There are few series in the mystery genre as beloved as the Nero Wolfe novels written by Rex Stout. Part of the appeal is the eccentric Nero Wolfe character; an overweight, beer-drinking, orchid-raising, self-proclaimed “genius” who is able to solve most crime cases without leaving the comfort of his New York City apartment. In fact, other than attending to his orchids each afternoon, Wolfe is usually found sitting in his padded red chair or at the dining room table, enjoying meals prepared by his personal chef. Mobile, Nero Wolfe is not. The other factor in the series’ appeal is Wolfe’s assistant/secretary, the irrepressible, wise-cracking, skirt-chasing Archie Goodwin. Goodwin narrates these books, and his witty and irreverent commentary is a continual source of delight.
I’ve read dozens of the books in this series and have enjoyed them all, but just last week I finally read the very first of the Nero Wolfe novels, Fer-De Lance, written way back in 1934! More than good, I would rank this novel as one of the very best in the series. It pulses with the usual snappy dialogue and charming Nero Wolfe quirks, but there are also aspects of the plot that stray from the expected path. In this case the reader has a pretty good idea of whodunit, but not how and why, or exactly how Nero Wolfe is going to tie it all together. If you’ve never read this series, this novel is as a good a place to start as any; it’s a total delight. What I find remarkable about this book and others in the series is, despite having been written many decades ago, there is no rust or dust or stodginess. Despite some dated slang (which is also part of the fun!) that pops up periodically, the novel reads as if it was written by a contemporary writer. The dialogue is sharp and funny, especially the combative but good-natured banter between Goodwin and Wolfe, and Stout’s plotting is precise and paced perfectly.
Between novels and short story collections, there are about 50 different Rex Stout books in circulation. After Stout died in 1975 the series was continued briefly, for seven more novels, by Robert Goldsborough. I have yet to read any of those post-Stout books, but I’m still enjoying discovering the other old jewels in the Nero Wolfe canon.
My copy of Fer-De Lance is part of the “Rex Stout Library” editions that were published in the early 1990s. These editions feature short introductions to each novel written by “today’s best writers.” In this case of Fer-De Lance the intro was written by Loren B. Estleman, another author that I like very much. Estleman’s series of Amos Walker mysteries, set in Detroit, are excellent. Estleman also wrote a separate “Detroit Series” of novels that focused on “the dark side of the Motor City.” That series started as a trilogy but eventually expanded to seven novels, each one highlighting a decade in the city’s turbulent and fascinating history during the twentieth century. The ones that I’ve read are masterful works of crime fiction. If that wasn’t enough for this prolific author, he has also written a series of westerns. I think Rex Stout would be proud!