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Rex Stout (1886-1975)

 

American author, who wrote over 70 detective novels, 46 of them featuring eccentric, chubby, beer drinking gourmet sleuth Nero Wolfe, whose wisecracking aide and right hand assistant in crime solving was Archie Goodwin. Stout began his literary career by writing for pulp magazines, publishing romance, adventure, some borderline detective stories. After 1938 he focused solely on the mystery field.

"His face, chronically red, deepened a shade. His broad shoulders stiffened, and the creases spreding from the corners of his gray-blue eyes showed more as the eyelids tightened. Then, deciding I was playing for a burt, he controlled it. "Do you know," he asked, "whose opinion of you I would like to have? Darwin's. Where were you while evolution was going on?" (Inspector Crames of Goodwin in Murder by the Book, 1951)

Rex Stout was born in Noblesville, Indiana, the son of John Wallace Stout and Lucetta Elizabeth Todhunter. They both were Quakers. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to Wakarusa, Kansas. Stout was educated at Topeka High School, and at University of Kansas, Lawrence, which he left to enlist in the Navy. From 1906 to 1908 he served as a Yeoman on President Theodore Roosevelt's yacht. The following years Stout spent writing freelance articles and working in odd jobs – as an office boy, store clerk, bookkeeper, and hotel manager. With his brother he invented an astonishing savings plans, the Educational Thrift Service,  for school children. The system was installed in 400 cities throughout the USA, earning Stout about $400,000 and making him financially secure. In 1916 Stout married Fay Kennedy of Topeka, Kansas. They separated in 1931 – according to a story, she eloped with a Russian commissar –  and Stout married Pola Hoffman, a fabric designer.

Stout's first writings appeared in the 1910s among others in All-Story Magazine. He went to sell articles and stories to a variety of magazines. A stalwart opponent of censorship, he helped to republish Arthur Machen's barred translation of Casanova's Memoirs. In 1927 Stout became a full-time writer. Much of his money he had made as a businessman he lost in the Stock Market Crash. After publishing four moderately well-received novels, among them How Like a God (1929), an unusual psychological story written in the second person, Stout turned to the form of detective fiction.

Stout's mentally and physically great hero is Nero Wolfe, the 286-pound detective. Basically he is a man of intellect who sees himself as an artist. Noteworthy, by the age of nine, Stout himself had been recognized as a prodigy in arithmetic and he had an IQ of 185, but the character was not a self portrait – actually Wolfe had many of the characteristics of Stout's father, who had died in 1934.

Wolfe's daily beer consumption is a marvel, he has yellow silk pyjamas, and he loves orchids. He is a gourmet who eats a whole eight-pound goose in the course of a single day. At eight-fifteen Wolfe enjoys breakfast in his room on the second floor of his house on West Thirty-fifth Street – "orange juice, eggs au beurre noir, two slices of boiled Georgia ham, hashed brown potatoes, hot blueberry muffins, and a pot of steaming cocoa." (from Over My Dead Body, 1940) Wolfe's associates are occasionally invited to dinner, customarily served at seven-thirty. The extraordinary meals are prepared by Fritz Brenner, Wolfe's personal chef. 

Goodwin's primary function is to serve as the ears and eyes of his eccentric employer, not his brains. Occasionally he criticizes Wolfe's extreme political viewpoints. The young operative was introduced in the novel Fer-Der-Lance (1934), which appeared first as a serial in the Saturday Evening Post. It was followed by The League of Frightened Men in 1935. The critic and awarded mystery writer H.R.F. Keating included it among the 100 best crime and mystery books ever published. Archie suggests in the story that Wolfe steps out from his apartment. Wolfe answers "I don't know why you persists in trying to badger me into frantic sorties." The book was adapted into screen in 1937, directed by Alfred E. Green. Meet nero Wolfe (1936), loosely based on Fer-de-Lance, was a surprise success, starring Edward Arnold. In the later attempt Lionel Stander played again Archie Goodwin, but Arnold was replaced by Walter Connolly. "Hardly any audience likes to watch a character who just sits and thinks," wrote a sour critic in Variety.

'"Wolfe grunted. "Nothing is as pitiable as a man afraid of a woman."' (from Champagne for One, 1959)

The phenomenally fat private eye gained wide popularity from the start. Stout wrote prolifically one Nero Wolfe adventure in a year – from the 1940s some times several – until the end of his life. Usually he finished a book in about 40 days. The first draft was the final draft. Like Isaac Asimov, he never rewrote or redrafted his stories. During the course of his career Stout mastered a variety of literary forms, including the short story, the novel, and science fiction, among them a pioneering political thriller, The President Vanishes (1934), in which the disappearance of the US President causes a near-future crisis. In an earlier work, Under the Andes (1914, All-Story Magazine), Stout described an underground lost world of dwarf Incas. The form of detective fiction did not prevent him from touching upon political and social questions. Already in Too Many Cooks  (1938), Wolfe argued for racial equality as Stout's mouthpiece.  Its sequel, A Right to Die (1964), dealt with civil rights movement.

