Tagged: Rex Stout

John Ostrander: Nasty Surprises

NeroWolfeFiles_front_fsI’ve heard it said that old friends are the best friends. That makes sense to me. Over time, you’ve shared experiences together, both good and bad. You’ve grown to know each other, to know the little idiosyncrasies that make up who we are, that make the bonds between us.

You can form that kind of relationships with books as well, especially series. The first time you read the book, it’s to discover the story, to learn what happens next. As you return to it, or read another book in the series, it’s because you want to revisit them.

For example, for me every new book in The Number One Ladies Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith is like a new visit with old friends. I know the characters, the main ones and the wide supporting cast as well, and I want to learn what is going on with their lives. There are surprises in each visit, to be sure, but I now know the locale and what these people are like, I know their foibles and their virtues. They do grow but they are still the same characters I know and love.

As I mentioned in a recent column, I’ve been re-reading the Nero Wolfe mysteries by Rex Stout. There’s a lot of them – Stout started the series in the 30s and ended the run only with his death in 1975. In all, there are 33 novels and 39 novellas in the canon. It’s been so long since I’ve read most of them that most of the time I don’t really remember what the mystery is or whodunit.

However, I don’t really come back for the mysteries – I come back for old friends, principally the great detective, Nero Wolfe, and his intrepid assistant, Archie Goodwin. They’re a great team – Wolfe is the armchair detective, the great mind in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes. Archie is the wisecracking modern semi-hard boiled detective in the tradition of Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe. (Archie also is our narrator in all the stories and he’s a damn good one.) Their relationship, their repartee, is what drives the series.

Wolfe has many well defined idiosyncrasies: he keeps religiously to his routine, never leaves his brownstone in New York if he can help it, is a gourmand (and looks it; we’re often told he weighs a seventh of a ton), cultivates orchards, is a misogynist, is paranoid about traveling in any vehicle (convinced that the vehicle at some irrational moment will kill him), loves big words and knows how to use them, and is almost terminally lazy. If Archie wasn’t there to badger him. Wolfe would probably never work at all.

Part of Stout’s way of shaking up the series is to occasionally put Wolfe in very uncomfortable positions, usually involving his being obliged to leave his dwelling. One of Wolfe’s immediate objectives invariably is to find a chair that cannot only hold him and bear his weight but in which he feels comfortable and secure; not always an easy task.

In the fifth book of the series, Too Many Cooks, Stout inflicts many indignities on Wolfe from the start. We begin with the great detective on a train; if you know Wolfe and his horrors of travel, you already know how much this will bother him. He and Archie are traveling to West Virginia, to a well known resort where fifteen of the top chefs from around the world gather for a special banquet where Wolfe will be the guest of honor and the main speaker. Needless to say, one of the chefs winds up murdered and Wolfe, if he ever wants to get home, will need to solve the case. So far so good and very entertaining.

That said, there was something that took me aback as I read it. At this resort, the staff are all African-Americans, and there is a casual use of racial slurs by several characters, including Archie. Other nationalities also get ethnic slurs used with them but, with the African-Americans, the slurs carry with them the whole bigoted attitude that those words embody.

The book was published in 1938 and will, as most pop culture, reflect the society and attitude of its day. That said, it was still startling and somewhat off-putting to me. I don’t expect something written back then to reflect sensibilities more prevalent today. I am not and never was someone who expected the word “nigger” to be excised from Huckleberry Finn.

Still, it did catch me by surprise. It’s an attitude I hadn’t seen in my old friend before and didn’t expect to find it here. I wasn’t sure I wanted to finish the book.

I did and I’m glad I did. At one point, in order to solve the mystery, Wolfe needs to question the black staff, the cooks and the servants, together. And this is where Stout provides an admirable twist. Wolfe treats them as individuals and with respect, and so does the author. They have names, they have separate identities and characters, different outlooks and goals and ways of talking. One waiter is working at the resort to put himself through Howard College. There are no “niggers” in this group. They’re people, individuals, and that’s the point Stout makes. In a book published in 1938. I find that remarkable.

This is not to paint Wolfe as a civil rights champion. He is not. Wolfe (Stout?) is an undeniable misogynist and that may be a subject for a column at some future date. Wolfe is also ruthlessly pragmatic at times and, in this case, he needs information. However, he doesn’t allow blind prejudice, such as Archie demonstrates, to get in his way of solving the murder. That being said, Wolfe treats the men as men.

