 

8 B+ "Before I Die" 1947 (TROUBLE IN TRIPLICATE 1949)

Violent & funny. Runyon meets Hammett. Events take place just after WWII

 

9 B+ "The Cop Killer" 1951 (TRIPLE JEOPARDY 1952)

Solid plot, working class characters, good clues & deductions. AKA "Cop Killer"

 

10 B "The Gun With Wings" 1949 (CURTAINS FOR THREE 1951)

Undeservedly neglected, low-keyed, well-written story.

 

11 B "Disguise for Murder" 1950 (CURTAINS FOR THREE 1951)

A great deduction by Wolfe. Key clue hidden in plain sight. Unnecessary melodramatic action sequence added at end. AKA "Affair of the Twisted Scarf"

 

12 B "Murder Is No Joke" 1957 (AND FOUR TO GO 1958)

A solid, quietly effective, fairly clued story despite highly improbable behavior by 3 characters. Later expanded, partly re- written & re-titled "Frame Up for Murder" which is also a B rating.

 

13 B- "Poison a la Carte" 1960 (THREE AT WOLFE'S DOOR 1960)

Misogynistic story featuring Permutation Theory. Could have been top- notch had Wolfe used deductive reasoning instead of a stratagem to expose the killer.

 

14 B- "Method Three for Murder" 1960 (THREE AT WOLFE'S DOOR 1960)

Solid effort, FW Crofts-like plot. Borders on humdrum but manages to avoid it.

 

15 B- "A Window for Death" 1956 (THREE FOR THE CHAIR 1957)

Good characterization. Ross MacDonald-like plot. Could use some re- writing & polishing. AKA "Nero Wolfe and the Vanishing Clue"

 

The C Group

 

16 C+ "Omit Flowers", 1948 (THREE DOORS TO DEATH 1950)

Slow pace, somber tone, plot could be tighter. Archie makes a great deduction.

 

17 C+ "Bullet for One" 1948 (CURTAINS FOR THREE 1951)

Decent mis-direction. Perhaps plot is too simplistic & artificial. Dick Francis theme.

 

18 C+ "Instead of Evidence" 1946 (TROUBLE IN TRIPLICATE 1949)

JD Carr-like plot, Gladys Mitchell-like finish. Clues are withheld. Too long by 1,000 words. AKA "Murder on Tuesday"

 

19 C+ "The Next Witness" 1955 (THREE WITNESSES 1956)

Homage to ES Gardner. Questionable legal & courtroom maneuverings. Interesting business background for the crimes. AKA "The Last Witness"

 

20 C+ "Invitation to Murder" 1952 (THREE MEN OUT 1954)

Slow paced, fairly-clued, decent plot. Two mysteries solved. AKA "Will to Murder" is the better title.

 

21 C+ "Booby Trap" 1944 (NOT QUITE DEAD ENOUGH 1944)

WWII story, subdued humor, mostly slow-paced, fairly clued. Drags in spots.

 

22 C "Man Alive" 1947 (THREE DOORS TO DEATH 1950)

Homage to Christie's AND THEN THERE WERE NONE. Plot could be tighter.

 

23 C "When a Man Murders" 1954 (THREE WITNESSES 1956)

Similar theme to "Man Alive". Nothing special. Needs a better title.

 

24 C "Death of a Demon" 1961 (HOMICIDE TRINITY 1962)

Action packed & suspenseful but unfairly clued. Lots of coincidences & loose ends. AKA "The Gun Puzzle"

 

25 C- "Help Wanted, Male" 1945 (TROUBLE IN TRIPLICATE 1949)

WWII story. Humorous situations, interesting but far-fetched plot.

 

26 C- "Christmas Party" 1956 (AND FOUR TO GO 1958)

Good cat-fights, slight yet amusing plot, little detection. AKA "The Christmas Party Murder"

 

27 C- "The Rodeo Murder" 1960 (THREE AT WOLFE'S DOOR 1960)

Too many cowboys & cowgirls. Decent mis-direction, possibly unfairly clued. A dull story. AKA "The Penthouse Murder"

 

28 C- "Not Quite Dead Enough" 1942 (NOT QUITE DEAD ENOUGH 1944)

WWII story. Decent plot, good deductions but too long by 1/3.

 

The D as in Dog pack

 

29 D+ "Blood Will Tell" 1963 (TRIO FOR BLUNT INSTRUMENTS 1964)

Interesting character relationships, shaky deductions. Entertaining story but plot has holes. The last Wolfe novella Stout wrote.

