Fer-de-Lance by Rex Stout (1886 – 1975) was first published in 1934. It is the first in the Nero Wolfe detective series. I have two copies of this novel: the 1984 Bantam paperback and the 1968 (3rd printing) of the Pyramid paperback. I read the former. There were a number of typos in my edition; I did not find this reprehensible, but other readers might hate reading such text. I think that there is at least one erroneous paragraph in the Bantam versions – beyond the basic typos.
Nero Wolfe is one of the most famous detectives in the genre. Of course, everyone knows Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, but Nero Wolfe may be the third famous. The character is even referenced in a James Bond novel by Ian Fleming. He is exceedingly large, sedentary, and fastidious. We first meet Wolfe as he is tasting beers – this timeline corresponds to the passing of the Cullen-Harrison Act (March 22, 1933) that legalized a low-alcohol (3.2%) beer. The entire novel, though, is told through the eyes and ears of the main character, Archie Goodwin.
Archie is something like the footman and errand boy for Wolfe. He does all of the actual legwork in the investigations. He resides in the NYC brownstone along with Wolfe and Wolfe’s other “servants.” Of course, it is the 1930s and one doesn’t say “servants,” even though just household crew is meant. Archie is in his 30s, I think, but from this novel, it is difficult to really say that with any true assurance. In fact, throughout, one might reasonably guess Archie’s age to be anywhere from 19 – 42 years old.
Archie does all of the grunt work on the investigations and he acts like head-of-household. But he is not simply the brawn to Wolfe’s brain – Archie also is shown as capable for taking notes, collating stories and documents, and doing research. I think he also does a good portion of the budgeting in the household. It takes a bit to get used to Archie’s point of view. The author has a distinctive writing style and it can be jarring. Also, until the reader gets used to it, the sarcastic banter between Archie and Wolfe, et al. seems really caustic and abrasive. Overall, Archie is a good-hearted chap, although quite opinionated. He is devoted to his boss – even loyal enough to disagree with Wolfe when the need arises. It is through Archie’s eyes that we meet the other characters in the book.
Fritz giggled. He’s the only man I’ve ever known who could giggle without giving you doubts about his fundamentals. – pg. 93, chapter 10
Wolfe has a live-in chef named Fritz Brenner. Fritz acts as the household butler and prepares elaborate meals for the household. He is also, I believe, in charge of acquiring and serving Wolfe’s vast amount of beer. The biggest issue I had with this entire novel, is that we have a fantastic chef, a spunky American named Archie, and an obese genius who spends his afternoons cultivating orchids and drinking beer – and we do not really get much background at all about these characters. There is no backstory as to how this crew met, decided to work together, decided what to work on, how they developed their idiosyncrasies, etc. And frankly, between agoraphobic Wolfe, happy-go-lucky Archie, and a cook named Fritz – one would expect an amazingly thrilling backstory.
The actual crimes in the book to which Wolfe and Archie apply themselves are typical of the genre. Murder. Two murders, actually. Plenty of suspects, an inept and obnoxious district attorney and investigator, and a rich, young woman fill out the storyline. The young woman’s father is murdered on the golf course. Literally, at the tee. Nero Wolfe, without leaving his brownstone, solves the crime. But the twist is that the crime is not what the reader originally thinks. Instead, this death is also connected to two other deaths – one recent, one many years past.
The key feeling within the novel is that Wolfe and Archie do not solve these cases because of some altruistic belief or some devotion to justice. Both seem to have a keen sense of truth and prefer monetary reward to the satisfaction of justice served. They do not always play fair and perhaps cross the line into committing criminal acts themselves. Definitely, they hinder and obstruct the course of lawful investigation. Regardless, it is interesting to have an agoraphobic genius who is so attached to money.
The major prop in the novel is a fer-de-lance – a breed of poisonous serpent. Archie struggles with saying the name:
I tried it again. “Fair-duh-lahnss?” Wolfe nodded. “Somewhat better. Still too much n and not enough nose. You are not a born linguist, Archie. Your defect is probably not mechanical. To pronounce French properly you must have within you a deep antipathy, not to say scorn, for some of the most sacred of the Anglo-Saxon prejudices. In some manner you manage without that scorn, I do not quite know how. – pg. 166, chapter 16
Overall, I really want to find out more about this NYC brownstone and its inhabitants. After having read Sherlock and Poirot, well, its kind of tough to impress me. So the “genius” of Wolfe isn’t all that impressive. However, it is curious and because of that, I have collected a number of Nero Wolfe novels. This specific novel is quite standard in comparison to the genre and so I can only give it three stars. I recommend this to those who like pre-1940 American novels and who want more and more and more of the detective genre.