Rex Stout, full name Rex Todhunter Stout, (December 1, 1886 - October 27, 1975) was an American writer best known as the creator of the larger-than-life fictional detective Nero Wolfe, described by reviewer Will Cuppy as "that Falstaff of detectives."
Stout was born in Noblesville, Indiana, but shortly after that his Quaker parents, John Wallace Stout and Lucetta Elizabeth Todhunter Stout, moved their family (nine children in all) to Kansas.
His father was a teacher who encouraged his son to read, and Rex had read the entire Bible twice by the time he was four years old. He was the state spelling bee champion at age 13. Stout was educated at Topeka High School, Kansas, and later at University of Kansas, Lawrence.
His sister, Ruth Stout, also authored several books on no-work gardening and some social commentaries.
He served from 1906 to 1908 in the U.S. Navy (as a yeoman on President Teddy Roosevelt's official yacht) and then spent about the next four years working at about thirty different jobs (in six states), including cigar store clerk, while he sold poems, stories, and articles to various magazines.
It was not his writing but his invention of a school banking system in about 1916 that gave him enough money to travel in Europe extensively. About 400 U.S. schools adopted his system for keeping track of the money school children saved in accounts at school, and he was paid royalties. Also in 1916, Stout married Fay Kennedy of Topeka, Kansas. They separated in 1933 and Stout married in the same year Pola Hoffman of Vienna, Austria.
Stout started his literary career in the 1910s writing for the pulps, publishing romance, adventure, and some borderline detective stories. Rex Stout's first stories appeared among others in All-Story Magazine. He sold articles and stories to a variety of magazines, and became a full-time writer in 1927. Stout lost the money he had made as a businessman in 1929.
In Paris in 1929 he wrote his first book, How Like a God, an unusual psychological story written in the second person. During the course of his career Stout mastered a variety of literary forms, including the short story, the novel, and science fiction, among them a pioneering political thriller, The President Vanishes (1934).
After he returned to the U.S. Stout turned to writing detective fiction. The first was Fer-de-Lance, which introduced Nero Wolfe and his assistant Archie Goodwin. The novel was published by Farrar & Rinehart in October 1934, and in abridged form as Point of Death in The American Magazine (November 1934). In 1937, Stout created Dol Bonner, a female private detective who would reappear in his Nero Wolfe stories and who is an early and significant example of the woman PI as fictional protagonist, in a novel called The Hand in the Glove. After 1938 Stout focused solely on the mystery field. Stout continued writing the Wolfe series -- at least one adventure per year -- until his death in 1975.
During WWII Stout cut back on his detective writing, joined the Fight for Freedom organization, and wrote propaganda. He hosted three weekly radio shows, and coordinated the volunteer services of American writers to help the war effort. After the war Stout returned to writing Nero Wolfe novels, and took up the role of gentleman farmer on his estate at High Meadows in Brewster, north of New York City. He served as president of the Authors Guild and of the Mystery Writers of America, which in 1959 presented Stout with the Grand Master Award — the pinnacle of achievement in the mystery field.
Stout was a longtime friend of the British humorist P. G. Wodehouse, writer of the Jeeves novels and short stories. Each was a fan of the other's work, and there are evident parallels between their characters and techniques. Wodehouse contributed the foreword to Rex Stout: A Majesty's Life, the 2002 reissue of John McAleer's Edgar Award-winning 1977 biography of the author.
Raised with a powerful social conscience, Stout served on the original board of the American Civil Liberties Union and helped start the radical magazine The New Masses during the 1920s. During the Great Depression, he was an enthusiastic supporter of the New Deal. During World War II, he worked with the advocacy group Friends of Democracy and figured prominently on the Writers War Board, particularly in support of the embryonic United Nations. He lobbied for Franklin D. Roosevelt to accept a fourth term as President. When the war ended, Stout became active in the United World Federalists.
Stout was active in liberal causes. When the anti-Communist hysteria of the late 1940s and 1950s began, Stout found himself targeted by members of the American Legion. He ignored a subpoena from the House Un-American Activities Committee at the height of the McCarthy era.
