musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Posts tagged ‘Rex Stout’

The Lasting Appeal of Nero Wolfe

blackorchids

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.

ferdelance 

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.

rexstout 

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.

estleman_jitterbug

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!

 

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Crime Spree

I read a lot of books, trying to balance my literary diet with a mixture of fiction and non-fiction. That said, the bulk of what I read leans heavily towards crime fiction. Call the genre crime fiction, or even mystery (sometimes, though, there is no actual “mystery” involved in the plot), but I really detest the term “thriller.” Such a flippant categorization just cheapens the novel, in my opinion. Sure, some books in this genre may not qualify as “serious” literature, and will most likely never be nominated for a Booker Prize (then again, most of those picks are total head scratchers), but that doesn’t make the book disposable fluff either.

 

In any case, I’ve been on a real crime reading spree lately, more than usual. I even set aside a couple of non-fiction books that I had been reading (John Man’s book about Genghis Khan, and a biography about the intrepid early 20th century explorer Gertrude Bell), so that I could buzz through a few new novels. During my recent trip to Myanmar I read City of Fire by Robert Ellis, Dance for the Dead by Thomas Perry, and Three Doors to Death by Rex Stout (okay, that one wasn’t exactly “new”, but I’d never read it).

 

There was a blurb by Michael Connelly on the cover of City of Fire, raving about the book. I was wary, though. Some of those glowing reviews don’t always translate to an impressive read. The Ellis novel, however, turned out to be as good as advertised. A tense, taught mystery with an engaging female protagonist in Detective Lena Gamble, the necessary shady characters, some interesting music references (like Connelly’s Harry Bosch character, Lena is a jazz fan), some absolutely horrific crime scenes, a few surprising plot twists, and plenty of lively dialogue. Since I returned to Bangkok I also devoured The Lost Witness, the sequel to City of Fire, which once again features Lena Gamble. Another excellent read, reaffirming my belief that this Ellis is about to join the elite ranks of crime fiction writers.

 

I had read two of Thomas Perry’s older novels, both featuring the “Butcher’s Boy” hit man character and enjoyed those very much. Dance for the Dead, however, features an entirely different protagonist, Jane Whitefield, a young Native American woman who protects deserving people in trouble, often helping them “disappear” from the bad guys. Very interesting premise and Jane Whitefield is a most unique character. The only knock against this novel was the lame dialogue. It just didn’t have the ring of authenticity that I associate with top tier mystery writers. Plus, each character tended to sound the same: the 8-year old boy, the 21-year old gang-banger, the middle-aged judge, the senior citizen neighbor, and even Jane herself, all used the same vocabulary and had the same speech patterns. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book enough that I plan to read others in the series.

 

Three Doors to Death is a collection of three Nero Wolf “short mysteries”. I love this series, especially the colorful characters; the delightfully acerbic and eccentric Wolfe; and Archie Goodwin, his womanizing, witty, and clever assistant. Fine dining, orchids, sparkling dialogue, and dead bodies galore. What’s not to like? It always amazes me that these books were written so many years ago (the late 1940s in the case of these short stories) yet they still thrill and fascinate.

 

Once I was back in Bangkok, my mystery addiction only intensified. I paid a visit to the Kinokuniya branch in the Emporium and picked up the new novels from John Sandford and Barry Eisler. The Sandford book, Stolen Prey, is the latest in his series featuring the sharp-dressed Minnesota crime investigator Lucas Davenport. His goofy sidekick, Virgil Flowers (the star of another series by Sandford) also pops up several times in this tale. Like the other books in the Prey series, this one has multiple plots, witty dialogue, grisly murders, and is a delight to read.

 

Eisler’s The Detachment marks the return of his popular John Rain character, his colorful — and lethal — cohort Dox, and a couple of characters from the previous two non-Rain novels. These four hired assassins are lured into taking a most challenging assignment, but it soon become apparent that this “mission” isn’t all what they thought it would be. Have they become targets themselves? Eisler injects a bit of political intrigue into the plot, further ratcheting up the page-turning factor. Some scary cyber scenarios are presented, most of which are entirely plausible in this technology-driven age.

 

At my own bookshop I was thrilled to find the new novels from Daniel Suarez and T. Jefferson Parker. I had read the first two books by Suarez (Daemon and Freedom) and enjoyed them very much, so I was quite happy to find an “Advance Reading Copy” of his new novel, Kill Decision. This could be his best book yet, a riveting tale of high-tech warfare and political manipulation, featuring deadly drones and creepy military characters. Like Eisler’s book, a lot of disturbing “it could really happen” elements figure in the plot. At the end of their books, both Eisler and Suarez offer lists of recommended reading, based on the controversial topics covers in their novels. Much appreciated! But you may want to throw away your cell phone and go into hiding after reading those two particular books. Orwell was prophetic: Big Brother is now watching — and tracking — our every move.

 

The Parker book, Iron River, is another novel featuring the Deputy Charlie Hood character. This was as good as expected, but it took me a while to get into the flow of the story. Parker uses a couple of different narratives, including one that’s oddly in the first person, plus the story switches from California to Mexico and back again, as Hood and cohorts attempt to rescue a colleague who has been kidnapped by a ruthless drug gang. Despite the odd plot, I credit Parker with “stretching out” and trying something a bit different. There is plenty of action and plenty of twisted characters, propelled by Parker’s flair for writing believable and colorful dialogue, along with telling an interesting story.  

 

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