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REX STOUT (1886-1975)

Rex Stout's great sleuthing team, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, is often compared with the Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John H. Watson duo of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. There are many similarities. Both pairs share digs at addresses so real to their readers that they draw aficionados to their doors. Both masterminds are unmarried and, with rare exceptions, shun women. Both sleuths are eccentric geniuses who solve mysteries in the tradition of Edgar Allan Foe's Chevalier Auguste Dupin, by remarkable powers of reasoning. But the greatest similarity between the teams is that both succeed in becoming so real to their readers that the characters take on lives of their own.

The differences are also obvious. Unlike the lanky Holmes, Wolfe is literally larger than life. His girth and his inclination to reclusiveness and physical inactivity lead him to hire sidekick Archie Goodwin to do his legwork. Goodwin is much more than a passive and admiring narrator. He is the professional collector of data and doer of dangerous deeds, freeing Wolfe to stay home to nurture his orchids (as faithfully as Wilkie Collins's Sergeant Cuff of The Moonstone nurtured his roses). More important, Goodwin's telling of the tale is spiced by his irritation and disgruntlement with his employer and friend. This and the gallery of lively characters who populate the tales add considerably to the interest of the puzzle that Stout creates.

Named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America, Stout was a downright excellent writer. He came by that skill as all writers do-by reading. He was born in Indiana but raised in a Kansas farmhouse that had more than a thousand books on its shelves, all of which he says he had read by his eleventh birthday He was a talented student with a great memory and a love of poetry and politics. Stout was already forty-eight when he published Fer-de-Lance in 1934 and gave the world Wolfe and Goodwin. Before this, he founded a school-banking system and published eight mainstream novels. But his forte, fame, and fortune lay in detective fiction.

Stout may have written Christmas Party to satisfy the demand of magazine editors for such material for the holiday season. At the same time, however, it gave him a creditable way to have Wolfe break his habits of reclusiveness and leave his brownstone on business and to celebrate, as detective fiction so often does, the power of cerebration and of friendship between men.


Guilt-Edged Blonde | The Oxford Book of American Detective Stories | c