In later years Stout alienated some readers with his hawkish stance on the Vietnam War and with the contempt for Communism expressed in his works.
Rex Stout was one of many American writers closely watched by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, journalist Herbert Mitgang discovered when he requested Stout's file for his 1988 book, Dangerous Dossiers:
A dozen years after Rex Stout's death, the FBI did not easily give up his personal file under the Freedom of Information Act. Of 301 pages that were reviewed, only 183 pages were released to me, and these were heavily censored. ... Stout's name in the FBI files reached back to his beginnings as an author, but what particularly irked the bureau and possibly other government agencies occurred during the McCarthy era when he served as president of the Authors League...
Stout's faithful readers knew him best as the genial author of detective novels featuring Nero Wolfe, gourmet, connoisseur and orchid grower, who, with the help of his assistant, Archie Goodwin, could solve crimes without leaving his Manhattan brownstone. The Federal Bureau of Investigation files show that J. Edgar Hoover considered Stout anything but genial: as a enemy of the FBI, as a Communist or a tool of Communist-dominated groups, someone whose novels and mail had to be watched, and whose involvement with professional writers organizations was not above suspicion. In the vague, bizarre phrase of one of the documents in his dossier, Stout was described as 'an alleged radical' ...
J. Edgar Hoover himself and the FBI's powerful publicity machine came down hard on Stout in 1965 when his novel, The Doorbell Rang, was published by the Viking Press. About one hundred pages in Stout's file are devoted to this novel, the FBI's panicky response to it, and the attempt to retaliate against the author for writing it.
Stout and the FBI
Nero Wolfe books by Rex Stout
Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe novellas are listed below in order of first appearance.
"Bitter End" (1940) — Rex Stout's rewrite of Bad for Business, a novel that featured Tecumseh Fox, begins with Nero Wolfe vowing to find the person responsible for adulterating a commercial liver pate he has just spit in Archie's face. Originally printed in the November 1940 issue of The American Magazine, "Bitter End" saw its first book publication in Corsage: A Bouquet of Rex Stout and Nero Wolfe (James A. Rock & Co., 1977), a posthumous collection edited by Michael Bourne (see Books about Rex Stout and Nero Wolfe).
"Black Orchids" (1941) — Curiosity about the black orchids grown by millionaire Lewis Hewitt compels an envious Nero Wolfe to attend New York's annual flower show.
"Cordially Invited to Meet Death" (1942) — High-society party arranger Bess Huddleston hires Wolfe to investigate anonymous letters, sent to her clients, claiming that she's spreading rumors about them.
"Not Quite Dead Enough" (1942) — How Archie joined Army Intelligence in WWII and got Wolfe involved in it.
"Booby Trap" (1944) — Another story about Archie in uniform, this time involving attempts by the munitions industry to bribe Congress in order to steal industrial secrets for use after the war.
"Help Wanted, Male" (1945) — An anonymous threat leads Wolfe to take unusual steps to prevent his own murder.
"Instead of Evidence" (1946) — Certain that his partner is about to murder him, the owner of a novelty company retains Wolfe to keep him from getting away with it.
"Before I Die" (1947) — Mobster Dazy Perrit comes to Wolfe for help in stopping a blackmailer.
"Man Alive" (1947) — A high-fashion designer consults Wolfe after she sees her uncle — believed to have committed suicide a year before — in disguise and in the audience at one of her shows.
"Bullet for One" (1948) — An industrial designer is shot to death while riding horseback in Central Park.
"Omit Flowers" (1948) — As a favor for his oldest friend Marko Vukcic, Wolfe takes the case of Virgil Pompa, a chef who traded his genius for a high-paying job as the supervisor of a restaurant chain. He is in jail, charged with murder. Archie begins the story with the statement, "In my opinion it was one of Nero Wolfe's neatest jobs, and he never got a nickel for it."
"Door to Death" (1949) — When orchid nurse Theodore Horstmann leaves the brownstone indefinitely to tend to his sick mother, Nero Wolfe goes out — in the snow and on foot — into the raging wilds of Westchester to find a replacement. He and Archie find a corpse in the greenhouse, as well.
