Monday, April 4, 2011

In The Spotlight: Rex Stout's Fer de Lance

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Rex Stout’s detecting duo of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin has been a staple of crime fiction for more then seventy years, and has won worldwide fans. This series would be less without a mention of at least one of their adventures, so today, let’s take a closer look at Fer de Lance, in which Wolfe and Goodwin make their debut.

The novel begins when Maria Maffei, a friend of someone who occasionally does work for Wolfe, pays the sleuth a visit. She’s worried about her brother Carlo, who’s disappeared. She’s convinced he’s dead, and wants Wolfe to look into the matter. All the signs point to the possibility that Carlo Maffei has stolen some money and returned to the family’s home in Italy, but Maria doesn’t think her brother would do such a thing. Wolfe agrees to look into the disappearance and he and Archie Goodwin begin to try to track Maffei down.

Maria Maffei’s worst fears are confirmed when her brother is found stabbed to death. A newspaper article in his possession suggests that there’s a connection between his death and the recent death of Peter Barstow, President of Holland University. Barstow was golfing when he suddenly died, apparently from a stroke. It soon becomes apparent, though, that he was poisoned. Maffei was an expert metalworker, and Wolfe deduces from what he and Goodwin discover about Maffei that Barstow was murdered by a specially-designed golf club that Maffei had created. Maffei himself didn’t know Barstow and had no personal motive for murdering him; in fact, he didn’t even know the golf club would be used to commit murder. So Wolfe and Goodwin have to find out who paid Maffei for crafting the golf club and killed him when he discovered what the golf club would actually be used to do.

Wolfe never leaves his New York brownstone, so it’s mostly Archie Goodwin who interviews Barstow’s friends, business acquaintances and relations to find out why he was killed. Goodwin soon runs into a hurdle when it turns out that there was no motive for killing Barstow. He was well-liked and a good person. Although hardly perfect, he hadn’t made any enemies. It takes Wolfe’s deductive powers, Goodwin’s ability to find, talk to and learn from witnesses, and some interesting clues to get to the truth about the two murders. The two sleuths do find out who the killer is, and once they do, it’s a battle of wits between them and the murderer.

There are several elements that run through this novel. In many ways, it’s a classic Golden Age whodunit. There’s a group of suspects, an intellectual puzzle and sleuths who put those pieces together. There’s also an interesting plot twist of the kind made famous during that era. And yet, this novel also has an element of a psychological mystery, too. When we find out who the killer is, and what the killer’s motive is for murdering, we discover that it’s a psychological motive. From an historical perspective, it’s an interesting “bridge” between more intellectual novels of that time, and the psychological novels of more recent years.

Another very important aspect of this novel is the unique character of Nero Wolfe. He’s a brilliant detective, but he is a very, very eccentric person. He is devoted to the cultivation of orchids and is an expert on the topic. In fact, his orchids are so important to Wolfe that he allows no-one to disturb him between nine and eleven in the morning, and between four and six in the afternoon, because he spends that time in his plant rooms. Even Goodwin knows better than to speak to Wolfe at those times unless it’s an utter emergency. Wolfe is a gourmand, and not in the best of physical shape, but his mind moves at lightning speed. He’s sometimes subject to depression that Goodwin (from whose point of view the novel is told) refers to as a relapse:

“I had never really understood Wolfe’s relapses. Sometimes it seemed plain that it was ordinary discouragement and funk…but other times there was no accounting for it at all.”

During those times, Wolfe says little and takes no interest at all in sleuthing. He’s cerebral and sometimes scathing in his remarks, but can be compassionate. He is definitely one of the more offbeat and interesting sleuths in crime fiction.

We also get a sense of the relationship between Wolfe and Goodwin in this story. Goodwin is more action-oriented and less intellectual than his boss is, although he’s by no means stupid. The two have quite a mutually dependent relationship, although they certainly don’t revere each other. Goodwin gets irritated sometimes at Wolfe’s rigid schedule and other eccentricities. For his part, Wolfe gets annoyed when Goodwin doesn’t notice details that Wolfe regards as important. This makes both characters more realistic. They are quite different, so it makes sense that they might annoy each other at times. And yet, the two do have a great deal of respect for each other, although they don’t always admit it. Wolfe depends on Goodwin as his “eyes and ears,” and does respect Goodwin’s ability to get information and talk to witnesses, as well as his ability to get witnesses to come to the brownstone so that Wolfe can interview them. Goodwin admires Wolfe’s deductive powers and the way he can draw conclusions far before others can.

Another element that runs through this novel is a real picture of New York City and the surrounding area. The novel was published in 1934, so today’s New York is quite different. But the novel captures the city as it was:

“I went to a restaurant on Park Avenue to look at a telephone book, and then went back to the car and stepped on the starter and started along Sixty-Ninth Street, and at Fifth Avenue turned downtown. At Forty-First Street I headed east...I had to go nearly to Third Avenue to find a space where I could edge the roadster in.”

It’s obvious throughout the story that Goodwin knows New York City and can navigate it almost as well as a cabdriver can.

