A Week to Remember: Rex Stout

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Rex Stout among his book covers
Author Rex Stout: December 1, 1886 - October 27, 1975

On December 1, 1886, Rex Stout was born. Stout was a novelist who began his career writing for the pulps in the 1910s before creating the character for which he is remembered, orchid-loving detective Nero Wolfe.

Stout was born in Indiana and was one of nine children. The family moved to Kansas shortly after he was born. He reportedly learned to read at a young age, and had read the entire Bible at the age of four. At 13, he was the state spelling bee champion.

He served in the US Navy between 1906 and 1908, then supported himself in a variety of odd jobs for several years. Beginning in 1912, he published short stories and serialized novels in several magazines, ranging from literary journals to the pulps. His early work was in many different genres, from historical novel, The Great Legend, about the siege of Troy to lost-world fantasy Under the Andes.

Book cover for Under the Andes
Under the Andes
Stout, Rex

He gave up writing in 1916, tired of having to crank out stories that didn’t interest him in order to survive and pledged not to write again until he had earned enough money that he was financially independent enough that he could write the stories he wanted to write when he wanted to write them.

At about the same time, he devised a banking system for use in schools to help children manage their savings. About 400 schools adopted the system, and within a decade, the royalties had made him wealthy enough that he could return to writing. Ironically, he would lose most of that money a few years later in the Great Depression.

In 1926, Stout was the co-founder and first president of Vanguard Press, which was established to publish work that the larger publishing houses thought was “unpublishable.” He continued to work at Vanguard into the early 1930s, and some of his early novels were published there, including the 1929 thriller How Like a God, his first novel to have its first publication in book form, instead of appearing in monthly magazine installments.

Stout continued to explore different types of writing; his 1934 novel The President Vanishes was a political thriller, originally published anonymously. But increasingly, his interest was in mystery fiction, and also in 1934, he published Fer-de-Lance, which introduced Nero Wolfe.

Book cover for Fer-de-Lance
Stout, Rex

Wolfe was a distinctly memorable character, an obese lover of fine food and drink whose greatest hobby was caring for his large collection of orchids. He rarely left his New York brownstone; the legwork on his detective cases was done by his live-in assistant, Archie Goodwin. While the world around the characters changed to keep up with the era in which each book was written, Wolfe and Goodwin never aged; Wolfe was perpetually in his mid-50s and Archie in his early 30s.

Wolfe quickly took over Stout’s writing entirely. He published his last non-mystery novel, the romance Mr. Cinderella, in 1938, and from that point on, only rarely wrote a story that wasn’t somehow connected to Nero Wolfe.

His novels weren’t all about Wolfe, but they were at least set in the same fictional universe. 1937’s The Hand in the Glove centered on Theodolinda “Dol” Bonner, one of mystery fiction’s first female private eyes; she appeared occasionally in later Wolfe novels, when he needed a female operative to go places that Archie Goodwin couldn’t. The recurring policeman character Inspector Cramer got a novel of his own in 1939, Red Threads. And while there was no character crossover between the Wolfe novels and the three novels Stout wrote about private eye Tecumseh Fox, Double for Death; The Broken Vase; and Bad for Business, there were enough background details in common that it was clearly meant to be the same world.

From 1934 to 1966, Stout wrote a new Nero Wolfe novel almost every year; he missed a couple of years in the early 1940s because of the war. And in many of those years, there was also a new collection of three of four Wolfe short stories or novellas. The pace slowed a bit after that, but he wrote four more Wolfe novels between 1968 and 1975.

During World War II, Stout was a prominent media personality. He hosted a radio program, Our Secret Weapon, in which he analyzed and rebutted the claims being made by the Axis shortwave radio propaganda broadcasts. He appeared frequently on other radio and television programs, where he was a strong advocate of a fourth presidential term for Franklin D. Roosevelt, the founding of the United Nations, and the imposition of harsh peace terms on German. And he chaired the Writers’ War Board, which served as a liaison between writers and government agencies who needed writers for wartime propaganda.

Stout was less publicly visible after the war, but he served as president of the Authors League of America, now known as the Authors Guild, in the 1950s. The League took a strong stance against the blacklisting of suspected Communists in a variety of fields, which brought Stout to the attention of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. By the time of his death, Stout had a large FBI file, much of which was devoted to the 1965 Wolfe novel The Doorbell Rang, in which Wolfe’s client believes she is under FBI surveillance and asks for help to end it.

Book cover for The Doorbell Rang
The Doorbell Rang
Stout, Rex

Stout received the Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America in 1959, and his 1969 novel The Father Hunt received the Silver Dagger Award from England’s Crime Writers Association as the year’s best non-British crime novel. He died on October 27, 1975, just a few months after the publication of his last Nero Wolfe novel, A Family Affair.

That was Stout’s last novel, but it didn’t bring the character to an end. After the death of Stout’s widow in 1984, the Stout estate authorized Robert Goldsborough to write new Nero Wolfe novels; he’s written fifteen so far, and the newest, Archie Goes Home, was published earlier this year.

All of Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels, and all of Goldsborough’s, are available at Overdrive, along with The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe, a collection of Wolfe parodies and pastiches by several different authors. Sydney Greenstreet played Nero Wolfe in the 1950-51 radio series The New Adventures of Nero Wolfe; 20 of the 26 half-hour episodes are gathered in this audio collection.

Also This Week

December 5, 1784

Phillis Wheatley died. She was born in west Africa sometime in 1753, and sold into slavery at the age of seven or eight. The Boston family who purchased her gave her an unusually good education for an enslaved person, or for any woman of that era; by twelve, Wheatley was reading Greek and Latin classics, and she wrote her first poem at fourteen. In 1773, she became the first African-American to publish a volume of poetry, and the book made her famous both in England and in the American colonies. Wheatley’s collected work is gathered in The Poems of Phillis Wheatley.

December 5, 1890

Fritz Lang was born. Lang was an Austrian-American film director, a major figure in the German Expressionism movement of the 1920s. He lived in Paris for a few years before moving to the United States in 1936 and made more than twenty films in Hollywood. His career ended in relative obscurity, but since his death, several of his movies have grown in reputation. Several of Lang’s most important films are available for streaming at Kanopy, including Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, a four-and-a-half epic about a criminal mastermind; Metropolis, an early SF masterpiece; and M, a thriller about the hunt for a serial killer.

December 2, 1954

The United States Senate voted 67-22 to censure Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy. For several years, McCarthy had been the Congressional face of Cold War paranoia, frequently alleging, with no real evidence, that Communists had infiltrated various American institutions—universities, the film industry, even the federal government itself. Public sympathy against McCarthy had been growing for several months when the Senate voted for censure. Today, “McCarthyism” has become shorthand for guilt-by-association smear campaigns. Demagogue is Larry Tye’s biography of McCarthy.

December 3, 1960

The musical Camelot opened on Broadway. Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe based their musical on T.H. White’s novel The Once and Future King, placing the emphasis on the King Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot romantic triangle. Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, and Robert Goulet led the cast, and the show ran for two years. The cast recording was a favorite of President John F. Kennedy, and the idea of “Camelot”—an idyllic political paradise—became strongly associated with his presidency. Richard Harris plays Arthur in this condensed filmed version of the 1982 Broadway revival.