"The Gun with Wings" (1949) — The police are satisfied that a top tenor at the Metropolitan Opera shot himself, but his widow and the man she hopes to marry know it was murder.
"Disguise for Murder" (1950) — The garden editor of the Gazette persuades Nero Wolfe to play host to the Manhattan Flower Club. While a couple of hundred people are upstairs in the plant rooms looking at Wolfe's orchids, a woman is strangled in his office.
"The Cop-Killer" (1951) — Tina and Carl Vardas, employees at the barbershop Archie patronizes, are questioned by a policeman after a hit-and-run. When the Vardases flee to the brownstone and desperately ask Archie for help, their overreaction proves to be justified.
"The Squirt and the Monkey" (1951) — Archie becomes involved with gunplay at the unconventional and uncomfortably warm home of a syndicated cartoonist.
"Home to Roost" (1952) — A young man is poisoned shortly after confiding to his aunt that his objectionable advocacy of the Communist party is a front for his undercover work for the FBI.
"This Won't Kill You" (1952) — Wolfe honors a guest's request by taking him to a World Series game at the Polo Grounds. After the Giants are trounced by the Red Sox, members of the team are found to have been drugged — and a body is discovered in the locker room. Wolfe solves the crime without leaving the ball park.
"Invitation to Murder" (1953) — A client hires Archie to assess the matrimonial intentions of his wealthy invalid brother-in-law. When Archie finds the client dead, he tricks Wolfe into leaving the brownstone and identifying the killer before the police are called in.
"The Zero Clue" (1953) — Leo Heller, a probability expert who has parlayed his math skills into celebrity, tries to consult Wolfe after he calculates that one of his clients has committed a serious crime. Wolfe refuses the case, but Archie — "who is subordinate only when it suits his temperament and convenience," Wolfe later complains — agrees to explore on his own.
"When a Man Murders..." (1954) — Caroline and Paul Aubry ask Wolfe's help after her first husband — reportedly killed in action in Korea — turns up alive in New York. Their marriage is at stake, along with a million-dollar inheritance.
"Die Like a Dog" (1954) — A Labrador retriever follows Archie home from a murder scene, and a volatile demirep is at the center of the crime.
"The Next Witness" (1955) — When their would-be client Leonard Ashe is on trial for murder, Wolfe and Archie are subpoenaed to testify as witnesses for the prosecution. Wolfe bolts from the courtroom when he realizes his testimony will convict an innocent man. He and Archie elude arrest for contempt — even spending the night at Saul Panzer's apartment — as they investigate the crime themselves.
"Immune to Murder" (1955) — Wolfe is invited by the State Department, at the behest of an ambassador from an oil-rich country, to cook a special meal for him at an oil baron's private retreat in the Adirondacks. This naturally results in a death to investigate.
"A Window for Death" (1956) — A wealthy prospector returns home after a 20-year absence. He contracts pneumonia and, despite medical care, dies in his bed, bracketed by two empty hot water bottles. His brother suspects homicide and the family hires Wolfe to decide whether the police should be brought in.
"Too Many Detectives" (1956) — Wolfe and Archie are called to Albany, along with other licensed private detectives in New York, when there are complaints about how lax the licensing of detectives in the state is and how the detectives violate the rights of private citizens by tapping their phones.
"Christmas Party" (1957) — Archie goes to a holiday gathering where the host toasts the season with a poisoned glass of Pernod.
"Easter Parade" (1957) — When Wolfe sends him to photograph the uniquely colored orchid that will be worn in the Easter Parade, Archie snaps a murder scene.
"Fourth of July Picnic" (1957) — One of a set of fine knives is put to use at a restaurant workers union picnic where Wolfe has agreed to speak. The story is notable for the autobiographical sketches Wolfe and Archie share with the principal suspects gathered at Saul Panzer's apartment.
"Murder Is No Joke" (1958, expanded and serialized as "Frame-Up for Murder") — The sister of a fashionable designer asks Wolfe to ascertain what mysterious hold a woman from her brother's past has over him. When she arranges for Wolfe to speak to the woman by telephone, he and Archie hear a murder on the other end of the line.
