where time never starts: Rex Stout, Nero Wolfe, and Archie Goodwin; more books that inspired Claire DeWitt

by Sara Gran
Publicity photograph of Rex Stout, author of t...

Rex Stout via Wikipedia

Another series that really made me want to write my own detective series was Rex Stout‘s Nero Wolfe series. My father read these when I was growing up and they were kind of just always there–I don’t remember ever not having read them. There’s a lot that’s remarkable about this series, but one aspect that particularly inspired me when starting my owns series was how masterfully Stout pulls together strands from different types of mystery novels and sub-genres. Nero Wolfe, a big fat man from Montenegro who rarely leaves his house and cares about orchids and food more than people, is a classic Sherlock-Holmes-type Genius Detective. His sidekick and assistant (and narrator), Archie Goodwin, is a hardboiled, wisecracking Watson, a more cheerful (much more cheerful) Phillip Marlowe. The series takes place in New York and different clients and cases represent a range of types of mysteries: locked door mysteries, noir femme fatale stories, Agatha Christie-type puzzles. Stout’s (I keep writing “Wolfe’s”!) genius was to blend these different strands seamlessly, offering the reader the best of all worlds. There’s a grittiness to Archie and the way he lives, but there’s little actual violence or bloodshed in the books. There’s a lot of intellectual puzzles to work out and a lot of poisonings-of-the-duchess, but also plenty of noir-ish dialogue between Goodwin and his nemesis Inspector Cramer. And of course, Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are wonderful characters, or the whole thing wouldn’t work. Wolfe is basically a colossal asshole most of the time, which makes the times when he isn’t really stand out. And Goodwin is nearly always a good guy, which makes you sit up and notice when he isn’t. Formulas can be a good thing when the formula supports, rather than restrains–and of, course, when it’s a good formula!

Like with Vachss’ Burke series, one of Wolfe’s strength’s is building an entire world–Saul Panzer, Fritz, and Inspector Cramer were as real to me as people in my own home. I read the books out of order, and I didn’t read the first, Fer-de-Lance, until about eight years ago. I’d always wondered how Stout set the stage for this world–how Archie and Nero Wolfe met, how Wolfe came to live in the brownstone on 38th Street, how they got off on such a bad foot with Cramer. Here’s how he does it: he doesn’t. The first book in the series is just like every other book in the series. Stout just drops you down in his world and you never find out anything about how they came together (I mean anything more than you learn in the other books–you do get bits and pieces as time goes on). I think that’s such a brilliant solution to the problem of setting a scene, and in fact to a lot of problems we face in writing novels. Just don’t do it. There’s no easier solution!

7 Comments to “where time never starts: Rex Stout, Nero Wolfe, and Archie Goodwin; more books that inspired Claire DeWitt”

  1. Yes! You’re absolutely right. Stout’s work blending the genres was brilliant — I don’t think anyone else has even tried it. My mom (a Christie fan) introduced me to Stout’s work when I was a pre-teen ready to move on from Sherlock Holmes but not yet ready for Chandler, Ed McBain, John D. MacDonald etc. it was a real eye-opener. Thanks for posting this!

  2. Thanks Craig–and, completely off topic, I hope everyone checks out your site and reads your book about protecting manatees, a cause very close to my heart! I have “adopted” many manatees and it’s a gift that never fails to please!


  3. I understand completely. My love of the Wolfe books led me to write CHOKE ON YOUR LIES. It was the world of Wolfe more than the mysteries. I cared about the characters and their conversations, pastimes, so much more than who-dun-it.

    • Anthony, all the more reason I need to read it! I agree, it’s the world much more than the mysteries, which be a bit (SPOILER ALERT) cobra-poison-in-the-golf-club. All the characters are so well drawn, no stereotypes or throwaways (at least not among the main players). And Wolfe himself of course is flawlessly drawn, I think.

  4. I am so embarrassed I never read Stout! My mom loved him and I just read that Anthony Neil Smith’s latest is inspired by him!

    So exciting to have new discoveries awaiting me!

    • Megan and anyone else who wants to start, I think Fer De Lance is as good a place as any to begin, and I do like the earlier ones more than the later. I’m also partial to the ones with girl clients too, of course.

  5. The brownstone’s on W. 35th Street, as I recall.

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