 

30 D+ "Door to Death" 1949 (THREE DOORS TO DEATH 1950)

Very funny story, thin plot, no detection.

 

31 D "Immune to Murder" 1955 (THREE FOR THE CHAIR 1957)

Easily guessable killer, not much detection, mostly of interest to fly fishing enthusiasts.

 

32 D "Eeny Meeny Murder Mo" 1962 (HOMICIDE TRINITY 1962)

Plotline & law firm background had potential but careless writing torpedoes story.

 

33 D- "Home to Roost" 1952 (TRIPLE JEOPARDY 1952)

Weak plot, uninteresting characters, fairly clued but no real deducing by Wolfe.

 

34 D- "Murder is Corny" 1962 (TRIO FOR BLUNT INSTRUMENTS 1964)

Weaker than usual characters, weak plot, clues & deductions not first rate. AKA "The Sweet Corn Murder"

 

35 D- "Kill Now—Pay Later" 1962 (TRIO FOR BLUNT INSTRUMENTS 1964)

Unfair cluing, odd plotting, decent humor, two somewhat interesting female characters.

 

The F as in Failure class

 

36 F "The Squirt and the Monkey" 1951 (TRIPLE JEOPARDY 1952)

Potentially interesting storyline turned into a dull read by uninspired writing & loose ends. AKA "See No Evil", "The Dazzle Dan Murder Case"

 

37 F "Easter Parade" 1957 (AND FOUR TO GO 1958)

Weak plot, nil characterization, little detection. AKA "The Easter Parade Murder"

 

38 F "Fourth of July Picnic" 1957 (AND FOUR TO GO 1958)

Promising storyline spoiled by unfair clueing, weak characterization and careless plotting. AKA "Fourth of July Murder", "The Labor Union Murder"

 


Mike Grost on Rex Stout

 

Rex Stout's novels have a common basic pattern. There is some fairly upper class business, such as cooking, cattle breeding, or radio, in which most of the characters are employed. The characters are involved in a complex dispute, which leads to much negotiation and deal making. The deals are often changed and renegotiated, often with the help of detective Nero Wolfe. Interspersed with all of this is a mystery. The mystery plot has some simple trick solution, hopefully fairly clever. Starting in 1940, Stout also became a prolific author of mystery novellas, most of which were published in the slick American Magazine, or, after 1956, in the Saturday Evening Post.

 

Stout's strongest feature as a writer is his superb dialogue. This dialogue shows the influence of that in the S.S. Van Dine books. Both authors indulged in complex, point-counter-point dialogues. Behind both authors is the stichomythia in Greek drama - the ingenious line by line counterpointing dialog that is so brilliant in Aeschylus and other writers. Stout's storytelling can also be superb. Like Van Dine, he knows how to make a really interesting tale unfold.

 

Stout's weakest feature is his puzzle plotting. His novellas are often well plotted, but his novels seem much weaker. The best Wolfe novel I have yet read with a good mystery plot is Some Buried Caesar. This book also has some of Stout's best humor and characterization, as well as some of Stout's most resonant symbolism, as discussed above. It is universally admired as one of its author's finest works. So we can all agree on something... Stout's fiction has been much praised by top critics of the 1940's (Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr), and the 90's (Jon L. Breen, William L. DeAndrea). The recent paperback release of Stout contains glowing introductory tributes from dozens of mystery writers. So why can't I enjoy much of it? Stout's bad plotting drives me crazy. I work my way through many of his novels, and get nothing in return. The Tecumseh Fox novel, Double For Death (1939), is especially disappointing in this regard, as is And Be a Villain (1948). So far, the Stout novel I have most actively enjoyed on all levels, puzzle plot and storytelling, is Some Buried Caesar.

 

Also, there are some more idiosyncratic factors at work. All the fierce, unfriendly deal making in Stout's books is a big turn-off to me. I dislike purchasing something in an antique shop, or being involved in any situation where I have to negotiate a price with an antagonist out to get me. I just don't like adversarial situations. I never play combat-based computer games either. Adversarial negotiations have little to do with today's business world. Corporations are looking for people who are good at working with and supporting others on their team. Business negotiations center on trying to move toward win-win situations, coming up with creative ideas that benefit all parties. Antagonism is out, problem solving is in.

