Rex Stout

If Death Ever Slept


IT IS NOW A commonplace to point out that Rex Stout fused the two great streams of English language detective fiction. In Nero Wolfe he creates a Holmesian genius, European born, who solves crimes through the application of superior intellect, in the ratiocinative tradition. In Archie Goodwin we have an American wiseacre who solves, or helps Wolfe solve, crimes through the application of superior toughness, in the hard-boiled tradition. One should not be too schematic here. Archie is smart and Wolfe is tough, but the generalization, I think, holds.

This would have been a clever contrivance in any case, but it would have been only that if Stout were not also quite a splendid writer. He wrote short and he wrote often, which tended to obscure the fact that he wrote well. Unless it leads to obscurity, brevity is rarely praised (or employed) in the journals of, ah, serious literary criticism, and frequency is often equated with frivolity. Thus it has been insufficiently observed in such circles that Stout created people you care about and want to see again. I have read all of the thirty-something Nero Wolfe novels several times. It is not the plots. The plots are ingenious enough, but Wolfe’s solutions are made to seem more remarkable than they might otherwise, because of Archie. Stout, having established Archie’s intelligence, persuades us by letting Wolfe solve crimes that Archie can’t. And while Wolfe knows many things, his genius is human behavior. He solves crimes not because he knows the symptoms of curare poisoning or the sound made by a Borneo blowgun, but because he understands what a person might do in extremis.

There are criticisms to be made. Stout was often formulaic, repeating exactly from book to book descriptions of Wolfe’s weight, for instance. The nonrecurring characters are less memorable than the regulars and seem somewhat interchangeable among the stories. And the regular characters never change. Wolfe, Archie, and the rest remain as they were in 1934, when we met them in Fer-de- Lance.

But these are blue-book criticisms, and the last may be, in fact, a strength. Stout’s triumph, and it is significant, is to have created a fully realized fictive world centered on the old brownstone on West Thirty-fifth Street. We return to the books to see Fritz, Theodore, Saul Panzer, Inspector Cramer, and Purley Stebbins-frozen, as it were, in a kind of furious immobility: stable and certain, and entirely believable. We know the habits of the household and take pleasure in the private order it has imposed.

And we return to the books to enjoy the company of a genius who acts like a genius. Wolfe is brilliant, learned, stubborn, lazy, tenacious, childish, conceited, fearful in small things, brave in the big ones. And in Archie he has found a Boswell worthy of his complexity and a foil worthy of the match.

One probably ought not write about the Nero Wolfe stories without remarking that only Archie’s continuing enjoyment of Lily Rowan prevents this orderly fictive world from being exclusively male. One could make much of this (scholars have made more from far less), and one might be wise to do so. But not here, and not now. It is a subject for another essay.

This essay will content itself with remembering that Stout’s achievement was to create an enduring fictional world in plenitudinous detail and to populate it with people both persuasive, compelling, and likable.

It is a sufficient achievement for any writer.

Robert B. Parker

Cambridge , Massachusetts , 1991

Chapter 1

IT WOULD NOT BE strictly true to say that Wolfe and I were not speaking that Monday morning in May.

We had certainly spoken the night before. Getting home-home being the old brownstone on West Thirty-fifth Street owned by Wolfe, and occupied by him and Fritz and Theodore and me-around two a.m., I had been surprised to find him still up, at his desk in the office, reading a book. From the look he gave me as I entered, it was plain that something was eating him, but as I crossed to the safe to check that it was locked for the night I was supposing that he had been riled by the book, when he snapped at my back, “Where have you been?”

I turned. “Now really,” I said. “On what ground?”

He was glaring. “I should have asked, where have you not been. Miss Rowan has telephoned five times, first shortly after eight o’clock, last half an hour ago. If I had gone to bed she wouldn’t have let me sleep. As you know, Fritz was out for the evening.”

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