Fer-de-Lance
by Rex Stout
  

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

a Nero Wolfe & Archie Goodwin mystery

The American Magazine, November 1934
as "Point of Death" (abridged)

Farrar & Rinehart: New York, 1934
313 pages

Cassell: London, 1935

collected in —

Royal Flush

January 2011

  
Meet Nero Wolfe

Rex Stout clearly thought long and carefully before he began publishing his generally excellent mystery series about detectives Nero Wolfe & Archie Goodwin. Not only are his heroes fully formed from the very beginning of the series in Fer-de-Lance, but the entire Wolfean milieu is present: the old brownstone house in New York City with its cultured office and superb kitchen; the other two men on Wolfe's staff who live there along with the genius detective himself and Archie Goodwin — Fritz the gourmet cook, and Theodore the maintainer of the orchid profusion in the roof greenhouses. Wolfe's on-call investigators and shadowers are present and sketched, as are some policemen. All these just mentioned, even if only walk-on parts here, carry forward into later books; the decades-long series would need relatively little reshaping, some shifts of focus and smoothing a few rough areas. Rex Stout got it right the first time.
  

We're also given bits of the past, so we arrive in the middle of a functioning business whose people understand it and each other. No waiting in an empty office for a first client, no wide-eyed apprentice arriving in the big city for his first day on the job. A couple of the wrapped-up cases extend minor ripples into the current plot, further strengthening the feeling of reality.

Fer-de-Lance appeared in late 1934, opening in fact with the suggestion that Prohibition had ended not long before. But although the external world will change during the series and Wolfe and Archie react to it and fit into it, the stories operate in an eternal present of storytelling in which characters and their basic situation do not age, or scarcely so.
  

Another mark of maturity in Fer-de-Lance is that the custom-designed murder gadget, clever and exotic in itself, is discovered quite early. Golf devotees, if their imaginations are sufficiently vivid, may find it disquieting. In a lesser story, the gadgetry might have been kept for a surprise well into the story or even at the grand finale. Instead, we are given a mystery of psychology, of obscured personal relationships, of private-detective and official-police procedures which struggle along patchily parallel lines, of danger and death, and of course ratiocination.
  

Fer-de-Lance is the longest novel about Wolfe and Archie, and sets the tone well. Although it appeared first, it's not at all important to read it first. Its length gives plenty of scope for character, wit, subtlety, and danger. An auspicious beginning to the series, and a very good mystery novel in itself.

  

  
© 2011 Robert Wilfred Franson


  
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