A colleague of mine once told me that whenever he was doing research in the library, after he had located the desired book, he turned around and selected a volume at random from the opposite shelf. He called this ‘serendipity research’ and claimed it frequently gave him new insight into the topic he was researching.
I’ve tried this method a few times myself, but unfortunately, I have a mind like a ping-pong ball. I start out researching and end up reading about sewage treatment plants in Mozambique. The problem seems to be that I will read anything from soup cans to westerns—anything but romance novels, that is. (My taste in westerns is old-fashioned: the hero is only allowed to kiss either the schoolmarm or his horse. I recommend the , a grade school classmate.)
Now that I’ve retired from the classroom, I've decided to give myself a small gift: I’m going to buy and reread all of the Nero Wolfe books by Rex Stout—in order. After a protracted search, I think there is space on the top of the second bookcase in the guest bedroom. I thought I had located space for another entire bookcase, but The Doc stubbornly insists that the guest bedroom should contain at least one bed.
If you have never read any of these books, I envy you the enjoyment of first discovering the brilliant armchair detective, Nero Wolfe. When Stout created the characters of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin—Wolfe’s assistant and narrator of the stories—the American version of the mystery was still new. In the early 1920’s, Carroll John Daly invented the hard-boiled detective story, and when he did, murder left the British vicar’s rose garden to enter the seedy dark alley of the American metropolis.
Enough has been said about Nero Wolfe—the character—what drove me to the library stacks this week was trying to figure out who Rex Stout was. Who was this man who wrote his books on a schedule of thirty-eight days, completed them on time, and never did re-writes? And most importantly, how did he come up with Nero Wolfe? There have been some fantastic answers proposed: Was he the result of an illicit affair between Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler? Or was he the son of Arsene Lupin? Just as most people mistakenly "identify" Harper Lee with "Scout" in To Kill A Mockingbird instead of “Boo Radley” because the story is written in the first person, by the same token Rex Stout is frequently miss-identified with Nero Wolfe, yet his personality is much closer to that of Wolfe's assistant, Archie Goodwin.
An American detective needs an American origin, and I think I have some of the answers—and if I am correct Wolfe’s origin is as surprising as one of the endings in the detective’s most infamous murder mysteries.