 

Two of the Wolfe novels are interesting for their look at racial integration. This is a subject of substance, and one of great personal interest to Stout. Too Many Cooks (1938) has a memorable encounter in Chapters 10 and 11, in which Nero Wolfe interrogates a group of black waiters. These chapters are an early expression of Civil Rights idealism in mystery fiction. Stout also wrote a sequel of sorts, many years later, in which one of the characters from the earlier book returns. A Right to Die (1964) is a lively look at the Civil Rights era, and shows good storytelling. But its puzzle plot is weak. A Right to Die develops an interesting pattern of personal relationships among its characters, that interacts with the political ideas and issues of the era. The pattern is creative, and helps make the book one of the most enjoyable of Stout's novels. Each character in the story has their own relationship to the murder victim, and their own political beliefs about Civil Rights; the political beliefs and the relationship are often connected. While many Stout novels focus on a business, this one centers on a Civil Rights organization, playing the same structural role in the novel as a business typically does in a Wolfe book.

 

Stout and the Van Dine School

 

Stout's basic paradigm is fairly similar to that of S. S. Van Dine's Philo Vance books. One difference is that Wolfe and Archie are private detectives, whereas most Van Dine school sleuths are either genius amateurs who work with the police as unofficial consultants, or genius amateurs who have gone to work for the police. Wolfe is certainly an eccentric genius, in the full Van Dine tradition, but he is not an amateur. And his relations with the police, while close and sometimes collaborative, are also much less friendly than most Van Dine school detectives.

 

Van Dine often included collectors and enthusiasts in his tales. Examples are the dog lovers in The Kennel Murder Case (1932), the tropical fish lovers of The Dragon Murder Case (1933), the Egyptologists of The Scarab Murder Case (1929). Ellery Queen followed suit with the rare book lovers of many of his tales, and the stamp collectors of The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934). Stuart Palmer had the museum setting of "The Riddle of the Dangling Pearl" (1933), and the dog show setting of "The Riddle of the Blueblood Murders" (1934). Rex Stout followed this Van Dine School tradition by using an orchid grower and/or flower show background for several of his works, including Some Buried Caesar (1938-1939), "Black Orchids" (1941), and "Easter Parade" (1957). There are also the expert chefs and gourmets of Too Many Cooks (1938) and "Poison à la Carte" (1958), and the fishing expedition of "Immune to Murder" (1955).

 

Van Dine often included bizarre, ingenious murder methods in his work. These occur frequently in Stout as well. The opening sections of a Stout mystery often depict a mystery against a colorful background. How the crime was committed is completely unclear. Eventually, Nero and Archie figure out the details of the bizarre murder method used. The solution to this problem is revealed almost at once, often around half way through the story, or even earlier. Throughout the rest of the tale, the focus is figuring out whodunit, the actual killer. This is revealed at the end of the story. This two part construction, figuring out the method of the murder in the first half, the identity of the killer in the second, occurs in such works as Some Buried Caesar (1938-1939), "Black Orchids" (1941), "Cordially Invited to Meet Death" (1942) and "Poison à la Carte" (1958). Stout often put his greatest creativity into the first half of these tales. Both the colorful background, and the mystery puzzle surrounding the hidden method of murder, are often brilliantly done. By contrast, the actual whodunit section in the second half tends to be much less ingenious. There is a different sort of two part construction in The Red Box (1936 - 1937). Stout solves one, preliminary mystery (Chapters 1 - 8), which immediately leads to a second mystery taking up the rest of the book (Chapters 8 - 20). Stout's writing in the first section is quite lively.

 

Van Dine's work emphasized the individual psychology of the characters; their diverse psychological profiles served as identifications of the killer. Some of Stout's novels focus especially on individual attributes, especially tastes and preferences. In the first half of The Red Box (1936 - 1937), the varying tastes of the individuals for different kinds of candy serves Wolfe as a window into the crime's mechanism. In And Be a Villain (1948), Wolfe looks at approaches to soft drinks.

 

It has become a truism of criticism that Stout's work is halfway between Golden Age writers like Van Dine, and hard-boiled writers like Hammett. According to this view, Wolfe is in the Van Dine tradition, whereas Archie is a hard-boiled detective like Sam Spade. I cannot agree with this point of view at all, however, and find little to support it. The social setting of Stout's fiction is consistently among the upper middle classes, as in the Van Dine school. We rarely if ever see the mobsters and toughs of the hard-boiled writers, nor are there underworld-run settings of nightclubs or casinos. There are few scenes of violence or brutality in Stout's fiction, although Archie on rare occasions indulges in fisticuffs (see "Bitter End", for instance, or "Death of a Demon"), and "This Won't Kill You" (1952) and The Golden Spiders (1953) have some genuine rough stuff, unlike most of Stout's work. In fact, it is the gratuitous middle section containing distasteful, gross violence that harms "This Won't Kill You", which otherwise has some well done plotting and clues. "This Won't Kill You" (1952) is the last novella Stout published, before the great run of his outstanding 1950's short works begins in 1953.

