Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Fer-de-Lance by Rex Stout

I've been a mystery lover since my mom took me to see Murder on the Orient Express, which is still one of my all-time favorite movies. (This should have scarred me for life, as I was only eight, but oddly enough it didn't.  And I showed it to my girls when they were eight and twelve.  Didn't hurt them any either)  Anyway, this started my love affair with Christie -- I've read everyone one of her mysteries, including the plays and short stories.

For this Classics Circuit, I decided to branch out, and at first I was  disappointed.  Maybe Christie has spoiled me for other authors.  First, on a librarian friend's recommendation, I tried The Three Coffins by John Dickson Carr, supposedly the quintessential locked room mystery, but I was totally bored with it.  I switched to Dorothy Sayers, whom I've never read, and decided to start with her first Lord Peter Wimsey mystery, Whose Body?   Again, I just couldn't get excited about it -- Lord Peter seemed so contrived and unreal.  Neither of these authors was able to get me hooked like Christie.

Finally, I returned to this side of the pond, and picked up Rex Stout's Fer-de-Lance, the first mystery starring the enigmatic Nero Wolfe and his narrator sidekick, Archie Goodwin.  First published in 1935, this classic Depression-era mystery is complete with hardboiled private eyes, roadsters, dames, and snappy dialogue.  It's a bit like a cross between a cozy mystery and a Sam Spade classic detective story -- genius Nero Wolfe never leaves his beautiful apartment, filled with his beloved orchids, so his intrepid helper Archie does all the leg work and provides all the clever asides and quips.

As entertaining as this book was, I will admit it started out a little slowly.   The first third of the book consist of setting the story, but the reader doesn't get that much background about Archie or Nero, and  we don't even meet the primary suspects until more than 100 pages had passed.  Even then, it's not so much a whodunit as a "how did they do it?"  Unlike Agatha Christie or many other authors, there was no great "aha!" moment, in which the clever detective decides which of the many suspects was the culprit.  There are some surprises and an interesting little twist at the end, but it's very unlike many of the British cozies I've read.

I think the great appeal of this book was the character of Archie.  Nero himself doesn't get a lot of exposure -- he's a recluse, an eccentric genius who never leaves the house and has a strict schedule.  Archie and his snappy dialogue, and the 1930s setting are the real appeal of this book, in my humble opinion.   Here's one of my favorite paragraphs from the book:

If I ever kill anybody I'm pretty sure it will be a woman. I've seen a lot of stubborn men, a lot of men who knew something I wanted to know and didn't intend to tell me, and in a quite a few cases I couldn't make him tell no matter what I tried; but in spite of how stubborn they were they always stayed human.  They always gave me a feeling that if only I hit on the right lever I could pry it out of them.  But I've seen women that not only wouldn't turn loose; you knew damn well they wouldn't.  They can get a look on their faces that would drive you crazy, and I think some of them do it on purpose.  The look on a man's face says that he'll die before he'll tell you, and you think you may bust that up; a woman's look says that she would just as soon tell you as not, only she isn't going to.

I can just imagine Humphrey Bogart or someone of that era delivering Archie's lines.  It almost makes me wish I lived back then, just so I could hear if people really talked like that.  Great stuff!

I have found that with mystery series the first one isn't usually the best.  Fer-de-Lance is pretty good, though I didn't find it a real page turner.  I may give Nero Wolfe another try to see if the later books are an improvement.  It was worth exploring though -- if you're looking for a change from classic British detective fiction it's a lot of fun.


  1. Hm, I'm not really a mystery lover, so I probably won't read this book, but I *am* considering reading Murder on the Orient Express!

  2. It's brilliant, one of the best mystery films ever! I promise I'll watch Clue if you watch Murder on the Orient Express. The 1974 version -- there's also a newer version airing on Masterpiece Mystery this summer. I'll probably watch that too.

  3. I love Murder on the Orient Express too! I watched it with my Dad when I was quite young and he very cruelly told me the solution before the end 0 but it was so fantastic that I didn't believe him...

  4. Hannah, that is too cruel! But I'm glad it didn't ruin your enjoyment of the film. I recently watched it again and it has really stood the test of time.

  5. it took you a few times but I am glad that all of this lead to you finding something with potential. I find that a lot of first books in a series require a bit more on the way of forgiveness until they can get their strode going. I do love getting into a good series though!

    Thanks for participating in the Classic Circuit.

  6. Nicole, I agree, you have to be a little more forgiving with the first book in a series. I sometimes wrestle with trying one of the "best" in a series first, but I always think it's better to begin at the beginning. A tough choice.

  7. I am so glad you found Nero Wolfe!

    Rex Stout's writing is such a pleasure that I have re-read the Wolfe canon many times. It doesn't matter if you know how it comes out, the joy is in re-reading the marvelous way that Stout uses the language.

    Yes, the Nero Wolfe books definitely get better, and better, and better....


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