We also see some humour in the novel. For instance, Wolfe’s a bit piqued at the District Attorney who’s handling the Barstow case, so he bets him money on the coroner’s findings and takes real pleasure when it turns out he’s right. Later in the novel, Wolfe wants to interview a group of caddies who work at the golf club where Barstow died. The caddies do turn out to provide helpful information, and although it’s not slapstick, it’s funny to see the sedentary, completely intellectual Wolfe trying to communicate with a group of active teenage boys.

The mystery itself, the characters, especially those of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, and the vivid New York background tie this story together and add layers to it. But what’s your view? Have you read Fer de Lance? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday 11 April/Tuesday 12 April – The Redemption of Alexander Seaton – Shona MacLean

Monday 18 April/Tuesday 19 April – The Blank Page – K.C. Constantine

Monday 25 April/Tuesday 26 April – The Anodyne Necklace – Martha Grimes


  1. I read a few Nero Wolfe stories when I was younger, but not this one. Some of them were a bit bland in my opinion, but I quite liked "Too Many Cooks."

  2. Margot: Nero Wolfe is one of my favourite detectives. It seemed a wonderful life being able to live only by his own terms and requiring everyone who wanted to see or talk to him to come to him. Rather than "very very eccentric" I would describe Wolfe as "very very egocentric". I do not read many author biographers but did buy McAleer's biography of Rex Stout. He proved as interesting a man as Wolfe.

  3. Dorte - I agree with you that Too Many Cooks is a good story (I haven't read that one in a long time - I must look it up again). Thanks for reminding me of it :-).

    Bill - You know, you do make a very good point. Perhaps "egocentric" is a more precise description than "eccentric." Wolfe certainly lives by his own rules, and I like that about his character. And thank you very much for the mention of McAleer's biography. I confess I'm not familiar with it, but it sounds really interesting. I'm going to have to see if I can find it.

  4. I read Fer de Lance in 2007 and loved the clever dialogue, and the contrast between Wolfe, the sedentary orchid collector weighing in at a seventh of a ton, and Archie the wisecracking man of action. I promised myself I would read more of the series but never got round to it when all those European books got translated into English.

  5. Norman - Oh, you've put your finger on one of the things that I like best about the series - the delightful contrast between the two sleuths. Each plays an important role in the solution of the mystery, and each knows that about the other, but they are quite different, aren't they? And you're quite right: the dialogue is well-written.

  6. I got to spend several summers in my youth at a beach house rented from a mystery buff, and the walls were lined with the classics. I don't remember this one, but I remember loving Archie Goodwin.

    You're really writing an encyclopedia of classic mysteries here. Every post is an education. Thanks!

  7. Anne - Oh, that's so kind of you :-). It sounds as though you had some wonderful summers at that beach house. I'd love to rent a place like that :-).

    I like Archie Goodwin, too. He's not what you would call cerebral, but he's smart and he's shrewd. He also has a sense of humour that I like. He's a good character, isn't he?

  8. My sister owns every single one of his books. I've only read a few but I have read this one and I love the quirkiness of the main characters and his orchids.

  9. Clarissa - Sounds as though your sister is a real fan. I have to say, Nero Wolfe really is a unique character and that most certainly adds to his appeal. I'm not surprised that your sister is a fan.

  10. Thanks for spotlighting this book, Margot! I haven't read it and, since I love book psychological mysteries and Golden Age-style books, it sounds right up my alley. I haven't read Nero Wolfe books in years and I've meant to go back and read more of them.

  11. Elizabeth - I think Stout had a really interesting combination here of the Golden Age intellectual kind of mystery and the psychological mystery. You'd probably like it. And I've got authors, too, whose work I haven't read for years. There's just not enough time in the day....

  12. Nero Wolfe is such an intriguing character you can't help but like him. To me he's one of those people that doesn't necessarily fit the traditional 'sleuth' profile, but does an excellent job at it. Another wonderful spotlight.

    Thoughts in Progress

  13. I read this series forty years ago so I cannot remember a thing about any book in particular. But I know I really enjoyed every one. Thanks for reminding me.

  14. Mason - Oh, you're right. Wolfe is intriguing, and he's always got something "up his sleeve." He's certainly not your "typical" sleuth, is he (as though there were such a thing)? And thanks for the kind words :-).

    Patti - I know what you mean. I've been reminded, too, of books I hadn't read in decades, and that's always fun :-).

  15. I read these books almost fifty years ago and every so often I return to them. Witty and intelligent with an eye on language that is amazing. It's because of Wolfe (and Stout) that I never use the word contact as a verb. And his descriptions of changing New York from the thirties to the sixties is incredible. One of my favorites in the series, and a highlight of American mystery fiction, is "The Doorbell Rang".

  16. Bill - Oh, you are so right about the witty, clever and interesting use of language in the Nero Wolfe novels (and I had to chuckle when I read your comment about the word "contact"). You can even see points about language in the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which Stout used language to express Goodwin's thinking vs Wolfe's. And yes, they're witty books, too. Thank you for reminding me of The Doorbell Rang. I haven't read that one in a very long time, and I think it's due for a re-read...