I’m back from a week of vacation in St. Kitts with my phone completely off and no access to email. Add to that a copious supply of rum and it might have been the greatest week of my life. I will get to a post running through the places where we ate as well as general thoughts on the island later in the week.
I also went through seven books in seven days, mostly detective stories, starting with my first exposure to Nero Wolfe in print form with Rex Stout’s first Wolfe novel, Fer-de-Lance. I’ve heard several of the classic radio programs starring Sidney Greenstreet as the corpulent, eccentric genius who solves crimes without leaving his office/apartment and raises and breeds orchids when he’s not playing detective. The real leg work falls to his employee and occasional verbal sparring partner Archie Goodwin, who also handles some of the orchid-management duties and often finds himself frustrated in the face of Wolfe’s ability to draw correct conclusions from limited data.
Fer-de-Lance is the first of the 33 novels Stout wrote, although he didn’t write it as an introductory novel, making references to (nonexistent) prior cases and character histories so that the novel’s beginning isn’t bogged down in lengthy details or dull tangents. The case involves an Italian immigrant who goes missing and turns up dead and a college President who drops dead suddenly on a golf course, with Wolfe and Goodwin making the connection and Wolfe figuring out how the core murder was committed but not knowing for certain who committed it until later in the book. The climax, where Wolfe reveals the killer’s identity to the police, is a bit over the top but certainly enjoyable.
Two major facets of Fer-de-Lance propelled the book forward for me. One is the two fascinating characters of Wolfe and Goodwin. Wolfe is a maddening (but not mad) genius, exacting, arrogant, but brilliant and logical, relying on the psychology of suspects much as Hercule Poirot typically does. Goodwin chafes under his boss’s condescension but ultimately must bow to Wolfe’s superior powers of deduction; he’s too much of a dandy to be hard-boiled but does fill the role of the hard-boiled detective who pounds the pavement, threatening and being threatened, while Wolfe sits in the comfort of his office. Stout sets up a number of avenues of friction between the two for subsequent books.
The other was Stout’s approach to revealing the crime to the reader, which deviated from the standard formula where the author saves the final details for the last chapter or two of the book. In many detective or mystery novels, that’s almost a requirement, as the reader’s curiosity provides velocity to the text that is lacking in pedestrian writing, but Stout’s characterization and simple and witty prose are strong enough to drive the reader forward even after Wolfe and Goodwin have settled on the killer’s identity and instead work backwards to prove that Wolfe’s answer is correct, rather than following clues to a conclusion that ends the book.
I enjoyed Fer-de-Lance but wouldn’t class it with Christie’s intricate, subtle plotting, or Chandler’s terse, literary prose; it’s faster and easier but without the same depth, definitely worth the time if you’re familiar with any of the Wolfe adaptations and want to see the character in his original form, or if you’re looking for a quick, fun, yet still intelligent detective novel.
Next up: There’s not too much new to say on the 20th Wodehouse novel I’ve read, Stiff Upper Lip, Jeeves, other than that it’s vintage Wooster, so I’ll skip ahead to Pierre Magnan’s Death in the Truffle Wood for the next writeup. I’m currently reading Trevor Corson’s The Story of Sushi (also published as The Zen of Fish).