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 List of Nero Wolfe Masterpieces 
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New post List of Nero Wolfe Masterpieces
[A post sent today to the Nero Wolfe discussion mailing list at Yahoo! Groups]

Faterson wrote:
Read the Masterpieces First

Jim wrote:
I think the question is "Which are the masterpieces?"

Absolutely, that is the no. 1 crucial, essential question if Rex Stout’s reputation among mainstream literary critics is to be raised.

Jim wrote:
How many masterpieces are there? Is there a definitive list ??

I don’t think there can ever be a definitive list, and there can never be complete consensus.

However, considering that there are 47 Nero Wolfe volumes, it really would be useful to come up with a shortlist of those Nero Wolfe volumes that most of us (both casual Wolfe fans and Wolfe “experts”) can agree are definitely among the finest Wolfe volumes available.

For example, I find Fer-de-Lance to be the best Nero Wolfe volume. However, I realize it is not appreciated as much by other Wolfe fans who prefer later (at least slightly later, say late 1930s) Wolfe volumes where the 2 leading characters are supposed to be “more developed”. ;-)

In the 1-page Rex Stout biography in Bantam Books’ most recent edition of Wolfe volumes, The Rex Stout Library, the following Wolfe volumes are explicitly mentioned as examples of Rex Stout’s art (disregarding Fer-de-Lance, A Family Affair, and Death Times Three that are only, or also, mentioned by virtue of their being the first, last, and posthumous Wolfe volume, respectively):
This is, on the whole, a very decent, representative list – good picks by Bantam Books. It is obvious they picked one novel from each decade (1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s).

And, indeed, that’s a good way of going about picking “Wolfe masterpieces”. One of the remarkable traits of the Corpus is that it was published from the 1930s to the 1970s, with hardly any loss of quality of writing along the way. This is one of those things that make Rex Stout stand out among his peers. For example, Agatha Christie’s output is similarly voluminous; however, by common consensus, her finest writings definitely belong to the 1930s and 1940s period, with the final few Poirot novels, such as Third Girl (1969) and Elephants Can Remember (1972), being excruciatingly bad. (I’m afraid they would never even have been published if they didn’t have Agatha Christie’s name on the cover.) Compare that with the 2 excellent final Wolfe novels from the 1970s, Please Pass the Guilt and A Family Affair. I believe these two are more than a match, in terms of quality, to most of the 1930s or 1950s Wolfe volumes.

Also, compare Rex Stout with the likes of Dashiell Hammett. Unlike Stout, Hammett is recognized by mainstream literary criticism as a classic of American literature; but Hammett published all of his celebrated novels in the 1930s, and then lived for 30 more years without publishing anything of note.

So, in compiling a list of Rex Stout’s masterpieces, we should definitely stress the aspect of Rex Stout’s longevity and the exquisite quality of writing he was capable of producing in his 70s or 80s.

In making our picks for “The Rex Stout Masterpieces List”, we should avoid volumes that are, in one way or another, controversial, and whose merit even among “hard-core Wolfe fans” is disputed.

So, let’s take a look at the 33 Nero Wolfe full-length novels first; and let’s start from the end, as those novels will be easier to sift through.

Shall we include either of the 2 novels from the 1970s in our List of Masterpieces :?: I don’t think so. Although I believe both A Family Affair (1975) and Please Pass the Guilt (1973) are excellent Wolfe novels, they seem to be controversial among Wolfe fans. Some Wolfe fans even claim A Family Affair is the best Wolfe volume of them all (going to the opposite extreme from me, who claims Fer-de-Lance, the very first Wolfe novel, to be the best of them all). However, there are other undisputed Wolfe fans who detest A Family Affair for reasons that are too spoiler-ish to delve into right now. ;-) Please Pass the Guilt does not seem to rouse as much general enthusiasm as is expected from a masterpiece, so, we can’t include it in our List, either.

And so, we shall include neither of the two 1970s Wolfe novels in our “List of Rex Stout Masterpieces”. 8-)

Let’s move on to the 1960s now. We have 9 Wolfe novels in the 1960s to pick our masterpieces from. ;-) And our first pick will be quite obvious; we are joining Bantam Books and including The Doorbell Rang (1965) in our List. The Nero Wolfe vs. FBI encounter has been universally acclaimed as one of the finest Wolfe novels. No dispute there whatsoever.

