A few days ago, I received an e-mail from someone who has bought from us before. He explained that he has recently expanded his interest in mystery writers, particularly the "golden age" authors that included Rex Stout. I knew I had a Rex Stout book, so I fetched it out and advised the customer that we had a copy of Champagne for One Viking, New York, 1958 – first edition. It was in near fine condition for $125.
I found it strange that I had not put this book up onto the internet. We put up books valued at $50 and up. Why had I missed this one? And where did I get this book in the first place? I had this info, the good accountant that I am! I acquired it as part of a major purchase of hundreds of books in 2015 at an auction. Most of the books were modern first editions of British and Canadian authors and I remember that this Rex Stout book was an odd one out.
Rex Stout was a vaguely remembered author of mysteries. His primary protagonist was Nero Wolfe closely followed by his side-kick Archie Goodwin. My memory of this author was the somewhat lurid covers of paperbacks. I never thought of him as a serious writer of mystery/detective fiction, like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, or Patricia Cornwell. He was one of those paperback writers like John D. MacDonald or Mickey Spillane. Wrong on all counts!
Our Champagne for One was one of his latter Wolfe titles but we did have a decent price of $125. So, I decided to have a look at his earlier books. His first Nero Rex Wolfe’s title Fer-de-Lance 1934 (fixed up copies) could be had for $20,000 and up. His Rubber Band 1936 can be had for a more reasonable $10,000 and The Red Box 1936 for a similar figure. What am I missing – as a bookman? Who was this guy?
Rex Todhunter Stout (1886 – 1975) was an American writer noted for his detective fiction. His best-known characters are the detective Nero Wolfe and his assistant Archie Goodwin, who were featured in 33 novels and 39 novellas between 1934 and 1975.
And how did he come up with the name “Rex” anyhow? Turns out his mother named him Rex because he came out at birth like a king. Wow!
Stout had some early writing success but ceased when he went on to other things. This came crashing down with the stock market and economy collapse in the late 1920s. So, he went back to writing. He wrote several novels in the early 1930s before he latched onto the mystery genre, with Nero Wolfe, at age 46. Wolfe was an eccentric genius who did almost all of his detecting from his brownstone on West Thirty-fifth Street in New York City. Fiftyish, corpulent, and irascible, Wolfe seldom ventured outside the brownstone, and its several thousand orchid plants. Wolfe’s assistant, Archie Goodwin, was thirtyish, energetic, and good-natured, the perfect complement to his boss. He
serves as Wolfe’s eyes and legs in the world outside.
Publisher John Farrer was delighted with the success of Stout’s mysteries but asked the author to come up with another mystery series to ensure they didn’t wear out the public with too much Wolfe. So, in the fall of 1936, Stout created a female detective, Theodolinda “Dol” Bonner. She was an early and significant example of the woman PI as fictional protagonist.
In 1959, Stout received the Mystery Writers of America's Grand Master Award. The Nero Wolfe corpus was nominated Best Mystery Series of the Century at Bouchercon XXXI , the world's largest mystery convention, and Rex Stout was nominated Best Mystery Writer of the Century. Who knew! Not me.
In addition to writing fiction, Stout was a prominent public intellectual for decades. Stout was active in the early years of the American Civil Liberties Union and a founder of the Vanguard Press. He served as head of the Writers' War Board during World War II, became a radio celebrity through his numerous broadcasts, and was later active in promoting world federalism. He was the long-time president of the Authors Guild, during which he sought to benefit authors by lobbying for reform of the domestic and international copyright laws, and served a term as president of the Mystery Writers of America.
And who best to judge a writer than another writer, perhaps two famous writers.
“Nobody who claims to be a competent critic can say that Rex Stout does not write well. His narrative and dialogue could not be improved, and he passes the supreme test of being readable. I don’t know how many times I have reread the Nero Wolfe stories, but plenty. I know exactly what is coming and how it is all going to end, but it doesn’t matter. That’s writing” – P. G. Wodehouse
I think I should keep an eye out for Rex Stout!