If you already know all about Rex Stout and his Nero Wolfe mysteries, look away now because I’m a beginner. I’m ashamed to say that before picking up this book at the market, I’d never heard of Rex Stout. After reading it I looked him up and of course found that he’s one of the best known detective writers EVAH. Just shows how long you can live and be in complete ignorance of things everyone else knows. When I started the book I was all at sea with the location and characters and assumed I’d come in half way through a series but no, Fer-de-Lance is the first Nero Wolfe mystery.
Brilliant Nero Wolfe, possibly a genius, lives in a New York brownstone. He is so obese (not a word used in 1934, when this book was first published) that he can barely rise from a chair and uses a lift (elevator) to go upstairs. Every day he consumes vast quantities of beer, with no ill effects. He very rarely leaves home; it’s not made clear whether this is due to agoraphobia or his weight. His routine never varies. Luckily, he has his life support system well set up. He employs a man whose sole job is to tend the fabulous orchid collection housed upstairs. Fritz, a francophone Swiss chef, provides gourmet meals. And Archie Goodwin does everything else.
Goodwin is the narrator, which of course leads to comparisons between Holmes and Watson. His admiration for Wolfe is certainly Watsonian, but he is far more active than the good doctor. As well as acting as amanuensis and bookkeeper to Wolfe, Goodwin is the legman. If someone is to be interviewed, chatted up, kept sweet, bribed, Archie’s your man. He’s also driver and enforcer. He talks like a detective; the actual detective talks like a professor and is more like Mycroft Holmes than his brother. Altogether a fascinating and self sufficient household.
Fer-de-Lance begins with Wolfe reading a newspaper account of a man’s death on a golf course and immediately deducing not only that he was murdered but how the murder was carried out. No wonder people suspect him of having supernatural powers. The rest of the book is about proving that his conjecture is right and discovering the murderer. I found there was never a dull page and now want to read more in the series. On the back of my Penguin edition, the author profile says that Rex Stout gardens all summer and then on the 18th October, sits down and starts his next novel. No wonder that, having created his extraordinary, sedentary detective, he wanted to write more about him.