Now, let’s employ “the Sherlock Holmes method of elimination” in looking at the other 1960s Wolfe novels. Which novels cannot be included in our List of Masterpieces :?: Not Too Many Clients (1960), for sure; Wolfe fans keep arguing about whether Archie Goodwin congratulates a wife-beater in this volume; this novel also seems a bit garish in the context of the Corpus. Other volumes we should probably discount are The Father Hunt (1968) and The Mother Hunt (1963); not remarkable and exciting enough, seems to be the consensus. (With a number of people affirming A&E’s version of The Mother Hunt was more exciting to watch than the novel was to read.) We shall also have to ignore Death of a Dude (1969); Wolfe “vacationing” on a ranch in Montana is not everyone’s cup of tea. I happen to think this is an excellent late Wolfe novel, but other Wolfe fans detest this volume. The racially charged A Right to Die (1964), a would-be sequel to Too Many Cooks (1938,) is disputed among Wolfe fans and would be a controversial pick; let’s leave it out of our List. The Final Deduction (1961) and Gambit (1962, despite the burning of the dictionary and the chess plot) do not seem notable enough to merit their inclusion in The List. So, we are left with Death of a Doxy (1966), a delightful romp of a late Wolfe novel, incredibly refreshing considering it was written by an 80-year-old man pretending to be in his 30s, and I would propose to include Death of a Doxy (1966) in our List of Masterpieces.

Let’s look at the 1950s novels now. We have 10 novels to make our pick from, one for every year in the decade. (That’s some Wolfean regularity on Rex Stout’s part, isn’t it :?:) Bantam Books picked If Death Ever Slept (1957) for this decade, but I beg to differ. While it’s a good novel, I don’t think it’s entirely satisfactory, to use Wolfe’s favourite term, to merit the label of a “masterpiece”. What 1950s novel cannot be included among undisputed masterpieces due to being too controversial :?: That’s obvious: The Black Mountain (1954), depicting Wolfe’s trip to Communist Yugoslavia/Montenegro; some Wolfe fans love it, others hate it; it cannot be on our List. All the other 1950s Wolfe novels seem pretty standard fare, with the exception of, perhaps, 3 volumes. First, there is The Golden Spiders (1953); it is generally well-regarded, and has already been picked twice (both in 1981 and in 2000) by American TV producers as a pilot for a Nero Wolfe TV series. So, let’s include Golden Spiders in our List. Further, my vote would go to Plot It Yourself a.k.a. Murder in Style (1959); it is as refreshing and delightful to read as Death of a Doxy seven year later, and shows Archie Goodwin in top narrative form. Finally, the 1950s masterpiece that I believe Bantam Books did not pick only because they had already picked another off-beat Wolfe novel before (Too Many Cooks), and two of them would be too many in a shortlist of only 5 Wolfe novels. I mean, of course, In the Best Families (1950). This is Rex Stout’s tour de force, possibly his best book ever. It’s the culmination of “the Zeck trilogy” (with the foregoing two volumes being distinctly less impressive and memorable); I’ve never heard of any Wolfe fan who would not enjoy In the Best Families, and so, let’s also include this volume in our List.

In the 1940s, we have six Wolfe novels to make our pick from. And the choice is obvious: The Silent Speaker (1946), universally hailed by Wolfe fans and non-fans as perhaps the finest “pure detection” entry in the Wolfe Corpus. But, I would also include Over My Dead Body (1940) in our List; a classic, delightful murder mystery from the Golden Era. The one 1940s novel we must unequivocally refuse to include in the List would be Where There’s a Will (1940); quite a few Wolfe fans have already expressed their distaste for this novel, and I find it to be the worst Wolfe volume hands down. It looks like Rex Stout was overreaching by publishing 2 Wolfe novels in the same year, 1940 (both the delightful Over My Dead Body and the atrocious Where There’s a Will). Stout never did such a thing again, and after World War II, he published no more than 1 Nero Wolfe full-length novel per year. A wise decision :!:

Finally, there are six 1930s Wolfe novels where we can make our final picks among novels. Again, the pick seems obvious; we agree with Bantam Books and shall pick Too Many Cooks (1938). The first four Wolfe novels are said to lack the polish of the later Wolfe novels, and so cannot be included in The List. However, Some Buried Caesar (1939) seems to inspire many Wolfe fans’ enthusiasm; I happen to think it’s a watered-down “cover version” of Too Many Cooks... but if you insist, we may also include it in our List.