 

Stout's prose also has little in common with the hard-boiled writers. It has few metaphors or wisecracks, although Archie lets off some startling similes in "Black Orchids" (1941). Nor does Stout indulge in the ornate descriptive passages of the hard-boileds. One might also point out that Stout was not an alumnus of Black Mask magazine, unlike many hard-boiled authors. His Wolfe stories appeared in books and slick magazines right from the start. One can also question whether Archie really relates to the hard-boiled dicks of his era. He talks in a direct way, and has few pretensions as an All-American kind of guy. But he also seems much fresher and less cynical and hard-bitten than Sam Spade, for instance.

 

Stout's Antecedents

 

In the 1920's Vincent Starrett wrote a series about bookstore owner and armchair detective George Washington Troxell, who solves problems brought to him by police reporter Frederick "Fred" Dellabough. The article on Starrett describes how these tales might have served as a prototype for Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Another possible precursor is R. Austin Freeman's Dr. Thorndyke detective series, especially in its depiction of the quarters shared by Thorndyke, Jervis and Polton. While Wolfe and Goodwin are very different from Freeman's characters, Thorndyke's establishment is one of the largest in detective fiction before Wolfe's brownstone. Both are private detectives whose clients come to call, both do a lot of realistic negotiation with their clients, and Polton is almost as good at cooking as Wolfe's Fritz Brenner.

 

Stout had an early writing career in the 1910's, long before Nero Wolfe debuted in 1934. Recently the collection Target Practice (1998) reprinted his short fiction from All-Story, a pioneer pulp magazine. A few of these are crime stories. "Secrets" (1914), which the book's back cover describes as Stout's first crime short story, deals with a lawyer. The crime in the tale is embezzlement from a bank. This is a favorite subject of the early American Scientific school: it occurs in Jacques Futrelle's "The Man Who Was Lost" (circa 1906), Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Circular Staircase (1907), and Clinton H. Stagg's "The Keyboard of Silence" (collected in book form in 1915). The use of a painter as a character also recalls Futrelle. Stout's work has some similarities to the American Scientific School. His detective Nero Wolfe is a genius, like Futrelle's detective the Thinking Machine and Arthur B. Reeve's scientist-sleuth Craig Kennedy. Wolfe has some interest in science, as an orchid grower, and science sometimes plays a role in the Wolfe stories, especially animals and mathematics. The use of individual psychology in Stout's novels recalls the word association tests favored by the Scientific school. Wolfe works as a private detective on a consulting basis, just like the Thinking Machine, Craig Kennedy, Thornley Colton, and other of the school's detectives. He tends to deal with crimes that center around business, and less around the personal lives of his characters. The characters represent the upper levels of finance, industry, and public life, just as in Arthur B. Reeve and the others. Stout's technique of having Archie gather all the suspects together for the big finale also derives from Arthur B. Reeve, who is the earliest writer known to me using this device: it is regularly used in Reeve's first collection of Craig Kennedy tales, The Silent Bullet (1911). Other Stout features recalling Reeve: the way Wolfe listens in on conversations, reminding one of Reeve tales with listening devices. An episode in Fer-de-lance (1934), the first Nero Wolfe novel, recalls the plot of Reeve's "The Black Diamond".

 

One does not want to carry this relation between the Scientific School and Stout too far. The other main mystery work in Target Practice, the novella "Justice Ends at Home" (1915), has as its amateur detective not a scientist, but middle aged lawyer Simon Leg and his 20 year old office boy Dan Culp. The back of the book also points out that these could be rough sketches for Wolfe and Archie. Leg is as lazy as Wolfe: having inherited money he wants to sit around all day reading adventure stories, just as Wolfe loves orchids and food. However, he is a lot more good natured than Wolfe, and far less brainy. The real detective genius of the pair is Dan Culp. This likable young man does a lot of energetic leg work, just like Archie, and it is this vigorous detective work that is the stories' focus. There are some good ideas about a cinema in Chapter 6. The novella is very readable, but the puzzle plot is obvious, and the story can only be recommended to people curious about Stout's evolution as a writer. Among the tale's other merits: a look at corruption and "influence" being brought to bear on the police authorities of the era - such frank looks at civic corruption being part of the American Scientific School's traditions.

