Monday, October 08, 2007

Big, fat and hard-boiled

It has been said with some justification that Rex Stout was the only crime writer able successfully to combine the English tradition of the eccentric detective, in the person of Nero Wolfe, with the harder-boiled American tradition, in the person of Archie Goodwin. That’s a fair assessment, and Stout’s achievement is all the more impressive when one considers that Goodwin narrates the stories. He must thus tell a story in one style while acting in another.

How does Stout pull off this balancing act? With an ear for American slang and a playful sensitivity to contrasts of tone. There is no finer example than the third paragraph of “Invitation to Murder,” one of three long stories that make up Three Men Out. The paragraph begins as an enumeration of Wolfe’s eccentricities (“He hated to work, but he loved to eat and drink … his domestic and professional establishment in the old brownstone house on West Thirty-fifth Street, including the orchids in the plant rooms on the roof, had an awful appetite for dollars.”)

So far, Archie Goodwin sounds like a Bertie Wooster. That’s the English-eccentric side of Rex Stout. Then the narration starts turning into something more typically American — the anxious client visiting the P.I.’s office asking him to take the job — while retaining its amused tone. Wolfe’s only source of dollars “was his income as a private detective, and at that moment, there on his desk near the edge," Archie tells us, edging closer to hard-boiled land before crossing defintively over: “was a little stack of lettuce with a runner band around it. Herman Lewent, who had put it there, had stated that it was a thousand dollars.”

One is tempted to salute Stout for the virtuoso transition from P.G. Wodehouse to Dashiell Hammett, turning on the gorgeous use of “lettuce” for “money.” But why invoke other writers’ names? That little piece of stylistic alchemy was Stout’s alone, at least part of what made him great.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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10 Comments:

Blogger Linkmeister said...

As the years went on, it seemed to me that Archie got more and more urbane, while Wolfe remained his irascible self.

I ran across the books in the early 1960s; I can still remember sitting in the back seat of the car reading the first one I found ("Gambit") and almost immediately being hooked.

I thought A&E did a good job with their two-season production of the Wolfe canon; Timothy Hutton played Archie extraordinarily well.

October 09, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I lack the historical perspective that you have. I've only read a few of the Nero Wolfe novels, and, except for Fer de Lance, I don't know the chronological position of any. I'm not sure how hard-boiled Archie really is, though he certainly edges in that direction. I suspect that Rex Stout may have been having fun with the hard-boiled tradition more than anything else when he created Archie. In any case, amateur Nero Wolfian though I may be, I could rhapsodize for some time about that paragraph I cited. It's a virtuoso piece of work in its rhythm, almost musical in its construction.

And now I'll do what Nero Wolfe often told Archie to do, and shut up.

Thanks for the tip on the A&E series. I'll look for it.

October 09, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

I'm on my second complete set. When I moved after high school I gave the library a zillion paperbacks, and started re-accumulating the Wolfe books when I got out of the Navy a six years later.

October 09, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Ha! How many times have you seen Wolfe order Archie to "Shut up!"?

October 09, 2007  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

First Maigret and now Nero Wolfe is this a sign of advancing years as you return to the old masters.

October 09, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I prefer to think of it as a refreshing eclecticism. My next comment will be about a much younger master.

October 09, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

I'm too inhibited to use "Shut up!"

I have, however, appropriated both the word and the spelling of "Pfui."

October 09, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I'm a "pfui" fan, too, but one can imagine Hercule Poirot using the word if driven to extremes of rage. But "Shut up!" has a bracing edge of rudeness unique to Nero Wolfe. Even in his English-eccentric aspects, Rex Stout had a uniquely American feel.

October 09, 2007  
Anonymous Ann said...

As a teenager I used to love Nero Wolfe, but in recent years I've had a feeling that it's not quite pc to read him. Any advice on this?

October 17, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Is it Nero Wolfe's attitude toward women that gives you the Pc-queasy feeling about him? One will read from time to time that Rex Stout was a misogynist. I've probably read about ten of his stories, and every so often, Wolfe will grumble something about "typical woman ... a woman would be unable to think that way" -- a pretty mild and occasional form of what was probably common at the time he was writing. These days, the attitudes seem a part of Stout's poking fun at Wolfe. In any case, possibly sensitive to such accusations, Stout gave one of Nero Wolfe's occasional freelance detective assistants, Doll Bonner, a few stories of her own. I've never read them, so I don't know what they're like.

It all seems pretty mild to me, though perhaps I'd be less sanguine about this matter if I were a woman.

October 17, 2007  

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