Rex Stout, A Biography by John McAleer. New York: Little, Brown. $15.00. 621 pp.
Of my favorite fictional detectives, two are grossly overweight, and meals are a central attraction in the books of each. Both drink beer in substantial quantities. Both can be curt, uncommunicative, especially when working on a case. Both, as detectives, are noted celebrities. But as men they are actually very little alike. Chief Inspector Maigret, the creation of Georges Simenon, is a member of the Paris police force; increasingly, as the series progresses, one finds him filling out forms, meeting with superiors, overseeing subordinates. He occupies a simple apartment with his quiet discrete wife, who apparently spends most of her day buying and preparing food for her husband. Though the two of them often take in movies, and in the later novels can be found watching television, Maigret has never, to my knowledge, read a book. He is a non-intellectual, and when he is working on a case the process that goes on in his mind would not properly be called thinking. It is crucial for him to discover the ambiance of the crime. Gruff, massive, often draped in a heavy overcoat, forever puffing on one in a large collection of pipes, he absorbs the atmosphere, settles into it, wanders neighborhoods, climbs apartment house stairs, drinks in local bars. He identifies with the criminal, puts himself in the criminal’s place. Sometimes a sadness, sometimes — in less serious situations — a certain amusement, settles over him as he makes his discoveries. His insights come as if by inspiration. He solves the crime by becoming the criminal.
Nero Wolfe disdains humanity. He is not a member of the police force, and, in a grand old tradition of detective fiction, is generally at war with them. Rarely leaving his New York brownstone, he works for money and commands enormous fees. He is unmarried and in general detests women. He spends four hours a day tending orchids in his plant rooms, and, when not on a case, spends the rest of his day reading, drinking beer, and savoring the gourmet meals prepared by his cook, Fritz Brenner. His work as a detective is a necessary distraction from these central pleasures of his life. He solves his cases by the force of his intellect. Behind the massive desk in his study, leaning back in the only chair in which his enormous bulk is really comfortable, he silently ruminates, moving his lips out and in, out and in. Almost inevitably, once he has felt some certainty about a case, he assembles the suspects together and, with deft brutal questioning, dispatches of the case as quickly as possible, so that he can get back to his books, his beer, his food.
Wolfe is an eccentric, a misanthrope, a misogynist, and a snob, and the novels about him might almost be unbearable if it were not for their narrator, Archie Goodwin. The chief among Wolfe’s leg men, he also occupies the brownstone, is greatly appreciative of Fritz’s cooking, but is hardly a recluse. He enjoys books, the theater, baseball, and, especially, the company of women, though he too has remained a bachelor. No fumbling Dr. Watson, he is often just a step or two behind Wolfe in solving a crime, and, again unlike Watson (“Extraordinary, Holmes”) he rarely admits his admiration openly to Wolfe, though he freely concedes to the reader that Wolfe is a genius. He narrates in a slangy prose that is never muddled, always keeps the story moving. Whenever confronting a murder suspect, he carries a gun, and, when necessary, he can get physical. He is full of wisecracks and shows respect for no one. In teaming Wolfe with Archie Goodwin, Rex Stout not only followed an old tradition of giving his great detective an admiring chronicler, he also combined the early tradition of a massively intellectual sleuth with a more recent invention, the American hard-boiled detective.
Rex Stout himself did much more with his life than just write detective fiction. Descended from a long line of notable Quakers, born into a family of many talented children, a family of readers, Rex took his place among them at an early age; he began reading at eighteen months. In his fourth year he read through the entire Bible. By the time he was twelve, he had read the 1126 volumes (it was Rex who had counted them) in his father’s library, which included the complete works of Shakespeare; he had memorized the sonnets. Needless to say, he was a prodigy in school, especially in mathematics, in which he was an astonishingly rapid calculator. Skipping college, he enlisted in the navy, became a bookkeeper aboard Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential yacht. When he left the navy he traveled, saw the country, supporting himself with various odd jobs. He had a successful early career as a writer of pulp fiction. Abandoning that genre when it no longer offered any challenge, he embarked with his family on a business, the Educational Thrift Service, that made them all wealthy; when he sold his interests in his fortieth year, his share of the profits came, on an average, to $30,000 per year. He was active as a political liberal, though something of an idiosyncratic thinker and always a staunch anti-Communist, and helped to found the New Masses and Vanguard Press. Even just as a businessman, he formed many distinguished friendships: he knew Ford Madox Ford, for instance, through him met Joseph Conrad; he spent evenings with Bertrand Russell.
