Second Bananas Redux

November 5, 2009

A short time back, when writing a blog column about second bananas, I mentioned Archie Goodwin, able bodied assistant to sedentary sleuth Nero Wolfe, the hero of a multitude of mid-century mysteries by author Rex Stout. Last year, Bantam put out a twofer reissue of Stout’s first Wolfe/Goodwin book, Fer-de-Lance, and the second, The League of Frightened Men. I have been reading it in my spare time, and admiring the pair of novels greatly for their cleverness, their patina of genteel aging, and the insightful introduction by contemporary mystery writer Loren D. Estleman. Estleman brought up a point he felt was central to the success of the series, and I found myself in strong agreement: “Series are seldom read in order. By the time the average reader discovers a continuing character the chronicle is usually well advanced, and except in the case of those dreary series whose titles are numbered prominently on the covers, he has no way of knowing at what point in the saga the book he has just acquired takes place. This can cause confusion, particularly if the next book he reads is an earlier entry in which the hero he knows as widowed appears with his wife, or having quit smoking and drinking is seen puffing and guzzling happily away with no explanation for his relapse. Rex Stout avoided this situation by the simple expedient of never changing his characters. The Nero Wolfe and Archie of A Family Affair, the 46th (and last) book in the epoch of West 35th Street, are essentially the same thought-and-action team we meet for the first time in Fer-de-Lance.” Remarkably, even in the first book, the reader gets the sense that Wolfe and Goodwin have quite the history, with the reader dropping in somewhere in the middle years, and that their relationship of curmudgeonly employer and smart-aleck factotum/narrator has been polished to a fine lustre over time.

The stories are told in the first person by Archie Goodwin, detective by trade but wiseacre by avocation, who takes an inordinate delight in poking fun at his portly and deskbound employer, occasionally to his face (albeit quite obliquely) but more often in the narrative (“He shook his head, moving it a full half-inch right and left, which was for him a frenzy of negation.”). A certain amount of sharp-edged badgering on Archie’s part is called for, to be sure; Wolfe abhors working, and requires constant reminders of the dwindling state of his finances in order to get him motivated to take a case. Left to his own devices, he would while away his time gourmandizing, tending his beloved orchids, and making cranky observations about the progress of technology (“I turn on the television rarely, only to confirm my opinion of it.”).

Many of the references to events or personages are quite dated, of course: the girls are compared in beauty to Greta Garbo rather than Scarlett Johansson; the high rollers drive not Rollers, but powerful Pierce Arrows; a pay phone costs a nickel (although that rises to a dime later in the series). That said, the prose is quite contemporary, and not at all stilted, an easy read for someone weaned on modern-day mysteries, particular those of the wisecracking first-person persuasion. If you think about it, it is a fairly short list of writers who manage to sound contemporary even when far removed from their time, particularly so in genre fiction which tends toward caricature much of the time. Rex Stout figures prominently among the small handful of mystery writers (along with fellow luminaries Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain) who comprise that elite group.

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