Fer-De-LAnce by Rex STout

Rex Stout’s debut of Nero Wolfe

The creator of the characters of Nero Wolfe and his assistant, Archie Goodwin, Rex Todhunter Stout was one of the most popular and prolific crime fiction writers of all times. Upon his death in 1975, he had 57 books in print, more than any living American writer at that time. His books appeared in 22 languages and sold a total of 45 million copies as of 1975.

Rex Stout was born in 1886 in Noblesville, Indiana, to Quaker parents. The couple had nine children; Rex was the sixth. (So, how did he create a character like Nero who was such a recluse?)

Stout’s father was a teacher who encouraged his son to read. By the time he was four, he had read through the Bible twice. At nine, he was traveling throughout Kansas showing his math skills. He would be blindfolded, and someone would write a long column of figures on a blackboard behind him. When he was finished, the blindfold would be taken off. Stout would turn and, in a few seconds, give the correct total.

His parents stopped the exhibits out of fear for how it would affect his personality and took him out of school temporarily. During this time, Stout read though his father’s library, all 1200 volumes including the subjects of biography, history, philosophy, and fiction.

After a short stent at the University of Kansas, he spent two years in the U. S. Navy from 1906 to 1908. He served his two years playing cards on President Theodore Roosevelt’s yacht. {Could this be the genesis of the rotund Nero Wolfe?)

After leaving the Navy, Stout bounced around at a series of odd jobs. In 1910–11, he sold three poems to a literary magazine. Between 1912 and 1918, he published more than forty works of fiction to various magazines ranging from literary magazines to pulp magazines. His stories spanned many genres such as romance, science fiction, and detective.

In 1916, like so many other writers, Stout tired of cranking out a story whenever he needed money. So, he quit writing until he had made enough money to support himself enough to be able to write whenever and whatever he wanted. He didn’t write any more fiction until a decade later. During this time, he created a school banking system that flourished and gave him enough money to provide a comfortable living.

Ironically, like many plans of mice and men, it didn’t last long. The depression of 1929 came, and he lost most of his money.

In 1933-34, Stout wrote Fer-de-Lance, the debut of Nero Wolfe and Archie. It was published in 1934 by Farrer & Rhinehart. After its early success, Stout wrote no other fiction but his Nero Wolfe mysteries. These came out at least every year through 1966, except for 1943 when Stout was deeply involved with the war effort. After 1966, his productivity dropped, but he continued writing and published four additional novels before his death in 1975 at the age of 88.

In his New York Times obituary, they quote a talk Stout did in which he described his writing process.

“I write for 39 consecutive days each year. I figure on six weeks for a book, but I shave it down.”

On another occasion, the obituary records him saying, “Before starting, I do put up in front of me a list of characters, but I’ve never written out a single word of any plot.

“The plots come when I’m shaving, watering the plants, puttering around. I think of them for three weeks, sometimes for three days. If you keep the main facts firmly in mind, and you don’t let anything contradict you, you can move around freely.”

The obituary stated that he would focus so much on what he was typing, he wouldn’t even stop to water his 300 house plants, leaving that to his wife.

In 1955, Rex Stout received the Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Award, while serving as its fourteenth president.

At Bouchercon XXXI, held in 2000, he was nominated for The Writer of the Century and his Nero Wolfe series was nominated for The Best Series of the Century. The winners of those very prestigious awards were the Grand Dame Agatha Christie and her Hercule Poirot series.

I tried to focus on just Stout’s writing career. Like most writers, he was much more than that. He was involved in many writing organizations to help other writers, he was involved in politics, social movements, he worked to strengthen copyright laws, worked as his own agent for magazines, paperbacks and hardcover books, and for foreign rights. His hobbies included baseball, chess, gardening, and gardening organizations.

His obituary included another line from Rex.

“I don’t drink when I’m writing because it fuddles my logical process. But when I finish a book, I go down the stairs and pour myself a belt.”

So, here’s a belt to you, Mr. Stout. Thank you for all that you have done for detective fiction. For the role models of Nero and Archie to entertain and us and to serve as examples. And thank you for paving the way to show how a long-standing series can continue to keep our attention for many years.