"Method Three for Murder" (1960) — After discovering a body in the back seat, Mina Holt drives the taxi she has borrowed for the evening to 918 West 35th Street. She walks up the front steps of the brownstone just as Archie is walking down — having just told Nero Wolfe that he's quit.
"Poison à la Carte" (1960) — Wolfe's chef, Fritz, is invited to prepare the annual dinner for the Ten for Aristology, "a group of ten men pursuing the ideal of perfection in food and drink." Wolfe and Archie are guests at the table when one of the ten becomes acutely ill during the meal and soon dies of arsenic poisoning. Wolfe's self-esteem is injured, he believes that Fritz has been humiliated, and he resolves to determine which of the servers hired for the dinner is the guilty party.
"The Rodeo Murder" (1960) — A party at Lily Rowan's Park Avenue penthouse includes a roping contest between some cowboy friends, with a silver-trimmed saddle as the prize. One of the contestants is at a disadvantage when his rope is missing. When it is found wound more than a dozen times around the neck of the chief backer of the World Series Rodeo, Lily asks Wolfe to sort out the murder.
"Counterfeit for Murder" (1961) — Wolfe and Archie encounter the Treasury Department when the owner of a rooming house comes to the brownstone with a large packet of counterfeit bills that she's found hidden on a bookshelf.
"Death of a Demon" (1961) — A blackmailer hosts a dinner party for his victims, whom he torments by dropping hints about their secrets. The blackmailer is murdered shortly thereafter, and the police arrest his wife, Wolfe's client.
"Kill Now — Pay Later" (1961) — Wolfe's aging Greek bootblack is accused of murder.
"Eeny Meeny Murder Mo" (1962) — Waiting in Wolfe's office for Archie to return from the plant rooms, a legal secretary is strangled with Wolfe's own necktie.
"Blood Will Tell" (1963) — Archie receives a blood-stained tie in the mail from the owner of a small walk-up apartment building in lower Manhattan, who also lives on the top floor. Archie investigates, only to find yet another dead body.
"Murder Is Corny" (1964) — A female acquaintance of Archie's implicates him in a murder but seeks his assistance in getting herself out of the mess.
"Assault on a Brownstone" (1959, published 1985, posthumous) — The first draft of "Counterfeit for Murder" Nero Wolfe novellas by Rex Stout
- I frowned back. "You cramp it. Or Stout. Let him earn his ten per cent. Dictate it."
Archie loses the argument and condenses their views on the book, which concerns the case against Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
The Nero Wolfe Cookbook, with the editors of Viking Press (1973) — The cuisine and world of Nero Wolfe are brought to life in a wealth of recipes and pertinent quotes from the corpus, illustrated by vintage New York City photographs by John Muller, Andreas Feininger and others. Chapters include "Breakfast in the Old Brownstone"; "Luncheon in the Dining Room"; "Warm-Weather Dinners"; "Cold-Weather Dinners"; "Desserts"; "The Perfect Dinner for the Perfect Detective"; "The Relapse"; "Snacks"; "Guests, Male and Female"; "Associates for Dinner"; "Fritz Brenner"; "Dishes Cooked by Others"; "Rusterman's Restaurant"; "Nero Wolfe Cooks"; and "The Kanawha Spa Dinner". Hardcover ISBN 0670505994 / Paperback ISBN 1888952245. "For a number of years Rex Stout had been prodded by friends ... to tackle a bit of hard work at last by writing out the recipes that make the reader's mouth water when they should be thrall to the dry fare of reason. ... The task was accomplished and now the secret of saucisse minuit is out -- with a couple hundred others. The organization of the book is excellent too ..."
"Why Nero Wolfe Likes Orchids" , Life (April 19, 1963) — Concluding a feature story titled "The Orchid" that was photographed by Alfred Eisenstaedt, Archie Goodwin "investigates and explains the deep satisfactions of his boss's orchid-fixation." (The article was reprinted in Corsage" A Bouquet of Rex Stout and Nero Wolfe, edited by Michael Bourne.)
