Getting Cozy With Murder in Mid-20th-Century Manhattan

When you absolutely, positively can't have that beach vacation you so desperately need!

When you absolutely, positively can’t have that beach vacation you so desperately need!

Lately it’s been brought to my attention that I manage to be as tightly wound as a spring about to snap and to be very busy between nonfiction writing, fiction writing and daily blogging. Juggling it all is the subject of my series on managing your creative life. Mostly I wish I could create time, but that seems to be beyond my reach. What price a tardis?

But since I had my first serious asthma attack in thirty eight years, it’s been brought home to me that I must find a way to unwind, now and then.

Ideally, a vacation on the beach, drinks with umbrellas and watching hot guys with tans would be an option – but we don’t have the money, we don’t have the time, and my husband said “you want to watch what?”

So I’m doing my relaxation on the installment plan, an hour or so a day, by indulging in one of my “guilty pleasures.” These are things that can’t even remotely be considered work, but which allow me to unwind.

Last week I shared my love of the A&E’s Pride and Prejudice series. Which, I’d like to point out for the record, does not hinge on the scene in which Mr. Darcy comes out of the pond with his wet clothes clinging to him. Why, he doesn’t even have a tan!

This week, I’d like to talk about some guilty pleasure reading.

One of my guilty reads is the Rex Stout Nero Wolfe mysteries. For those of you who know it only through the TV series, go and read the books. They have a depth and a feel the TV episodes lack. In terms of conversion to other media, short stories are the best for rendering as a TV episode. For that matter they also work best for movies. Novels translated to anything but a mini-series lose a lot of their complexity and become curiously flat.

For some reason, when I was growing up, I strongly associated mysteries with horror. It could be the fact that the only mystery series available in Portugal at the time (and mostly featuring translations of English and American books) was called Vampiro and had as its symbol a bat.

I don’t like horror. I can stand some of the subtle psychological or supernatural horror, but I despise what we call in the field “meaty horror” with “paint the room red” scenes. I see no point to them, other than inducing a feeling of nausea and hopelessness.

So, even though dad was an avid mystery reader, for the longest time I ignored those books with the bat on the spine. Until one summer afternoon I was so bored and so desperate for something to read, that I picked up Rex Stout’s Fer de Lance.


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