"out goes she" - or "prisoner's base" originally in the US, presumably because the term means less than nothing in the UK - is only my second rex stout novel, but considering that the first one was the hilarious anti-fbi/ j edgar hoover wind up "the doorbell rang" which seems to be the most atypical in the whole series, this is pretty much the first proper nero wolfe novel i've read. as i discussed with "the thin man" i've always been pretty conservative with my crime novel reading and very rarely moved from the british writers if i can help it. but "the thin man" was such a wonderful experience i'm going to give more american crime writers a go - i have a raymond chandler omnibus lined up for the america trip already. admittedly based on only two wolfe novels, already the thing i like most about them - and this is barely a new observation as this same thing is mentioned on the wikipedia entry for stout - is that they very much combine the traditional omniscient detective of the british school (in wolfe himself - as an aside, if you're ever bored look up the hilarious attempts to link wolfe to either sherlock or mycroft as an illegitamate son) in the form of wolfe with the american hard boiled school in the form of archie goodwin. i'm so impressed with the stouts i've now read, i'm going to use them as a sort of bridge between the two genres so i can get used to the american school of writing. i'm making a big space in the bag to hopefully fill with anything by stout i stumble across in february...
anyway. to the book in question. firstly, i'm completely smitten with the detectives themselves. archie goodwin is a watson with brains and smarts, intelligent, thoughtful, witty and sharp witted and with only his love of milk as his one eccentricity. he's an engaging narrator, obviously fond of his boss as much as he is frustrated by him and it's his breezy tone of voice that leads you through the book. wolfe is frankly astonishing. i was always a bit sceptical of a quarter of a tonne detective who never leaves his house if he can help it and dotes on orchids, but it's as if stout has tried to work out how to balance those eccentricities with his more entertaining and believable traits. i love how wolfe is at heart a desperately lazy man who doesn't really like to do any work if he can help it. it's as if sherlock holmes - because obviously mycroft is the template for wolfe - spent all his time in bed rather than taking drugs and playing the violin. that stout turns this cantankerous, lethargic, woman hating grump into the hero is frankly stunning. i laughed out loud a number of times at wolfe's responses to suspect's attempts to account for their movements and there's a lovely dry tone of humour to wolfe at his very best. i even like the fact the detectives come in two sizes - big, idiotic bullies and slightly weary, wary intelligent types. even they're sympathetic... to a degree at any rate
before i get to the book itself, a quick aside. the interesting thing i've noticed on a general level about the - admittedly two or three - american crime novels i've read, is that hammett and stout both had left wing tendencies and sympathies and that the tone of the book is almost diametrically opposite that of the british novels of the period. by which i mean, there's a strong argument that a great deal of british crime writers of the golden age period are very conservative and see the crime novel as a way of reiterating the status quo - a murder happens somewhere beautiful and the police and the talented amateur restore that status quo and root out the evil nestled at it's heart. the american crime novel seems to allow a space to challenge the status quo. big business men are often corrupt and undue riches aren't usually a good thing in these books. even if stout and hammett are exceptions, there's still a feeling that you couldn't have such questioning about the values of the upper classes and the monied members of society comfortably existing in a british crime novel. that, to me, is a very telling difference in tone
anyway - to the book in question. as far as a puzzle plot goes, it's no great shakes. there's a nice bit of deduction at the end even if the ruse for getting all the interested parties gathered in one room is a little less than convincing. but the key is that there's a nice easy flow to the way the mystery progresses and the investigation itself, with the keen eyed archie backed up by the behind the scenes - and even keener eyed - wolfe himself. what's most interesting is that the victims of the crimes are all genuinely people whose loss is very tangibly felt. they are by no means perfect characters, but the widower's anger at his wife's death is awful and the final death is almost heart rending. as well as the playfulness - wolfe is wonderfully withering and blunt and must have been a joy to write - there's a real deep seated level of humanity in the book. and that humanity is almost entirely in the form of archie goodwin. the conclusion and solution is satisfying if a little unspectacular, but then i'm getting the impression already that stout never saw that as the be all and end all of the crime novel. there are other, more important, issues at stake here about loyalty and loss. i was surprised by how actually *genuinely* moving the book could be at times as well
i get the feeling that aside from the fact that archie is the client in this book, it's probably a reasonably minor bit of nero wolfe. i can't really compare with the rest of the series until i read any more. but i do definitely know i'll be reading a lot more if they're as good as this
goodness! i didn't know i'd been linked to by them - although i remember getting a few comments at the time. this is, as you've probably worked out, purely my crime reviews journal - my "home" lj is irkthepurist - which i'm using while trying, slowly, to write my own golden age pastiche of sorts (madame_marillat). i hope to find some more stout when in america next month - then maybe i'll join the list as well!
So glad you've found Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. If you want more information (e.g., complete listings of titles alphabetically, chronologically, and British titles), browse through www.nerowolfe.org, the official site of The Wolfe Pack, a Literary Society of fans of Rex Stout series. It is now almost 1,000 pages of Nero Wolfe trivia.
Happy reading, and if you are ever in NYC, please check out the Events Page in case a book discussion or other event is occurring during your stay.
I wish you well,
(Julie Jacquette in DEATH OF A DOXY)
Carol, Web mistress, www.nerowolfe.org
thank you! i've looked through your site and taken a few notes of titles to look out for. i'm struggling to find much stout here in the UK so i'm hoping my visit to america next week to see my wife's family will result in a few richer pickings...
out of interest, which are the most typical wolfe books to read? where would you suggest i start reading next?