Tuesday, December 18, 2007

How Rex Stout kept it fresh

The mystery of how crime writers keep a long-running series fresh has been a great topic of discussion here. Last night, I found a beautifully simple and amusing example in Rex Stout's novella "Counterfeit for Murder," from Homicide Trinity.

Nero Wolfe has ordered Archie Goodwin to summon the trusted stable of freelance detectives whom they often use when extra manpower is called for. Fans will be familiar with the set piece. Goodwin always names the detectives, taking care to point out that Saul Panzer is the best of them. How is an author to keep such a scene, repeated so often, fresh? Here, Stout does it with a little joke:

"He spoke. `Saul and Fred and Orrie. At eight in the morning in my room.'

"My brows went up. Saul Panzer is the best operative south of the North Pole. His rate is ten dollars and hour and he is worth twenty. Fred Durkin's rate is seven dollars and he is worth seven-fifty. Orrie Cather's rate is also seven dollars and he is worth six-fifty."
© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Blogger gs said...

This is a subject that fascinates me, too. A related subject is how Stout manages, in each story, to introduce us to Wolfe, Archie, et al, while keeping it fresh. A while back I led a discussion on the Wolfe Mailing List of Might As Well Be Dead, and this is an excerpt from my discussion notes that talks about that same subject:

"In the course of writing sixty-something Wolfe stories, Stout had a challenge to face: Every single one of those sixty-some stories was the very first Wolfe story that someone read. And every one of those sixty-some stories was the tenth, or twentieth, or fiftieth story that someone else read. Stout's challenge was to introduce the Denizens of West 35th in such a way that their roles and relationships would be clear to the first-time reader, but not bore the returning reader....

"...I mentioned Stout's deft touch, and we definitely see it in the Introduction of the Denizens in MAWBD. Archie never even tells us that Wolfe is a detective. It's pretty strongly implied in that Herold telegrammed for an appointment, 'picked' Wolfe, and wants Wolfe to find his son. Then Stout has Herold tell us, openly, when he mentions asking Murphy to recommend a private detective, and getting Wolfe's name in return. Archie's relationship is also revealed by Herold, in the normal course of conversation: 'He's in your employ, isn't he?' Wolfe answers, 'Yes. My confidential assistant.'

"But nowhere do we see the deft touch better than in Fritz's introduction: Archie mentions that he went to the kitchen and 'told Fritz we had taken on a job....' This is the first mention of Fritz, and he's in the kitchen. Fritz removes a 'plastic container' (A plastic container? Tupperware?? In Wolfe's brownstone??? Is this possible????) from the refrigerator, and the container contains shad roe. 'Hey,' Archie protests, 'we had shad roe for lunch! Again for dinner?'

"'My dear Archie,' begins Fritz, and Archie tells us that 'He [Fritz] was superior, to me, only about food.'

"That's it -- that's how we meet Fritz. Isn't it great? If we're returning readers to the Wolfe Corpus, we don't even realize Fritz has been introduced -- it's just some banter between Archie and Fritz, as we've come to expect. But if we're reading our first Wolfe story, we now know that this Fritz guy must be the chef, and even that he's probably not a native English speaker. I suspect that the seemingly effortless way in which Stout introduces Fritz to both classes of readers was really not effortless at all."

December 19, 2007  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks for that note. I'll look for that discussion and perhaps even plunder it for discussion topics.

The plastic container is a deft touch, too. Any number of writers might have conceived an ensemble that included a chef of exquisite talent, but such a character might have degenerated into caricature without the occasional reminder that he, too, is something like a real human being.

December 19, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

There's another one I just thought of in the Wolfe books: in Please Pass the Guilt Archie wonders whether Harrelson can hold up for a full season at shortstop for the Mets. Since they didn't come into existence till 1962...

In the same book, maybe even the same passage, he also mentions that the Palestinians had named Arafat as their leader.

December 19, 2007  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I remember that Harrelson reference. And he didn't play for the Mets in their very earliest years, either. So that story must be from, what, the early 1970s?

December 20, 2007  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Viking published it in 1973. However, I can't believe Archie wouldn't have mentioned the Miracle Mets of 1969 if it was meant to take place after that. ;)

December 20, 2007  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You'll know Stout was a baseball fan from the story in which the New York Giants are drugged into losing a World Series game to, I think, the Boston Red Sox, proof that Stout also had a sense a humor.

Maybe he feared that mentioning the Miracle Mets directly would be unsubtle and vulgarly topical. Perhaps he invoked them indirectly by mentioning their scrappy shortstop.

December 20, 2007  

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