Nero Wolfe

I tend to read at least two books at once. Not simultaneously, of course, but I alternate between each, sometimes in the same evening. One book is always non-fiction and the other is often a fiction selection. On the fiction side, I have been reading the works of Rex Stout. Actually, let me declare it here: I am officially on a Rex Stout – Nero Wolfe Mysteries burn.

I was first introduced to Nero Wolfe by the A&E series of the same name. This superb mystery production ran for two seasons and OWL owns the complete collection. The film series stayed true to the writing. I highly recommend this even if you don’t pick up a Nero Wolfe book to read… but I hope you do because as good as the TV series is, the books are much better!

Born in 1886, Rex Stout was raised in Kansas where he read voraciously, won the state spelling bee, and was soon recognized as a math prodigy. After two weeks of attending the University of Kansas, he quit school and enlisted in the Navy. Later, he invented the school savings banking system, earning enough money in the process to retire to Paris for a few years. He subsequently returned to the U.S. in the early 1930s. This October will mark the 75th anniversary of his first novel featuring Nero Wolfe, entitled Fer-de-Lance.

Stout was active in liberal causes throughout his life, serving as the President of the Authors Guild, serving on the original board of the American Civil Liberties Union, broadcasting a radio program called “Speaking Liberty” during WWII, and ignoring a subpeona sent by the House Un-American Activities Committee. A man with an appreciation for nature, Stout had more than 300 house plants and maintained a large outdoor fruit, vegetable and flower garden.

From Contemporary Authors: “Stout once described his method of writing the Wolfe stories: ‘Most of my writing career, I’ve started my book on the tenth or twelfth of January and finished it in 39 or 40 days. The rest of the year, I read, argue, play chess, and do any number of other things.’ Before beginning a book Stout spent little time on groundwork. ‘When I start at the typewriter I have a slip of paper with the names of the people, their ages and what they do, and that’s all the outline I have,’ he once remarked. ‘You see, in my life I’ve done maybe a thousand interesting things, and I think that nine hundred and thirty-seven of them happened in my subconscious. I remember when I was writing How Like a God, I had a scene where the hero’s son comes into his office and talks to him for two or three pages. Suddenly I pushed back from the typewriter, jumped up and said, `Jesus Christ! I didn’t know he had a son!’ Stout once declared that he would rather dig ditches than write outlines or construct synopses before beginning a book. He never revised, rewrote, or reread one of his books; he explained that ‘writing is a sort of explosion, when the explosion has taken place, there is no use going around looking at the debris.’ ”

While reading his novels, I particularly enjoy how connected to current culture Stout remained even in his later novels, written in his late 80’s. Wolfe (the genius detective) and Goodwin (his right-hand man) are perfectly balanced. Wolfe’s refusal to leave his home, obesity, unease with women, and need for routine balance against Goodwin’s good looks, love of women, athleticism (particularly dancing), and interest in adventure. I enjoy the unraveling of the mystery, the motives, and the probing into human psychology, and the absence of gore in Stout’s Nero Wolfe.


Here are some comments on my favorite Nero Wolfe stories:

Strangely enough, the first book that I randomly selected from the shelf was Stout’s last one, A Family Affair, published just three weeks before his death in 1975 at age 88. After an acquaintance seeks refuge in Wolfe’s house late in the evening, Goodwin agrees to let him in without Wolfe’s blessing and gives him the guest room. Moments later, he is killed by a bomb. A superb mystery!

The Mother Hunt is a story featured in the A&E Series and it is as good to read as it is to watch. A baby is left on the doorstep of a young, intelligent and wealthy woman’s home and horsehair buttons are the clue to unraveling it all. Published in 1963.


Three Doors to Death is a collection that includes three novellas: Man Alive, Omit Flowers, and Door to Death, published in 1947, 1948, and 1949, respectively. Man Alive has been described as “high passion and high fashion”; I won’t say more! Wolfe agrees to be involved in the Omit Flowers case because of his connection to a restaurant, and this story really has an incredible twist at the end. Door to Death is another story that is featured in the A& E series and involves a trip out to the country by the almost agoraphobic Wolfe.

Stout seems to particularly enjoy publishing three novellas collected as one. There are a number of examples of this. Three at Wolfe’s Door includes Poison a la carte, Method Three for Murder, and The Rodeo Murder. In Poison a la carte, an exclusive dinner party features arsenic as an appetizer for one of the diners. Suspects include the five other guests and the twelve models who served the food. Method Three for Murder was particularly enjoyable with a lot of twists. Here we have a friend who borrows her friend’s cab only to find a dead body inside it. She drives to Wolfe’s house for help and finds Goodwin on the doorstep. The Rodeo Murder brings cowboys and cowgirls to a NYC penthouse for a fantastic publicity stint but now a man is dead.

A particular gem of a story is Please Pass the Guilt, which includes two candidates for the presidency of a large corporation, a bomb, LSD, and Women’s Liberation- I mean how can you miss? Published in 1969.

Death of a Dude was another enjoyable novel. While vacationing on a dude ranch in Montana, Goodwin must help a close female friend clear her close friend accused of murder. Published in 1969.

…But don’t stop here, browse the fiction shelves under Stout or visit our display table this week.

~Ann Marie

Ann Marie is the Library Director for the Oliver Wolcott Library and really likes Rex Stout’s beard.

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