"The Case of the Spies Who Weren't," Ramparts (January 1966) — Archie Goodwin reports that the previous evening Nero Wolfe and "Rex Stout, my literary agent" filled 27 pages in his notebook with their discussion of Invitation to an Inquest by Walter and Miriam Schneir, a recently published book that they are reviewing for Ramparts magazine. Since their review must be fewer than 3,000 words, Wolfe frowns and orders Archie to "Contract it. Cramp it." Other Nero Wolfe works by Rex Stout
Her Forbidden Knight (1913)
Under the Andes (1914)
A Prize for Princes (1914)
The Great Legend (1916)
How Like a God (1929)
Seed on the Wind (1930)
Golden Remedy (1931)
Forest Fire (1933)
The President Vanishes (1934)
O Careless Love! (1935)
The Hand in the Glove (1937) — featuring Dol Bonner
Mr. Cinderella (1938)
Red Threads (1939) — featuring Inspector Cramer
Mountain Cat (1939), always republished as The Mountain Cat Murders — a non-series mystery
Double for Death (1939) — a mystery featuring Tecumseh Fox
Bad for Business (1940) — a mystery featuring Tecumseh Fox
The Broken Vase (1941) — a mystery featuring Tecumseh Fox
Alphabet Hicks (1941), a mystery republished as The Sound of Murder. Alphabet Hicks is featured in one additional story, "In His Own Hand," which first appeared in Manhunt magazine (April 1955) and has been reprinted in anthologies under the titles, "By His Own Hand" and "Curtain Line."
The Illustrious Dunderheads (1942, editor)
Rue Morgue No. 1 (1946; editor, with Louis Greenfield) — Anthology of 19 mystery stories
Eat, Drink, and Be Buried (1956; editor) — Anthology of mystery stories. British edition titled For Tomorrow We Die(1958) omitted three stories.
Justice Ends at Home, and Other Stories (1977; edited by John McAleer) — Posthumous collection of 16 short stories written between 1912 and 1917 Other works by Rex Stout
Anderson, David R., Rex Stout (1984, Frederick Ungar; Hardcover ISBN 080442005X / Paperback ISBN 0804460094). Study of the Nero Wolfe series.
Baring-Gould, William S., Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-fifth Street (1969, Viking Press; ISBN 0140061940). Fanciful biography. Reviewed in Time, March 21, 1969 ("The American Holmes" ).
Bourne, Michael, Corsage: A Bouquet of Rex Stout and Nero Wolfe (1977, James A. Rock & Co., Publishers; Hardcover ISBN 0918736005 / Paperback ISBN 0918736013). Posthumous collection produced in a numbered limited edition of 276 hardcovers and 1,500 softcovers. Shortly before his death Rex Stout authorized the editor to include the first Nero Wolfe novella, "Bitter End" (1940), which had not been republished in his own novella collections. and concludes with the first and only book publication of "Why Nero Wolfe Likes Orchids," an article by Rex Stout that first appeared in Life (April 19, 1963).
Darby, Ken, The Brownstone House of Nero Wolfe, as Told by Archie Goodwin (1983, Little, Brown and Company; ISBN 0316172804). Full-length book about Wolfe's house, including several elaborate floor plans.
Gotwald, Rev. Frederick G., The Nero Wolfe Handbook (1985; revised 1992, 2000). Self-published anthology of essays edited by a longtime member of The Wolfe Pack.
Kaye, Marvin, The Archie Goodwin Files (2005, Wildside Press; ISBN 1557424845). Selected articles from The Wolfe Pack publication The Gazette, edited by a charter member.
Kaye, Marvin, The Nero Wolfe Files (2005, Wildside Press; ISBN 0809544946). Selected articles from The Wolfe Pack publication The Gazette, edited by a charter member.
McAleer, John, Rex Stout: A Biography (1977, Little, Brown and Company; ISBN 0316553409). Foreword by P.G. Wodehouse. Winner of the Mystery Writers of America's Edgar Award for Best Critical/Biographical Work in 1978. Reissued as Rex Stout: A Majesty's Life (2002, James A. Rock & Co., Publishers; Hardcover ISBN 0918736439 / Paperback ISBN 0918736447).