It is nice when you find that your old friend is who you thought they were, whether that old friend is living or fictional. Well done, Nero Wolfe. Highly satisfactory.

John Ostrander: Origins

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As I mentioned in a previous column, I’ve been on a Rex Stout/Nero Wolfe reading/re-reading jag as of late and have been enjoying it greatly. As other commentators have noted, the pleasure in the Nero Wolfe novels is not so much the plots, which have been noted as serviceable, but in the characters, especially the rotund and eccentric genius, Nero Wolfe, and his wise cracking legman and assistant, Archie Goodwin.

(Sidenote: when I first met the late and great comic book writer/editor, Also Archie Goodwin, I meant to ask him about Wolfe but decidedly, I think prudently, that he had probably gotten enough of that in his life. End digression.)

Stout had written 33 novels and 39 short stories on the pair between 1934 and his death in 1975. After his death, his estate authorized further Wolfe and Goodwin adventures by Robert Goldsborough who has written ten books, one of which was Archie Meets Nero Wolfe, a prequel to the Nero Wolfe stories telling the tale of how the two first met.

That’s a story Rex Stout had never told and I’m enough of a fan to have wondered in the past about it so, of course, I ordered the book.

Pastiches can be hit and miss; the author is trying not only for the style of the original author but for the voice of the characters. There’s been a lot of different pastiches over the years for different literary creations; Sherlock Holmes has them, there are Conan the Barbarian pastiches, and more recently Robert B. Parker’s characters have come back to life with various writers of different abilities.

I read Archie Meets Nero Wolfe and it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t Stout but it wasn’t bad. It hit all the clues about the characters’ backgrounds that Stout had sprinkled through the Wolfe canon. Goldsborough has caught Wolfe’s “voice” pretty well although I felt his Archie was a bit spotty. However, my biggest reaction after reading the book was “Why?”

Rex Stout never gave a full “origin” of the Wolfe/Goodwin partnership. Do we really need one? Yes, I bought the book because I was curious but I didn’t learn anything new about the characters. It got me to thinking: do we always need an origin?

When I started writing my GrimJack series, we joined John (GrimJack) Gaunt in the middle of his doing something. Sometime later, we did an “origin” which the late columnist and critic Don Thompson said was his second favorite origin story of all time, next to Superman’s. In it, Gordon, the bartender of Munden’s Bar which Gaunt owns and is his hang-out, offers to share Gaunt’s “secret origin” with a patron. It goes like this: Papa Gaunt. Mama Gaunt. A bottle of hootch. Wucka wucka wucka. Nine months later – Baby Gaunt.

The point of it was that Gaunt was born and everything that had happened to him since then is what makes him into GrimJack. I differentiate between “origins” and “backstory”.

An origin is the starting point from which everything else flows. Backstory fills in and explains different aspects of a given character. Sometimes there may not be any single starting point.

I wrote some stories with Del Close, the legend who directed and taught at Chicago’s Second City for many many years and then went to form the ImprovOlympics (now simply called “I/O”). I took some of his improv classes at Second City myself; they were extremely valuable to me as a writer and very liberating. One of Del’s rule was to start in the middle of the story and go on past the end. He used to say, “I get bored with all that exposition shit. Get on with it.” If it was a fairy tale, he wanted to know what happened beyond the “happily ever after”. For him, that was what was really interesting in the story.

One of the big questions Del made me ask myself was “Just how necessary – really necessary – was all that exposition?” What was the minimum that reader had to know in order to follow the story? The answer usually is: a lot less than you think. A writer may want to be clear about everything so s/he may overexplain.

I remember one of the first Spider-Man stories I ever read began with Spidey in the middle of a pitched battle on a New York street with the Rhino. I didn’t know anything about either character but the writer, Stan Lee, assured us in a narrative caption: “Don’t worry, effendi. We’ll catch you up as we go.” And damned if he didn’t. That also taught me a lot.

One of the rules that has been devised for comics is that Every Comic Is Someone’s First Issue. Therefore, it was obligatory to be absolutely clear about it all. Someone’s rule was that within the first five pages, the main character’s name had to be said, the powers demonstrated, and what’s at stake made clear. That’s important for the writer to know, certainly, but how much does the reader need to know? Usually, less than you think.

