Review and analysis of the Rex Stout novel
I picked Fer-de-Lance for this review series because it was time to read an adult mystery instead of a juvenile one. And I'd read and admired Rex Stout's short stories -- see "Rex Stout" for summaries of some of those -- and I knew that the Nero Wolfe books are held in very high esteem. So I'll admit I went in with high expectations.
And I liked Fer-de-Lance. Really, I did.
Did I love it? Well, let's not go overboard.
In form this is a classic "great detective" whodunit, but it comes with enough idiosyncratic variations that it can be called "whodunit" only as a courtesy. The detective, Nero Wolfe, is a genius, but he works more through an odd combination of intuition, empathy, and a dogged pursuit of every tiny fact than through Holmesian "logic" and "deduction." Thus, he perceives the broad outlines of the crime before he has even gathered the information, both by making intuitive leaps and by imagining the circumstances from the point-of-view of a posited killer, and then confirms his suspicions through the painstaking collection of evidence. He also refuses to venture forth to examine the evidence or to question witnesses, but instead sends his assistant, Archie Goodwin, out to collect these and bring them back for examination. These and his other personal habits -- his attachment to orchids, for instance -- mark him out as an eccentric. He is also immensely obese, weighing in at "one seventh of a ton," according to the author.
Archie Goodwin himself is a fair contrast to Wolfe. Where Wolfe is an epicure, an eccentric, a genius, and a recluse, Goodwin is an athletic, sardonic flatfoot with a talent for observation and a shrewdness of judgment. He gets sore at his boss, who is sometimes equally impatient with him, and he sometimes bridles at the fact that he is mostly treated as a talented errand boy when he himself is a talented sleuth.
It's also a surprise to discover that the street-smart Archie is much more devoted to the ideals of law and justice and fair play than his employer. Nero Wolfe is entirely mercenary, and though he is occasionally gallant he is not so scrupulous as to refrain from blackmailing (under more polite disguises) district attorneys, suspects, and even prospective clients in order to line his own pockets. Nor, in Fer-de-Lance, is he above mugging a witness and framing a suspect in order to procure information he wants in order to solve a murder and collect a fat reward. Wolfe is very nearly a crook, and between them he and Archie almost shift the book out of the realm of polite mystery fiction and into the seedy realm of noir.
I really like the way it mixes up styles and expectations and genres, and this is definitely something to keep in mind when writing, particularly genre fiction. If other Nero Wolfe books do likewise, I would expect to like them a great deal.
But Fer-de-Lance, frankly, was a bit of a slog to get through -- much more so than Stout's very fleet and sure-footed short stories of twenty years earlier. The trouble was that it had very little in the way of momentum.
The book begins with a poor Italian woman hiring Wolfe to find her missing brother. There are few clues to go on, so Archie has to gather up and present to Wolfe every bit of junk that the missing man left behind. After examining these, Wolfe makes a couple of intuitive leaps that completely lose the reader, and it's not for several more chapters, after which Archie has talked to a completely new set of suspects, that we tumble to the actual crime. But the killer has been devious and left no clues behind; and other people are busy covering up their own suspected involvement, so that Archie has to follow a lot of dead trails around. And even when the vital connections are made, and the facts finally inferred, the paucity of direct evidence leads to more fussy pursuits.
I suppose this makes Fer-de-Lance somewhat realistic -- dogged investigative work that yields nothing but dust for days and days until one clue opens up another field to be sifted and sifted and sifted without result until another clue points to yet another area to be trod in profitless, blundering circuits before turning up a diamond. But it makes for sometimes tedious reading, which the vivid personalities of Archie and Wolfe don't entirely make up for.
I should also mention that the murder weapon -- a golf club that's been booby-trapped to shoot a poisonous dart at its wielder -- is so outrageous that even at the end of the novel I could scarcely credit it.
I'm not sure what the moral here is, except the general moral about drama. There should be a consistent sense that the story is moving forward, that progress is being made, and that meaningful changes are occurring with each new incident. I'm not sure that, in a mystery, it means that each chapter should bring the solution closer. But something -- if not the approaching solution, then something, fergodsake -- has to make us want to read the next chapter in order to see what happens next. Mere faith that clues and solutions will be in the offing isn't quite enough.