Monday, November 12, 2012

Fer-de-Lance, by Rex Stout


It's 1933, and money is scarce. So when private detective Fred Durkin shows up at the office with a woman in tow and a favor to ask, Wolfe is reluctant. The woman is Maria Maffei, a friend of Mrs. Durkin, and she wants to hire Wolfe to find her missing brother Carlo. Before long, Wolfe has connected Carlo--a metalworker--with the death of a well-respected university president, who dropped dead of a heart attack on the links of a Westchester County golf course. But was it really a heart attack? And what ever happened to Carlo Maffei?

This is the very first Nero Wolfe novel. As a result, there are some kinks--aspects of the various characters that Stout obviously hadn't worked out yet. (And writing something like 4 dozen novels in 40 years without the benefit of a computer undoubtedly leads to a few continuity errors.) As noted in William S. Baring-Gould's fictional biography, many of the details set forth here are later contradicted or changed--Archie and Wolfe's respective relationships with their mothers, the furniture in Archie's room, and other such (relatively unimportant) details. There is no red leather chair in the office, nor is there any mention of the big globe, the soundproofed walls, or the picture of a waterfall that allows Wolfe or Archie to spy on those in the office. Wolfe's attorney of choice is Henry H. Barber (later replaced with Henry Parker and finally with Nathaniel Parker, who appears as Wolfe's counsel/consulting attorney most often), and Archie gives a news tip to Harry Foster of The Gazette (who would later become recurring character Lon Cohen).

Still, it is here that we first learn of Wolfe's house in Egypt (mentioned later in In the Best Families), and here we witness firsthand the anecdote so often referred to by Archie in future installments--that is, Wolfe's conclusion that the university president was murdered, which he reached simply because a servant girl found a newspaper with an article clipped out of it. This is used as an example of Wolfe's extremely thorough questioning style, and it is a doozy indeed--though Wolfe's interview of four caddies would also make a good example, as it is similarly intense and quite productive. This story also contains the first recorded attempt on Wolfe's life--at least, in Stout's works. Given Wolfe's history abroad, he has undoubtedly been the target of more than a few violent actions.

The mystery itself--to say nothing of Wolfe's ingenuity in solving it--is among Stout's better inventions, so even though the characters are still gelling, Fer-de-Lance is most definitely worth a read.

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