With GrimJack, Timothy Truman (the book’s first artist and designated co-creator) and I knew a lot about John Gaunt’s backstory but we decided to only tell it when it was pertinent to a given story. The reader sensed that there was more story than we were telling and that created some mystery about him but, at the same time, there was trust that we knew what we were doing.

The writer also has to trust the reader and to assume they are intelligent enough to fill in some blanks. It doesn’t all need to be spelled out. You can imply a lot and trust the reader to get it. That trust creates a bond between creator and reader and that’s when magic happens.

For me, that was the main problem with Archie Meets Nero Wolfe. It gave me the incidents of how the two met, the what, but not the why. How did that relationship start? Was there a chemistry from the start? The book was very prosaic but it needed a touch of poetry; there needed to be something between the lines. There needed to be a touch of mystery because in all the Rex Stout stories about the pair, that was there. The biggest mystery in every Nero Wolfe story, the one that is never solved but always there, is the relationship between Wolfe and Archie. That’s what keeps me coming back. Over and over.

John Ostrander: Nero Wolfe Revisited

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My mother once told me that an odd pleasure she had in growing older was that she could go back to favorite books, particularly mysteries, and enjoy them all over again because she didn’t remember the ending. She knew she liked it but she could discover it anew.

That’s happening a bit to me these days. I’ve recently started re-reading Rex Stout’s mysteries featuring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin (not to be confused with the late, great comics writer and editor with the same name, although that would have been an interesting pairing as well). I read quite a few of them a few decades back but not all of them; that would be a monumental task since Stout wrote 33 novels and about 40 novellas about Wolfe and Goodwin.

Rex Stout (December 1, 1886 – October 27, 1975) was born of Quaker parents in Indiana and was raised in Kansas. He served as a yeoman on Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential yacht. In 1916, he created a school banking system that paid him royalties and made quite a bit of money. He described himself in 1942 as a “pro-Labor, pro-New Deal, pro-Roosevelt left liberal”. A man after my own heart. He was denounced as a Communist during the McCarthy Era but denied it. He told House Committee on Un-American Activities chairman Martin Dies, “I hate Communists as much as you do, Martin, but there’s one difference between us. I know what a Communist is, and you don’t.” J. Edgar Hoover was not a fan and Stout wasn’t a fan of his or of the FBI and that figures prominently in Stout’s very famous Nero Wolfe mystery. The Doorbell Rang.

The Nero Wolfe stories are an ingenious pairing of a cerebral detective (Wolfe) and hard-boiled detective (Archie). I love narrative alloys like this; my GrimJack stories are a combination of hard-boiled detective and sword-and-sorcery. Suicide Squad melds The Dirty Dozen,  Mission: Impossible, and The Secret Society of Super-Villains.

Wolfe is fat. He is more than stout, he is obese. He’s been described as weighing a seventh of a ton, fluctuating between 310 and 390 lbs. He lives in a beautiful brownstone on West 35th Street in New York City that he owns; Archie lives there as well, having his own room. Wolfe takes on detective work only as a source of income to indulge his passions, which includes orchids, fine food, and beer. He keeps to a very strict daily schedule and does not even allow the investigations to meddle with it. He is brilliant, fastidious, idiosyncratic, arrogant, demanding, and filled with wonderful character tics.

Archie is Wolfe’s “legman”. He does the physical stuff, tracking down things and witnesses, bringing suspects to the office for Wolfe to question, acting as secretary as needed. He’s also a wise-guy, quick with a quip and good with his fists. One of his jobs is to needle Wolfe, keep him on the job, make him relatively human, and just be a pain in Wolfe’s sizable ass. He’s also the narrator of the stories; we know what we know through Archie and Wolfe sometimes deliberately doesn’t tell him everything, often just to annoy him.

The stories also have a stable of supporting characters, each with their own well defined personality tics and traits. One of the real pleasures of the series is the interaction between Wolfe and Archie; Stout tells a good story and can plot with the best of them but it’s the interplay between the two leads that drives the series. Like any serial fiction, including comics, it’s how you play the expected tropes that keeps the series fresh. Stout does endless and inventive variations of the expected notes; it feels a little like jazz to me. That’s a lesson I need to keep learning; how to take what is expected and make it surprising, fresh, and entertaining.

I don’t know if I’ll go through all of the Nero Wolfe cannon this time; I doubt it. There’s just too many other things to read. However, what’s nice is that I know I will enjoy what I’m reading. I did the last time even if I don’t exactly remember why. Such are the blessings of aging.