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REX STOUT: An Appreciation

One of the first mystery authors I read was Rex Stout.  I was captivated immediately by his incredible creations–Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.  The former was a transplanted Montenegrin, the latter a transplanted Ohioan, but they became the quintessential New Yorkers.  Ah, if only the walls of Wolfe’s Manhattan brownstone could talk!

Although Rex Stout wrote other mysteries, it is the Wolfe series that made him famous and sealed him into my Mystery Hall of Fame.

More than 30 years ago I took a course on mysteries given by John McAleer, Professor of English at Boston College.  He had just written the biography of Rex Stout, and the thought of being in a room with someone who had actually met the author was an incredible experience for me.  I felt as if Stout might walk into our classroom at any moment.  He didn’t, but Professor McAleer made him real for me and everyone else in the class.

He told us that Stout wrote four pages every day and never made any corrections to his writing.  He thought it all out in his head beforehand and simply put it down on paper.  I still find that amazing.

I’ve seen a couple of old Nero Wolfe movies and the television series with the late Maury Chaykin as Wolfe and Timothy Hutton as Archie.  Fine actors they may be, but I could never get into the series.  The same holds true for the very brief series of Wolfe mysteries with William Conrad as Wolfe and Lee Horsley as Archie; it was a non-starter for me.   I had such a strong feeling for what Wolfe and Archie (that’s how I think of them; last name for Nero Wolfe, first name for Archie Goodwin) would look like and talk like, neither series rang true.  The script writers couldn’t match Stout’s prose, and Wolfe and Archie without Stout just didn’t work.

But Wolfe and Archie were not the only fabulous characters that Stout invented.  Anyone familiar with this series knows Fritz Brenner, the chef who cooks the incredible meals that Wolfe and Archie eat; Inspector Cramer, the always exasperated police detective who can never get the best of Wolfe; Lily Rowan, the wealthy society “girl” and Archie’s love interest; and Saul Panzer, a private eye second only to Archie in his abilities.  And who could forget the master criminal, Arnold Zeck?  He was the only man ever to come close to beating Wolfe.

There have been adaptations of Nero Wolfe mysteries in Germany, Italy, and Russia.  I can only imagine the liberties the writers of those scripts took with Stout’s words, if the American writers, obviously more familiar with U.S. slang and New York City, couldn’t get it right.  Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin need the words of Rex Stout, and no one else, to truly be who they are.  No adaptations or abridgments work.

So the bottom line is, if you want to visit this first-class detective series, you need to read the books.   Among my favorites are The Golden Spiders, Fer-de-Lance, A Family Affair, Too Many Cooks, and The Doorbell Rang.

You can read more about Rex Stout at the Wolfe Pack web site.

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