During the WW II Stout cut back on his detective writing, joined the Fight for Freedom organization, and wrote propaganda, that encouraged to support Roosevelt and American involvement in WW II. Charles Lindbergh, who supported American neutrality, was one of the targets of his criticism. Stout hosted three weekly radio shows, 'Speaking of Liberty,' and coordinated volunteer services of American writers to help the war effort. To relax from the burdens of office, FDR sometimes read Wolfe stories. During his first term as president, Dwight D. Eisenhower read Prisoner's Base (1952) while recovering from a heat attack.

After the war Stout returned to his Nero Wolfe novels, and took up the role of gentleman farmer on his estate at High Meadows in Brewster, North of New York City. He served as President of the Authors Guild and of the Mystery Writers of America. In 1959 he received Grand Master Award from the latter organization.

"Science in detection can be distinguished, even brilliant, but it can never replace either the inexorable march of a fine intellect through a jungle of lies and fears to the clearing of truth, or the flash of perception along a sensitive nerve touched off by a tone of a voice or a flicker of an eye." (from The Golden Spiders, 1953)

With the outbreak of the Cold War, Wolfe rejected communism in The Second Confession (1949) because it is "intellectually contemptible and morally unsound." Stout was active in liberal causes, and ignored a subpoena from the House Un-American Activities Committee at the height of the McCarthy era. Wolfe declared in the story 'Home to Roost' (1952) that "I deplore the current tendency to accuse people of pro-communism irresponsibly and unjustly." The Doorbell Rang from 1965 ridiculed FBI agents – in an interview Stout labelled Hoover as megalomanic, egocentrinc, and narrowminded.

Behind the Iron Curtain, Stout was a highly popular writer, though his books were available mostly in contraband editions. The Black Mountain (1954) sent Wolfe and Goodwin to the Balkans, where they witness corruption, cruelty, inequality, and despotism. In Over My Dead Body (1939) Stout had revealed that Wolfe was in Montenegro, which later became a part of Tito's Yugoslavia.

Stout helped to form the Committee to Protest Absurd Censorship but his hawkish stance on Vietnam alienated many liberal friends from him. Between 1969 and 1973 he wrote no novels at all. Stout died on October 27, 1975. Just a month before his death he had published his 72nd Nero Wolfe mystery, having no plans bury his hero as Agatha Christie did it both with Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. In the late 1980s, the writer Robert Goldsborough started to continue the series.

For further reading: Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street: The Life and Times of America's Largest Private Detective by William S. Baring-Gould (1969); The Nero Wolfe Cookbook by Rex Stout and the editors of Viking Press (1973); Rex Stout: A Biography by John McAleer (1977); Rex Stout: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography by Guy M. Townsend (1980); Rex Stout by D. Anderson (1984); 'Nero Wolfe: A Retrospective' by John Mc Aleer, in Fer-de-Lance (50th Anniversary edition, 1984); Crime & Mystery: the 100 Best Books by H.R.F. Keating (1987); At Wolfe's Door by J. Kenneth Van Dover (1991); Controversial Politics, Conservative Genre: Rex Stout's Archie-Wolfe Duo and Detective Fiction's Conventional Form by Ammie Sorensen Cannon (thesis; 2004) - Nero Wolfe's address in Manhattan: West 35th Street. Sherlock Holmes's address in London: 221 Baker Street. - See also: Jacques Futrelle, American mystery writer who died on the Titanic 15 April 1912. - Films: Meet Nero Wolfe (1936), dir. Herbert Biberman, starring Edward Arnold; The League of Frightened Men (1937), dir. Alfred E. Green, starring Walter Connolly; The Doorbell Rang (1972); dir.  Frank Gilroy, starring Thayer David.

Selected works:

  • Her Forbidden Knight, 1913 (in All-Story Magazine)
  • Under the Andes, 1914 (in All-Story Magazine)
  • A Prize for Princes, 1914 (in All-Story Weekly)
  • The Great Legend, 1916 (in All-Story Weekly)
  • How Like a God, 1929
  • Seed on the Wind, 1930
  • Golden Remedy, 1931
  • Forest Fire, 1933
  • Fer-de-Lance, 1934
    - Keihäskäärme (suom. Reijo Kalvas, 1989)
  • The President Vanishes, 1934
  • O Careless Love!, 1935
  • A Question of Proof, 1935
  • The League of Frightened Men, 1935
    - Pelokkaitten miesten liitto (suom. Reijo Lehtonen, 1990)
  • The Rubber Band, 1936
    - Puuttuva lenkki (suomentanut Reijo Kalvas, 1991)
  • The Red Box, 1937
    - Punaisen rasian arvoitus (suom. Reijo Lehtonen, 1987)
  • The Hand in the Glove, 1937
  • Mr. Cinderella , 1938
  • Too Many Cooks, 1938
    - Liian monta kokkia (suom. Eila Pennanen, 1979)
  • Mountain Cat, 1939
  • Double For Death, 1939
  • Red Threads, 1939
  • Some Buried Caesar, 1939 (as The Red Bull, 1945)
    - Caesar on kuollut (suom. Eero Ahmavaara, 1957)
  • Bad For Business, 1940
  • Over My Dead Body, 1940
    - Yli kuolleen ruumiini (suomentanut Eila Pennanen, 1992)
  • Where There's a Will, 1940
    - Missä on testamentti... (suom. suomentanut Eila Pennanen, 1993)
  • Alphabe Hics, 1941 (as The Sound of Murder, 1965)
  • The Illustrious Dunderhead, 1942 (ed.)
  • Sequel to the Apocalypse: The Uncensored Story How Your Dimes and Quarters Helped Pay for Hitler's War / John Boylan, 1942 (foreword by Rex Stout; illustrated by William Sharp)
  • Black Orchids, 1944
  • Not Quite Dead Enough, 1944
    - Ei aivan tarpeeksi kuollut (suom. Päivi Kalenius, 1992)
  • The Silent Speaker, 1946
    - Kadonnut ääni (suom. Eero Ahmavaara, 1954)
  • Rue Morgue No. 1, 1946 (ed., with Louis Greenfield)
  • Too Many Women, 1947
    - Liian monta naista (suom. Reijo Lehtonen, 1977)
  • And Be a Villain, 1948 (UK title:  More Deaths Than One)
    - Liian monta kuolemaa (suom. Eero Ahmavaara, 1954)
  • Trouble in Triplicate, 1949
  • The Second Confession, 1949
    - Toinen tunnustus (suom. Eila Pennanen ja Hanno Vammelvuo, 1994)
  • Three Doors to Death, 1950
  • In the Best Families, 1950 (UK title: Even in the Best Families)
    - Parhaissakin perheissä (suom. Eero Ahmavaara, 1959)
  • Murder by the Book, 1951
    - Kuoleman käsikirjoitus (suom. Timo Martin, 1966)
  • Curtains for Three, 1951
  • Prisoner's Base, 1952 (UK title: Out Goes She)
    - Nero Wolfe pesee kätensä (suomentanut: Hanno Vammelvuo, 1994)
  • Triple Jeopardy, 1952
  • The Golden Spiders, 1953 - Kultaiset hämähäkit (suom. Reijo Kalvas, 1990)
  • The Black Mountain, 1954
    - Mustan vuoren varjossa (suom. Olli-Pekka Rönn, 1987)
  • Three Men Out, 1954
  • Before Midnight, 1955
    - Ennen keskiyötä (suom. Seppo Virtanen, 1959)
  • Might as Well Be Dead, 1956
    - Viittä vaille vainaja (suom. Kalevi Nyytäjä, 1971)
  • Three Witnesses, 1956
  • Eat, Drink, and Be Buried, 1956 (UK title: For Tomorrow We Die, 1958)
  • Three for the Chair, 1957
    - Liian monta etsivää (suom. Sirkka-Liisa Sjöblom, 1992)
  • If Death Ever Slept, 1957
    - Jos kuolema uinahtaa (suom. Reijo Lehtonen, 1972)
  • And Four to Go, 1958 (UK title: Crime and Again, 1959)
  • Champagne for One, 1959
    - Sampanjaa yhdelle (suom. Eero Ahmavaara ja Martti Montonen, 1963)
  • Plot It Yourself, 1959 (UK title: Murder in Style, 1960)
    - Murhaajan tyyliin (suomentanut Kristiina Rikman, 1995)
  • Three at Wolfe's Door, 1960
  • Too Many Clients, 1960
    - Liian monta asiakasta (suom. Reijo Lehtonen, 1981)
  • The Final Deduction, 1961
    - Lopullinen ratkaisu (suom. Kari Nenonen, 1988)
  • Homicide Trinity, 1962
  • Gambit, 1962
    - Viimeinen siirto (suomentanut Kalevi Nyytäjä, 1995)
  • The Mother Hunt, 1963
    - Löytölapsi (suom. Sauli Sipilä, 1965)
  • A Right to Die, 1964
    - Oikeus kuolla (suom. Eila Pennanen, Hanno Vammelvuo, 1980)
  • Trio for Blunt Instruments, 1964
  • The Doorbell Rang, 1965
    - Ovikello soi (suom. Eila Pennanen, 1967)
  • Death of a Doxy, 1966
    - Murha makuuhuoneessa (suom. Hilkka Pekkanen)
  • The Father Hunt, 1968
    - Isätön tyttö (suomentanut Kalevi Nyytäjä, 1996)
  • Death of a Dude, 1969
    - Kesävieraana kuolema (suomentanut Kalevi Nyytäjä, 1996)
  • Please Pass the Guilt, 1973
    - Kuolema pöytälaatikossa (suomentanut Kalevi Nyytäjä, 1997)
  • The Nero Wolfe Cookbook, 1973 (with others)
  • A Family Affair, 1975
    - Nero Wolfen viimeinen juttu (suomentanut Kalevi Nyytäjä, 1997)
  • Corsage: A Bouquet of Rex Stout and Nero Wolfe, 1977
  • Justice Ends at Home and Other Stories, 1977 (ed. John McAleer)
  • Death Times Three, 1985 (introduction by John J. McAleer)
  • Target Practice, 1998
  • An Officer and a Lady and Other Stories, 2000


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