 

Ritual Sacrifice

 

A persistent theme in Rex Stout's stories is the ritualistic sacrifice. This ritual has associations with ancient fertility rites such as the Dionysius cult. For example, Some Buried Caesar (1938-1939) opens with the bull Caesar about to undergo the equivalent of being ritually sacrificed, and eaten. In "Help Wanted, Male", Nero Wolfe himself is to be assassinated, and he hires a double, no less, to stand in for him, as the target of assassination attempts. The story makes a good deal of macabre comedy out of the situation. But it still involves someone who is deliberately chosen to be the target of a sacrificial death. In "Curtain Line", an actor playing a famous detective is killed. He is in fact being murdered in an attempt to symbolically kill the fictional detective he portrays. The novel Prisoner's Base (1952) also deals disturbingly in a public attempt to kill someone. The League of Frightened Men (1935) involves a student injured during a fraternity hazing ritual - another example of the invocation of ritual in these killings.

 

There is another element in many of these stories of ritual sacrifice. It is an emphasis on the large number of people who will participate. In Caesar, the bull's flesh will be fed to the masses at a chain of cheap eateries, with the experience amplified by all that modern publicity can do. "Curtain Line" stresses that the fictional detective has 40 million fans. In And Be A Villain (1948), the victim is killed in front of a nationwide radio audience. As in the Dionysius story, and other ancient myths, the sacrifice is participated in, and benefits, the entire nation. The people as a whole take part in it.

 

Champagne for One (1958) also has elements of a public murder. Even before that, the opening scenes depict a party with many aspects of a fertility ritual. This formal society dinner party embodies all the rituals of that strangely elaborate social protocol. These are combined with an unusual asymmetry between the men and women guests. In many ways, the men are on display here as potential romantic partners to the women, and vice versa. This gives an odd and interesting effect to all the ritual. The institution with the women recalls the female factory in "Bitter End" (1940), and its comparison to a maternity ward. The romantic exhibition of the men, including Archie, who are their most polished and suave here, also recalls tales such as "A Window For Death" (1956), and Archie's friendship with Arrow. Archie clearly enjoys taking part in this refined ritual exhibition. The novel demonstrates Stout's abilities to create unique situations, ones loaded with symbolic resonance. The book also has a creative puzzle plot, one with aspects of the impossible crime. Once again, Stout shows ingenuity is showing how an inexplicable crime was actually done. The dinner party and the women's institution recall a bit Hulbert Footner's The House With the Blue Door (1942), while the actual murder is somewhat in the tradition of Ellery Queen's Calamity Town (1942). The book's subject matter, an ingenious poisoning, with a dinner party set-up, also resembles Stout's novella "Poison à la Carte" (1958) written immediately after Champagne for One, although the two works' puzzle plots are quite different.

 

Stout's Short Fiction of the Early 1940's

 

Stout's first Nero Wolfe novella was "Bitter End" (1940). This was an adaptation of the Tecumseh Fox novel, Bad For Business (1940), with Nero and Archie substituted as detectives. While the puzzle plot is ordinary, the story is oddly compelling reading. The family relationships that are set up seem genuinely bizarre and strange. The horrifying relationships of the family in the tale even penetrate to the all male refuge of Wolfe's brownstone in the novella's opening, as family problems invade Wolfe's retreat.

 

The opening of the story echoes Some Buried Caesar (1939) in dealing with the mass production of food. The manufacture of the food, in an antiquated factory run entirely by women, is compared to a maternity ward by Stout. This bizarre production of food-as-children in the first half of the story is echoed by the real and even more bizarre child raising practices in the second half. The deliberate spoiling of the food seems rather analogous to the sacrifice of the bull in Caesar. It also anticipates the rejection of the child in the second part of the story. The architecture of the factory also seems interesting, with tunnels for trucks leading in and out representing the female body. The idea of a female factory symbolizing the reproductive process recalls Herman Melville's "The Paradise of Bachelors and The Tartarus of Maids" (1855), which describes a paper factory. There are important differences between Melville and Stout as well, however: Stout seems to deal more with the actual creation and raising of children, whereas Melville's imagery reflects sexuality. Melville's tale tends to depersonalize the people caught in it, whereas Stout's work heightens his characters' unique personalities.

 

"Not Quite Dead Enough" (1942) includes one of Stout's best puzzle plots. He returned to the mood of this story in two novellas he wrote in early 1959, "Eeny Meeny Murder Mo" and "Counterfeit for Murder". "Eeny Meeny Murder Mo" has another fine puzzle plot in the tradition of "Not Quite Dead Enough". It also shows good storytelling throughout. "Counterfeit for Murder" is weak in the puzzle plot department, but its characters have charm. Both "Counterfeit" and "Not Quite Dead Enough" have a similar setting, a cheap but respectable rooming house run by a crusty old landlady. The denizens of these houses are among the few financially strapped groups of suspects in Stout's work; he tended to write about upper middle class New Yorkers, in the Van Dine tradition. Even here, however, in "Counterfeit for Murder", the characters are all theatrical types, and preserve the intellectual character of the Van Dine school.