At the age of forty he began a second writing career. Traveling to Europe as something of an expatriate novelist, he met Bernard Shaw, G.K. Chesterton; in Paris he visited Gertrude Stein’s salon and met Hemingway, Wilder, Joyce. He wrote three avante garde novels, all of which received favorable reviews. Having returned to America, he designed and built his own home, and all the furniture in it. He farmed extensively and practiced cabinet making as a diversion. In 1933 he began the Nero Wolfe series. Throughout World War II he was fiercely active, neglecting his own work, in his opposition to Hitler. Following the war, he was at the vanguard of those interested in establishing a world government. He fought for author’s rights, and was instrumental in establishing a reform in copyrights legislation. As his career progressed, he amassed a larger and larger group of distinguished friends and admirers. He died in 1975 at the age of eighty-nine.
Stout’s was a remarkable life, in many ways a model one, yet it would hardly have been noted, much less remembered, if not for the series of detective novels that he began writing in his forty-seventh year. There are those, among them some distinguished authorities, who would make grand claims for detective fiction, but its greatest practitioners have always known it is a limited genre. Arthur Conan Doyle would have abandoned Sherlock Holmes early on if he could have made money with any of his other writing. According to Lillian Hellman, Dashiell Hammett always had an urge to try his hand at straight fiction. Georges Simenon has never accorded as important a place to his Maigret series as to his other fiction. One cannot help wondering why a man of such enormous talents as Rex Stout should confine himself to so limited a form.
Stout himself offered one explanation. “To write profound things about the human soul, your feelings about it have to be very deep, very difficult . . . I could have been . . . another one of the good ones. But when you’re making serious comment on people and their behavior, you have to put part of your soul in the work. I thought, if you’re merely good and not great, what’s the use of putting all that agony into it?” Such an explanation, though, seems unconvincing, sounds too much like a rationalization after the fact; McAleer offers a more interesting one. He believes that in creating his famous pair of detectives, Stout was working out a strong inner conflict in his own life. His father, John Stout, was “earnest, disciplined, set in his ways, possessed of a fine sense of indignation, and hot tempered.” His mother, Lecetta Todhunter Stout, was “imaginative, receptive to new ideas, enthusiastic, fun-loving, hard to ruffle, aspiring, and stubborn.” Obviously, to some extent, Stout incorporated these two parts of his heritage in his two major creations. But the personal conflict that resulted in the Nero Wolfe series was deeper than that. Throughout Stout’s early life, his father was at least distant from his children if not actually absent; he held a series of increasingly mediocre jobs that kept him away from the family most of the time. Rex was raised by his mother who, somewhat eccentric and distant herself, left the children mostly on their own. She raised children who were bright, self reliant, and largely successful, but who had missed out on something in their emotional lives. Lucetta Stout was “brainy,” as one of her grandchildren was to say, “but cold as hell.” When the Stouts had established a successful family business, were living together in New York, John Stout tried to return to the fold, but, despite the fact that he was allowed to move in with the family, he was never really accepted. From that time until his death at the age of eighty-six, his wife, deeply resentful at something in their relationship, never spoke to him again. As if in a tasteless situation comedy, they communicated only through intermediaries. Within his own family, John Stout was an outcast.
McAleer believes that in creating Nero and Archie, Stout was trying to find the father-son relationship that in his life he had never experienced. Rex himself had felt no strong antipathy for his father, was even drawn to him, but he had been raised by his mother and his loyalties necessarily remained with her; though he often wanted to, he never felt he could be close to his father. Torn by that dilemma, he invented a better reality. It is interesting that, in the earlier Nero Wolfe novels, the relationship between Nero and Archie is formal, distant, Archie somewhat resenting Wolfe’s eccentricities, but as the series progresses the two men tend to merge, accept one another. Stout was deepening in his imagination a relationship that in real life he had not been able even to begin.
