I devour books, in all forms. Most of them in their print version, which may surprise some people who have labeled me an apologist for all things Amazon and Kindle-ish. But I am an unregenerate library rat.
The city where I live, Naples, FL, has the best library system I’ve ever seen. The Headquarters Library is housed in a building that resembles the Alamo (pre-Santa Anna), and there are more branches in town than Publix supermarkets, which as anyone in Florida knows, seems impossible.
As a thriller and mystery writer myself, I’m always looking for inspiration, so I recently grabbed some Nero Wolfe mysteries. Addictive? Think Hershey’s Kisses or N.C.I.S.
I don’t know why I picked up Might As Well Be Dead, my first Wolfe. I didn’t even know much about the author, Rex Stout, who sounds like a star of silent Westerns, but is in reality one of the finest mystery writers this, or any country, has ever produced. After finishing Might, I rushed out to get the first two Nero Wolfes, Fer-De-Lance and The League of Frightened Men, published in 1934 and 1935, respectively. Both are superb and created a huge splash back then.
Nero Wolfe as a character is, well, a character. He is a huge man, fond of orchids, beer and gourmet food. He regularly humiliates cops and prosecutors, solving crimes that always stump them. He rarely leaves his New York brownstone, delegating the necessary footwork to a band of retainers led by Archie Goodwin, a tough, street-wise private eye with a nose for trouble, an eye for the ladies and a penchant for milk and cookies.
Goodwin, who freely trades insults with his boss, but considers him a deductive genius, narrates the novels, and is often astonished by Wolfe’s ability to solve a case by collating a series of apparently random clues brought to him by his employees. (Example: A woman’s brother is missing; she asks Wolfe for help. A prominent man dies of an apparent heart attack on a posh golf course. The brother also turns up dead, miles away. From a newspaper ad that no one else noticed, Wolfe deduces that both men were murdered by the same man. He’s right. Of course. And you won’t believe what one of the murder weapons was. The cops didn’t, and eat crow after Wolfe forces them to dig up one of the bodies!)
Despite references to the Lindbergh Kidnapping, Lynn Fontaine, roadsters, newspapers (remember them?) and the like, the early Nero Wolfes are eminently modern in approach and style. The prose is remarkable and literate, the banter between characters priceless, the plots fascinating and full of surprises.
Rex Stout’s own life reads like fiction. He was a Navy yeoman on Teddy Roosevelt’s Presidential yacht as a young man before deciding on a writing career! While he is best known for his Nero Wolfes (33 novels and 39 novellas between 1934 and 1975), he also wrote a gazillion other things (poems, magazine pieces, other novels and the like) and was an intellectual leader in the battle against Hitler, becoming a radio celebrity.
I would urge everyone to Google his accomplishments and awards, especially if they, like me, sometimes need their egos deflated. How I ignored Stout for so long is a source of supreme embarrassment. This is an author that Boucheron, the world’s largest mystery convention, anointed as the best mystery writer of the 20th Century.