 

I'm not sure whether to recommend "Booby Trap" (1944) or not. The central puzzle plot is completely ordinary. It is one of those tales in which Wolfe finds the killer, not through logical deduction from clues, but by setting a trap for the killer. This sort of thing violates fair play; logically, the killer could have been any one of the six suspects in the tale, and there is nothing to suggest one over the other. However, the subsidiary mysteries in "Booby Trap" are all quite clever. Stout derives many paradoxes from the military setting; this is one of the few works of his that has such a background.

 

Stout was an ardent patriot, who spent the war years doing public service on the war effort. Yet he is quite skeptical about the military. He depicts it as an institution riddled with both politics and corruption. This is the point of view that will be found later in Lawrence G. Blochman's service tales. Stout's point of view seems to stem from a suspicion of the rich and powerful in all areas. Since such people tend toward corruption, he logically deduces that they will be equally corrupt when put in charge of the Armed Forces. Stout's politics can be described as liberal, but definitely not radical. After the war, in the late 1940's, Stout will be just as savagely critical of the Communist far left as he was of fascists and appeasers during the war. This anti-Communist stance also anticipates Blochman, and his work of the 1950's.

 

If Stout was critical of high level Army officials, he was fascinated by the way the Army was run. He clearly loved the uniforms, the saluting, and all the military and Intelligence ethos. His attitude echoed that of the 1940's American public, who regarded such things with similar enthusiasm, almost as a new toy. By the 1960's, such things will be unfashionable with the general public, and much ridiculed. Stout was plainly thrilled to put Archie in uniform, and give him an officer's rank. This is the closest Archie gets to an independent life in any of the tales. It is also the most recognition Archie gets from society as a person of ability. There will be a little of the same effect again, when Archie goes out on a solo social outing at the start of Champagne for One (1958), and gets involved in a murder mystery. The tuxedo that Archie and the other men wear is referred to metaphorically as a uniform.

 

Many of the transitional novellas Stout wrote in the late 1940's and early 1950's are not that good. But "The Cop-Killer" (1951) is a solid work, with a well hidden plot idea in its solution. Like "Too Many Detectives" (1956), the plot focuses on the "economy of knowledge", showing how information is passed around. Several of Stout's puzzle plots involve such an intricate dance of knowledge. The milieu, a barbershop, is far more working class than much of Stout's fiction.

 

The Mid 1950's Novellas

 

Stout had a period of excellent short story writing in the mid 50's, starting in 1953. The puzzle plots of his novellas grew stronger. Even a minor but pleasant piece like "A Window For Death" (1956) has a decent if easily guessable plot; it also has a good character in Johnny Arrow. The friendship that develops between Arrow and Archie is a welcome addition to Archie's world. This story, like "Die Like a Dog" and "Too Many Detectives", also shows Stout becoming sensitized to women's issues.

 

The sheer amount of mystery in a novella like "Invitation to Murder" (1953) is notable. It starts out with a mystery being proposed to Wolfe to solve: which one of three women is having an affair with a millionaire? It moves on to add a murder mystery. Then a third mystery question is introduced. Finally, during Wolfe's solution, his chain of deductions results in a fourth mystery being briefly dangled before the reader. This plethora of mysterious situations in very satisfying. The story also shows Stout's flair for buildings which are more than homes, and also have elements of an institution. Wolfe's brownstone is one such establishment, and the Huck home in this novella is another, one than echoes Wolfe's in subtle ways: both have elevators, both have elaborate arrangements about kitchens and food, both have studies in which Wolfe propounds his solutions.

 

Stout brought back some of his prewar non-Wolfe detectives, such as his woman private eye Doll Bonner, and Alphabet Hicks, including the former in his Nero Wolfe series. "Too Many Detectives" (1956), with Bonner, has an Ellery Queen like approach to its puzzle plotting, complete with such EQ traits as: a deductive finale; the solution subtly emerges from an in-depth investigation of circumstances; it focuses on what people knew and could not have known, just like EQ's The French Powder Mystery (1930); and a plot whose pattern comes with many surrealist echoes and repetitions. Even the choice of villain is in a Queen tradition. But the style and storytelling of this tale is sweetly Stout's own.

