Big, fat and hard-boiled
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