Friday, November 26, 2010

Three Men Out by Rex Stout

Three Men Out by Rex Stout, 1955

Although not particularly well known to contemporary readers, Rex Stout and his series of Nero Wolfe novels are a crucial step in the establishment of the mystery/crime genre. They're also enormous fun: neatly plotted, engagingly written, funny and devastatingly well-characterized.

When Stout first started writing the series, there were two basic kinds of crime fiction: the English "drawing-room" mysteries, as written by Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, and the hard boiled American pulp/noir, as written by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

Stout ingeniously combined the two with the characters of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Wolfe, a snobby, brilliant gourmand and eccentric who leaves his Manhattan brownstone on only the rarest of occasions, is very much an old-school detective in the style of Hercule Poirot.

His assistant and companion, Archie Goodwin, is a street-smart man of action with a charmingly laconic style of narrating the adventures of his sedentary employer. He's not a Watson who stays on the sidelines of the story either; he's usually right in the thick of it.

These two and their wonderfully structured life in Wolfe's huge house are a perfect framework for Stout's plots, which, like the main characters, are an offbeat mixture of the old and new.

About half of the books in the Wolfe saga are novels. The rest are books containing three or four short novellas. Three Men Out has three middling-length novellas in it and they're all excellent. Stout's style is better suited to tighter, shorter stories; his full-length novels can sometimes drag.

The first entry, "Invitation to Murder," is probably the weakest overall, but it's still a crackerjack tale of crime. The novella's middle sags a tad and the mystery is not as intriguing as could be, but when Wolfe arrives on the scene things perk up significantly.

Number two, "The Zero Clue," is even better, a crisp, entertaining narrative that forces the fastidious Wolfe to put up with a house full of policemen, as well as his nemesis, Inspector Cramer. The puzzle would be pretty much impossible for the layman to unravel, but it's terrific fun to watch Wolfe do it.

"This Won't Kill You," the final story in the book, nicely represents what makes the series so unusual. In one novella we have classic body-in-the-library mystery (there's a dramatic unveiling with all suspects present; Wolfe must solve the crime in a single location), hard boiled pulp (Archie's take-down of a possibly insane druggist armed with sulphuric acid) and a dollop of pure originality (the whole affair takes place at a baseball park).

All three novellas have tropes and devices in common--like Christie, Stout loves to develop a small group of suspects--but unlike many mystery writers, Stout has a knack for keeping his plots fresh, rather than just re-doing the same story over and over.

His prose, as narrated by Archie Goodwin, is quirky and entertaining. A few awkward, outdated words and phrases present themselves to the modern reader, but in a way that adds to the charm. Stout is very good at characters and his dialogue is fast-paced and believable, as is Archie's inner monologue. It's always nice to find a writer who can mix wonderful stories with prose that goes beyond the ordinary. In this passage, a potential client is being interviewed by Wolfe:

Weighing rather less than half as much as Nero Wolfe, he was lost in the red leather chair three steps from the end of Wolfe's desk. Comfortably filling his own outsized chair behind the desk, Wolfe was scowling at the would-be client, Mr. Herman Lewent of New York and Paris. I, at my desk with notebook and pen, was neutral, because it was Friday and I had a weekend date, and if Lewent's job was urgent and we took it, good-bye weekend.

Wolfe, as usual when solicited, was torn. He hated to work, but he loved to eat and drink, and his domestic and professional establishment in the old brownstone house on West Thirty-fifth Street, including the orchids in the plant rooms on the roof, had an awful appetite for dollars. The only source of dollars was his income as a private detective, and at that moment, there on his desk near the edge, was a little stack of lettuce with a rubber band around it. Herman Lewent, who put it there, had stated that it was a thousand dollars.
---(page 3)

Wittier than Christie, more character-based than Doyle, more elegant than the pulp authors of the period, Stout is a wonderful find for the consummate mystery lover, as is Three Men Out, a sharp, focused collection of very good stories.

The Wolfe/Archie series as a whole is quite excellent, and so much fun to follow. Like P.G. Wodehouse (who was a friend and admirer of Stout's), Stout has created a whole universe teeming with recurring characters and little nods to previous adventures. Three Men Out is an exceedingly strong, highly entertaining installment in the ongoing saga.

NEXT UP: Probably The Fiery Cross. Stay tuned.

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