But it seems that there were other limits in Stout as a man that eventually drove him to a limited literary genre. As brilliant a mind as he had, sharply analytical, as deftly as he handled words, he seems to have lacked something of human sympathy. One senses in him the distance toward others that the Stout parents maintained with their children. One friend wrote to Stout of it, frankly complaining. “It’s not very easy to talk to you, because you are so careful, so covered up, so walled about, and one never knows whether the things you say are spoken for the benefit of strengthening the wall; or are the voice of the you within . . . The real you is so adequate and complete and fine and to-be-loved, that I’m amazed that you keep that part of you so hidden.” Though Stout’s crusade against Hitler in World War II seems admirable, his hatred of the Germans and his avid desire to punish them after the war seem rather savage. Throughout his life, he could not admit a mistake. He took an early stand in favor of the Vietnam war and would never recant on that position. When he left the Educational Thrift Service he quarreled with his brother Bob, and, even many years later, when his brother made a phone call trying to effect a reconciliation, Rex would not accept the call. There was often playful disagreement among Stout’s friends as to whether he was more Archie or more Nero, but the reader of this biography would have to lean on the side of Wolfe. “You regard anything and everything beyond your control as an insult,” Archie says once to Nero, and that remark would seem as true of Rex himself. One can easily see why such a man would reject more complex forms of imaginative literature in favor of a simpler form that has its limits.
In preparing this biography, John McAleer became a close friend of Stout’s, and he spent seven years working on the project; one can understand its excesses. The book is perhaps a couple hundred pages too long. The writing is insightful in places, but in general it is methodical, dully chronological. Often, especially when making transitions in his huge mass of material, McAleer employs feeble witticisms. He gives many pages to summarizing early pulp fiction that would have best been forgotten. One might wish that he had reduced the book by a third, experimented somewhat with varying the chronology. But certainly he did a conscientious job, and the life he has described is most interesting. Avid Wolfe fans, at least, should appreciate the book.
Stout often wondered why the Nero Wolfe series was so successful; many a writer has speculated as to why detective fiction is as popular as it is. My own favorite answer is given in the musings of a character in Graham Greene’s The Honorary Consul.
Oh, there is a sort of comfort in reading a story where one knows what the end will be. The story of a dream world where justice is always done. There were no detective stories in the age of faith — an interesting point when you think of it. God used to be the only detective when people believed in Him. He was law. He was order. He was good. Like your Sherlock Holmes. It was He who pursued the wicked man for punishment and discovered all.
The detective, then, is a kind of god, presiding over a world that he gives order to. Nero Wolfe, with his unremitting belief in justice, somewhat resembles an Old Testament Jehovah, but perhaps even more than that approaches the Aristotelian notion of a being of pure reason. Stout himself believed that reason itself is the real hero of detective fiction. “A detective story ends,” he said, “when reason’s work is done.” In the last of the Nero Wolfe novels, A Family Affair, Wolfe is accused of being responsible for the death of a man who has served him through much of his career. He does not deny the charge; neither does he show any emotion at it. “I won’t challenge your right to put it like that . . . If it pleases you to say that I killed him, I won’t contend.” I am a great admirer of the Nero Wolfe series — for sheer enjoyment few books I have read would rank above them — but when I find theology in mystery novels I might hope that the detective would not be such a monster of reason. I would rather he had his human side, his obvious weaknesses. I would hope that he might understand criminals and show compassion toward them. I too might picture him as massive, brooding, but suffering among the criminals he is seeking, not existing arrogantly apart from them. “For thirty years I have tried to make it understood that there are no criminals,” Georges Simenon once said. It is a famous feature of the Maigret series that, once the Inspector discovers the criminal, understands the crime, he often finds a way to set him free.