Book written by Rex Stout
Rex Stout was better at close-up magic than any other word-slinger. I don’t pay the compliment lightly. He produced a shelf worth of Nero Wolfe tales and never insulted the reader, carefully laid the groundwork for the revelations usually revealed in that inconspicuous Manhattan brownstone (filled with culinary and botanical marvels though it was), and left his audience pleased that they had spent some time with him.
The fabulous television series some time ago captured the feel of the stories remarkably well. The ensemble cast added a nice feel that I suspect Stout would have appreciated. The series flowed through the time periods just like Stout had in his tales. While it may have felt like nothing changed inside Wolfe’s sanctuary, Stout allowed small doses of the outside world to seep into his plots. The characters essentially did not age, though their relationships deepened with acknowledgement of adventures past.
Stout pulled off another artistic gambit, unintentional though it doubtless was. He proved to be a mystery writer’s mystery writer. Re-release of his numerous books allowed a slew of his acolytes to introduce each volume and the best of the time lined up to do so. Artists are generally not selfish about acknowledging influences, but so many at once indicates something special.
Many authors pointed to the artifice that Stout built which was able to house so many plots. He had the tension between the four primary actors within Wolfe’s abode and their shifting tolerance of each other’s peccadillos. Of course, the primary relationship between Archie and Wolfe highlights tensions between mind and body, thought and action. Then, they had to deal with the outside world in a well-choreographed pantomime that generally ended in Wolfe’s office.
Archie transcribes virtually all of the tales in the first person, admitting to gathering some of the information from others when he was not present. Leavening with plenty of his own opinions, Archie is a reliable friend and somewhat unreliable narrator, leaving you to buy him a drink and pat him on the back.
Stout found the real marvel in mystery writing almost immediately. In the age of popular psychology, we worry less about how the crime was committed and want to know why. Wolfe illuminates motive; he quizzes the people involved and seems to search their heart for that dark spot that has driven them to their heinous act. Mysteries do not exist to scare us, but rather to assure us that reason still reigns supreme. We need to know that order is maintained even out of the ultimate disorder of serious crime. The great detective heroes don’t leave us empty at the conclusion, but rather restored to a sense of purpose. While art is about reassuring us that we are not alone, mysteries take it one step further and declare that we are all in this together. In a sense, they are not just an encouragement that we are as intelligent as Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, but they are a balm in times of internal confusion.
You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 265 more to go.
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