 

If "Too Many Detectives" is Stout's Ellery Queen tale, then "The Next Witness" (1955) is his Erle Stanley Gardner and Perry Mason story. While the puzzle plot is easily guessed, the storytelling has charm, and one likes the courtroom background of part of the tale. It is very unusual for a courtroom story not to have a lawyer for a protagonist, but Stout pulls it off. Stout's interest in legal ideas is continued in the next two tales, "Immune to Murder" and "Too Many Detectives". The opening of "Detectives" also builds upon some plot ideas in the opening of "The Next Witness".

 

When Ellery Queen reprinted "Die Like A Dog" (1954), he retitled it "A Dog in the Daytime". This is a clever allusion to "the curious incident of the dog in the night-time", a quote from "Silver Blaze" (1892), my favorite Sherlock Holmes story. The story has often been reprinted under this title, but it does not seem to be Stout's official name for the story. "Dog" shows Stout's fondness for animals. It also has some very good plotting, with a complex mystery situation becoming gradually unveiled, in the Anna Katherine Green style. Along with Some Buried Caesar, it is Stout's best mystery work. It seems significant that both of these outstanding pieces have animal backgrounds. Stout is also good with stories that deal with Wolfe's beloved orchids, such as "Easter Parade" (1957). This latter story reminds us that S. S. Van Dine liked to experiment with unusual murder methods; Stout's version of the same sometimes involves mechanical contraptions. Such strange devices show up here and in the first Wolfe novel, Fer-de-lance (1934).

 

Some of the other stories in And Four To Go have merits, and almost made the list of recommended stories above. "Christmas Party" (1957) has some good ideas in its opening sections, especially dealing with Archie and Wolfe's relationship, but its later mystery elements become routine. "Murder Is No Joke" (1957) is pleasant reading. The weakest of the tales is the uninspired "Fourth of July Picnic" (1957).

 

The opening of Plot It Yourself (1959) (Chapters 1 - 4) is essentially a short story, which contains a nice mystery about a crime not involving murder. After this, the book becomes much less inventive. With its series of crimes, and a search for hidden structure, the opening resembles an Ellery Queen style plot.

 

Stout, Math and Processes

 

"The Zero Clue" (1953) doesn't fully click as a mystery, but many of its plot ideas show imagination. It is one of Stout's few "dying message" mysteries. Everything in this tale is based on mathematics. The story's ideas about using probability to uncover knowledge are beginning to come true in real life, with such modern computer techniques as neural networks and database mining. The story is ahead of its time: almost a piece of science fiction. Another mathematical story is "Poison à la Carte" (1958), the first three chapters of which involve permutation theory. Chapter 5 of the novella goes into a more vivid illustration of the mathematics involved. These chapters describe an interesting investigation into a murder mystery. Unfortunately, here murder leaves off and misogyny takes over, with the latter sections of the novella showing little real detection.

 

Despite all the talk about food in the Wolfe stories, there is little actual description of eating, or of food as a sensuous experience. Stout is much more oriented to the act of preparing the meal: setting the menu, getting the ingredients, cooking, and serving the food. It is this whole preparation process that intrigues Stout. Food descriptions in Stout tend to focus on the ingredients. We read about mango ice cream, or steamed fish with a sauce made of mussels and mushrooms. These descriptions are more recipes, descriptions of how the food is made, than they are of what the food tastes like.

 

Stout in general is a process oriented writer. His stories are full of processes, from methods of detection, to Archie's repeated challenge of gathering together the suspects, which is always described in detail. In The Black Mountain (1954), the most enjoyable part of the story is the process of getting Nero and Archie from the US to Montenegro (Chapters 4 - 6). In "Poison", the whole crime and the events surrounding it turn out to be one large process. They are integrated together in one single pattern. By process, I mean a step by step series of events that take place in time; this is similar to what the artificial intelligence researcher Roger Schank calls a script.

 


Bibliography

 

Novels

 

Nero Wolfe

Fer-De-Lance (1934) aka Meet Nero Wolfe

The League of Frightened Men (1935)

The Rubber Band (1936) aka To Kill Again

The Red Box (1937) aka Case of the Red Box

Too Many Cooks (1938)

Some Buried Caesar (1939) aka The Red Bull

Over My Dead Body (1940)

Where There's a Will (1940)

Black Orchids (1942)

Not Quite Dead Enough (1944)

The Silent Speaker (1946)

Too Many Women (1947)

And Be a Villain (1948) aka More Deaths Than One

The Second Confession (1949)

Trouble in Triplicate (1949)

Curtains for Three (1950)

