Getting Cozy With Murder in Mid-20th-Century Manhattan
10 Weeks of Guilty Pleasures, Week 2: Meet Rex Stout Nero Wolfe.
July 27, 2013 - 7:00 am
I was immediately hooked, and have been a mystery fan ever since.
This last week, I’ve been re-buying the collection on my kindle – I read mostly on the paperwhite. I edit on the Fire – and read them before going to bed. As a writer, and because I now know that Stout was a pantser (someone who doesn’t plot his books ahead and might not know the ending in advance) and – given that—am astonished at the cohesiveness of the plots. My favorite for a tight plot is possibly Please Pass The Guilt.
But there are other reasons to read the books. There is a feel of New York City as it used to be. As seen through the eyes of Rex Stout it is an appealing place, a world onto itself. I like walking the streets of the New York City of the thirties and forties (the books extend later, but one gets the impression that Stout’s feel for the city had frozen at that time) with Archie Goodwin, eat at lunch counters, experience the sweltering heat and the freezing cold, and the damp rising from the river. I like too the ordered life in the old brownstone, where Wolfe goes up to his orchids and works in the office, and discusses recipes with Fritz at the right time. There is a cookbook co-written by Rex Stout and his character Fritz Brenner, cook to Nero Wolfe. Yes, I own it. Unfortunately most of the recipes can’t be remotely considered low carb. There is even a book, Nero Wolfe of West Thirty Fifth Street which allows you to enjoy Wolfe without the mysteries.
The essence of a good cozy mystery is that you want to live with the characters for a while – more than the puzzle or the exact details of the murder. And these days I’ve been ducking into New York City of the early twentieth century for a spot of vacation an hour or two a day.
Stout is a good enough writer that his political opinions – he was a man of the left, and in a time when central planning was held the thing of the future – don’t mar the books. To be sure, to see the Bureau of Price Control identified as the good guys in The Silent Speaker, while the association of industrial manufacturers are referred to as a “pack of vultures” is a little jarring.
But when you’re dipping into the past you have to remember it is another country and different assumptions are wrong. You’re not forced to live there, so you can shrug off the quaint native costumes, and instead dip into the kitchen and watch Fritz cook omelets au beurre noir, or listen to Archie Goodwin tweak Nero Wolfe who might indeed be a genius, but who has some curious blind spots.
You always know at the end, the killer will be captured, justice restored, and life in the old brownstone resume its rhythm, immutable and perfect as only fiction can be.
image courtesy shutterstock / Ersler Dmitry