Thursday, August 27, 2009


Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Fer-de-Lance (Farrar & Rhinehart, 1934).

Nero Wolfe is one of those great fictional characters I've always been aware of but never got around to reading, sort of like Roderick Alleyn, I suppose. That changed when I married a woman who brought two shelves full of Rex Stout paperbacks in the mammoth library she moved into the Hipster Pad. We watched a handful of the A&E adaptations from a few years ago and I enjoyed the heck out of them, so I gave the first of Stout's novels a spin last week.

Fer-de-Lance was first published in 1934 and it appears that Stout had his characters fully formed from the outset. That said, I believe that the Archie Goodwin of this novel is a little more coarse and abrasive than the rake that he would settle into, but his narration is just superbly witty from the beginning. I laughed aloud several times at Archie's sarcastic, disbelieving tone, especially when he mentions that he didn't know what those idiots at the White Plains DA's office thought that they had been doing for the six days after finishing an autopsy, as they clearly weren't investigating anything of value.

The plot is almost superfluous to reading Archie's reports about everything, and watching his humorous interaction with the hugely eccentric Nero Wolfe, but basically it starts with Wolfe agreeing to look into a missing persons case. That fellow turns up dead, which puts Wolfe and Archie on the case of a university president who died of what was said to be a heart attack on a golf course, but it was actually a bizarre killing arranged by their missing person. But while literally nobody seemed to want the president to die, the $50,000 reward offered by his widow is enough to sustain Wolfe's interest in the mystery.

Stout had written a few novels prior to Fer-de-Lance, and had learned enough to give his twisting, engaging plot a fun tempo and pace like a veteran craftsman. When I first started studying detective fiction in college, I read that Stout was one of the few writers who bridged the two schools of British amateur heroes tackling grandiose schemes and the more basic, Hammett-led hard-boiled California-based crime dramas. I can really see that, and wish I had sampled Stout before now. Well, I have almost two full shelves to read, and all the time in the world, so the next few months will be quite entertaining, even if I do plan to rotate him with a couple of other authors. (And find room and time to resume Sayers from where I left off several months back!)

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