The Crime Fiction Alphabet meme, hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise is gathering new participants each week and is a great source of recommendations about a wide variety of crime fiction. Do check out letters A, B, C, D, E and F if you haven’t already done so.
I’m not nearly as well versed in classic crime fiction as other participants of this meme but I have read my share of the older stuff so this week I thought I’d talk about one of my favourite ‘golden age’ characters: Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe who appeared in more than 70 novels and stories. Published in 1962 Gambit is one of the later books of the series (which started in 1934) and so is less dated than the earlier works. As always, the book is amusingly narrated by Wolfe’s able assistant Archie Goodwin. In it Paul Jerin is a chess master simultaneously playing 12 games (blindfolded) at a private club (the Gambit Club) when he dies of poisoning via his hot chocolate. Sally Blount, who knew Jerin, engages Wolfe, a private detective, to prove that her father, Matthew, is innocent of Jerin’s murder which he has been arrested for.
In our house when I was growing up most of my cultural references were English. What little TV we watched was English (all those dreadful 70’s sitcoms like Love thy Neighbour that made me cringe even then), the magazines my mother got her recipes and knitting patterns from were English and the books we borrowed from the library were, for the most part, English (I started my mystery reading with Enid Blyton and moved to Agatha Christie and Dick Francis). When I chanced upon a Rex Stout novel with its dapper hero who lived in a lavish house in mysterious (to me) New York I was therefore intrigued. The fact that he solved almost all of his cases without ever leaving the house was icing on the cake (perhaps even then I was anti-social) and I also liked the fact he was a larger than life character in so many ways. In the opening of Gambit for example Wolfe is burning the pages of Webster’s New International Dictionary because, among other crimes, it states that the words imply and infer are interchangeable. I adore that kind of eccentricity in fictional characters. Actually I adore that kind of eccentricity in real people just as much.
I haven’t read a Nero Wolfe book for many years and I wondered if I would still get the same enjoyment out of them now that I did as a teenager. However when I browsed a copy of Gambit at the library to reacquaint myself with the story before writing this post I found myself smiling and chuckling at the same things I used to like. I no longer have the same need to prove how different I am from the rest of my family (by reading American books instead of English ones) and think I’d tire more quickly now of Wolfe’s attitude to women (although I don’t think he’s the misogynist some people claim, I just think he’s incredibly socially awkward). However, the books do provide wonderfully complicated puzzles and they are genuinely funny. Also I think this series offers one of the first real partnerships in crime fiction as Archie Goodwin is a far more an equal partner to Wolfe than say Watson was to Holmes. Goodwin as a character is equally as well rounded as Wolfe and he is heavily involved in the investigations, in fact it’s often his contacts such as crime beat reporter Lon Cohen, who provide vital information, and he is far more than a simple foil to demonstrate Wolfe’s superiority.
I don’t seem to see Stout’s work discussed as much as that of Christie, Marsh and others but he’s hugely popular still. At the 2000 Bouchercon the Nero Wolfe corpus was nominated Best Mystery Series of the Century and Rex Stout was nominated Best Mystery Writer of the Century at the same time. Visit The Wolfe Pack for extensive information about Stout and his best known creations Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.