Even in the Best Families (1950)

Three Doors to Death (1950)

Murder By the Book (1951)

Prisoner's Base (1952) aka Out She Goes

Triple Jeopardy (1952)

The Golden Spiders (1953)

The Black Mountain (1954)

Three Men Out (1954)

Before Midnight (1955)

Might As Well Be Dead (1956)

Three Witnesses (1956)

If Death Ever Slept (1957)

Three for the Chair (1957)

And Four to Go (1958) aka Crime And Again

Champagne for One (1958)

Plot It Yourself (1959) aka Murder in Style

Too Many Clients (1960)

The Final Deduction (1961)

Gambit (1962)

Homicide Trinity (1962)

The Mother Hunt (1963)

A Right to Die (1964)

Trio for Blunt Instruments (1964)

The Doorbell Rang (1965)

Death of a Doxy (1966)

The Father Hunt (1968)

Death of a Dude (1969)

Please Pass the Guilt (1973)

A Family Affair (1975)

 

Theodolinda (Dol) Bonner solo

The Hand in the Glove (1937) aka Crime On Her Hands

 

Tecumseh Fox

Double for Death (1939)

Bad for Business (1940)

The Broken Vase (1941)

 

Alphabet Hicks

Alphabet Hicks (1941) aka The Sound of Murder

 

Inspector Cramer solo

Red Threads (1939)

 

Other novels

Her Forbidden Knight (1913)

A Prize for Princes (1914)

Under the Andes (1914)

The Great Legend (1916)

How Like a God (1929)

Seed On the Wind (1930)

Golden Remedy (1931)

Forest Fire (1933)

The President Vanishes (1934)

O Careless Love! (1935)

Mr Cinderella (1938)

Mountain Cat (1939) aka The Mountain Cat Murders

 

Collections

Three At Wolfe's Door (1960)

Corsage (1977)

Justice Ends At Home (1977)

Death Times Three (1985)

Target Practice (1998)

An Officer And a Lady: And Other Stories (2000)

 

Short Stories

 

Wolfe Stories

  • Black Orchids
  • Cordially Invited To Meet Death
  • Not Quite Dead Enough
  • Booby Trap
  • Before I Die
  • Help Wanted, Male
  • Instead of Evidence
  • Man Alive
  • Omit Flowers
  • Door To Death
  • The Gun With Wings
  • Bullet For One
  • Disguise For Murder aka the Twisted Scarf
  • Home To Roost
  • The Cop Killer
  • The Squirt and the Monkey
  • Invitation To Murder aka Will To Murder
  • The Zero Clue aka Scared To Death
  • This Won't Kill You aka This Will Kill You, the World Series Murder
  • The Next Witness aka the Last Witness
  • When a Man Murders
  • Die Like a Dog aka the Body in the Hall, a Dog in the Daytime
  • A Window For Death aka Nero Wolfe and the Vanishing Clue
  • Immune To Murder
  • Too Many Detectives
  • Christmas Party aka the Christmas Party Murder
  • Easter Parade aka the Easter Parade Murder
  • Fourth of July Picnic aka the Fourth of July Murder, Labor Union Murder
  • Murder Is No Joke
  • Poison À La Carte aka Gift À La Carte
  • Method Three For Murder
  • The Rodeo Murder aka the Penthouse Murder
  • Eeny Meeny Murder Mo
  • Death of a Demon aka the Gun Puzzle
  • Counterfeit For Murder aka the Counterfeiter's Knife
  • Kill Now - Pay Later
  • Murder Is Corny
  • Blood Will Tell
  • Bitter End
  • Frame-Up For Murder
  • Assault on a Brownstone

Non-Wolfe Stories

  • The Rope Dance
  • An Officer and a Lady
  • The Mother of Invention
  • An Agacella Or
  • A Tyrant Abdicates
  • The Pay-Yeoman
  • Rose Orchid
  • The Lie
  • Heels of Fate
  • Pamfret and Peace
  • Méthode Américaine
  • Jonathan Stannard's Secret Vice
  • A Professional Recall
  • Secrets
  • Warner & Wife
  • Justice Ends at Home
  • Excess Baggage
  • Annuncio's Violin
  • The Infernal Feminine
  • A Companion of Fortune
  • A White Precipitate
  • A Little Love Affair
  • Art For Art's Sake
  • Another Little Love Affair
  • The Strong Man
  • Tough Cop's Gift aka Cop's Gift, Santa Claus Beat, Nobody Deserved Justice, Christmas Beat
  • His Own Hand aka by His Own Hand, Curtain Line

 

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