McAleer, John, Royal Decree: Conversations with Rex Stout (1983, Pontes Press, Ashton, MD). Published in a numbered limited edition of 1,000 copies.
McBride, O.E., Stout Fellow: A Guide Through Nero Wolfe's World (2003, iUniverse; Hardcover ISBN 0595657168 / Paperback ISBN 0595278612). Pseudonymous self-published homage.
Mitgang, Herbert, Dangerous Dossiers: Exposing the Secret War Against America's Greatest Authors (1988, Donald I. Fine, Inc.; ISBN 1556110774). Chapter 10 is titled "Seeing Red: Rex Stout."
Symons, Julian, Great Detectives: Seven Original Investigations (1981, Abrams; ISBN 0810909782). Illustrated by Tom Adams. "We quiz Archie Goodwin in his den and gain a clue to the ultimate fate of Nero Wolfe" in a chapter titled "In Which Archie Goodwin Remembers."
Townsend, Guy M., Rex Stout: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography (1980, Garland Publishing; ISBN 0824094794). Associate editors John McAleer, Judson Sapp and Arriean Schemer. Definitive publication history.
Van Dover, J. Kenneth, At Wolfe's Door: The Nero Wolfe Novels of Rex Stout (1991, Borgo Press, Mitford Series; second edition 2003, James A. Rock & Co., Publishers; Hardcover ISBN 091873651X / Paperback ISBN 0918736528). Bibliography, reviews and essays. Books about Rex Stout and Nero Wolfe
The adaptations section of the article on Nero Wolfe, and the article about the A&E TV series A Nero Wolfe Mystery (2001–2002), provide detailed information about the various film, radio and television adaptations of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe stories.
Nero Wolfe adaptations
Stout's 1937 novel The Hand in the Glove was adapted for an NBC TV movie titled Lady Against the Odds , which aired April 20, 1992. Crystal Bernard starred as Dol Bonner; Annabeth Gish costarred as Sylvia Raffray. Bradford May, who also directed, received an Emmy Award for outstanding individual achievement in cinematography. The telefilm was previewed by The Hollywood Reporter:
It's wonderfully scripted, well-acted and thoroughly enjoyable to watch. It features some terrific costumes, great cars, realistic backdrops and stunning photography. Unfortunately, Lady Against the Odds is constructed around a rather standard-issue plot line, and that keeps it from being quite as great as it otherwise might have been.
Fortunately, it doesn't spoil the overall fun.
It's a period drama that manages to stay in character throughout, setting its murder-mystery theme in front of a society at war circa 1943. It centers around two young "dames" trying to do their part on the home front as Los Angeles private eyes despite a wary police department and disapproving family. ... What makes this project so interesting is how it plays like such a lighthearted romp despite its serious, murderous themes. It gives a nod in dialogue and visuals to those old gumshoe films of the '40s, then has fun with itself. The ending is a bit heavy-handed given the overall nature of this project and doesn't quite fit in terms of tone, but it does add some sobriety to an otherwise high-style production.
The film holds up in large part due to the solid ensemble cast ... led by Crystal Bernard and Annabeth Gish, who deliver absolutely delightful performances as the two lady gumshoes.
Lady Against the Odds (NBC)
In an interview printed in Royal Decree (1983), Rex Stout's official biographer John McAleer asked the author if there were any chance of Hollywood ever making a good Nero Wolfe movie. "I don't know," Stout replied. "I suppose so. They made a movie of another story I wrote — The President Vanishes. I hate like hell to admit it but it was better than the book, I think."
Written after Fer-de-Lance but published immediately before the first Nero Wolfe novel, The President Vanishes was adapted for the screen by Lynn Starling, Carey Wilson and Cedric Worth, with uncredited contributions by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.
The President Vanishes (Paramount)
Rex Stout Archive at Boston College
Rex Stout appeared in the December 9, 1956, episode of Omnibus, a cultural anthology series that epitomized the golden age of television. Hosted by Alistair Cooke, "The Fine Art of Murder" was a 40-minute segment described by Time magazine as "a homicide as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allan Poe [and] Rex Stout would variously present it."