And so, we’ve arrived at the following tentative List of Nero Wolfe Full-Length Novel Masterpieces:
That’s 9 “undisputed masterpieces” from among the 33 Wolfe novels published. Not a bad score at all :!: Nine is a higher number than the number of all Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler novels ever published, although Hammett and Chandler are held in higher esteem by mainstream literary critics. That seems to be unfair, considering the list above.

But wait, apart from the 33 Wolfe novels, there are also the 14 collections of Wolfe “novelettes” (longish short stories) :!: Could we perhaps expand our List of Nero Wolfe Masterpieces by including a short story collection or two :?:

The answer is, Yes. Although I very much prefer Wolfe novels over Wolfe short stories, one volume immediately comes to mind as worthy of inclusion in The Masterpieces List: the very first pair of Wolfe novelettes, published together as Black Orchids (1942). It’s a pair of suspenseful and hilarious murder mysteries (that’s no oxymoron for Rex Stout :!:), showcasing Archie Goodwin’s narrative skill at its most impressive; the volume belongs on our List.

From among the remaining 13 collections, which cannot be included in our Masterpieces List :?: Well, for one, Death Times Three [1985]; a posthumous volume containing what I currently find to be the finest Wolfe short story of all (›Frame-Up for Murder‹, 1958), but it would be a stretch to include this collection among the finest Wolfe volumes. Further, for reasons unknown to me, the story ›The Squirt and the Monkey‹ (1951) seems to be detested by many Wolfe fans, which makes Triple Jeopardy (1952) ineligible for inclusion in our List. Similarly, quite a few Wolfe fans believe Stout did not restrain himself enough when writing the four stories (some of them highly eccentric) collected in And Four to Go (1958), so this collection cannot be included in The List, either. As to the pair of stories united in Not Quite Dead Enough (1944), with Archie Goodwin joining the US Army... sorry, I don’t think these are on the level of the other “masterpieces”, or even Black Orchids only; let’s strike this volume out. Over on the Golden Age Detection mailing list, Michael E. Grost recommended the following 2 triplets of Wolfe stories: Three Men Out (1954) and Three for the Chair (1957), but for myself I cannot confirm this at the moment; I can’t even remember what most of the six stories are about; I’ll be paying better attention as I re-read the Wolfe Corpus the next time around.

To conclude our examination of the Wolfe Corpus, Jim, here is my

TOP 10 NERO WOLFE MASTERPIECES LIST
(in publication order)
From among these 10, I would recommend for those (literary critics or otherwise) who have never read any Nero Wolfe before to start with The Silent Speaker or Black Orchids. Comments, objections, and suggestions for improving The List are highly welcome! 8-)


Last edited by Faterson on Sun, 16 Mar 2008, 9:03, edited 1 time in total.

Sat, 15 Mar 2008, 19:33
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A most excellent guide, Alex!

I agree with all your nine choices for #1. Sadly, I still have not red nor own "Plot". I will have to bite the bullet and buy it on Amazon, used.

I would add Poison a la cart, which I know you don't care for, but maybe my fave opinion comes from the video version, which I simply adore! (Alex, you M U S T watch the A&E dvd's !!!)

I am with you on Black Orchids. Actually, I like both shorts and think they would have translated perfectly to video. Maybe it is just because I am a "Southerner", albeit by the grace of God, the INS and osmosis. :D

Four to go, in my opinion, also would have been most entertaining on-screen. They only filmed Christmas Party but Easter Parade and 4th of July could have been just as great. Can't recall off hand the 4th story. It must have been forgettable.

Squirt on the other hand, I remember - Two Thumbs Down !!

As an overall opinion, I would say to mystery writers, stay out of politics, social movements and wars.
Just stick to good old crimes of passion and/or greed.
Those stories will never be dated.


Sat, 15 Mar 2008, 22:36
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starfish wrote:
Sadly, I still have not red nor own "Plot". I will have to bite the bullet and buy it on Amazon, used.

Should you have any problem in finding the book, please let me know. I'm more than willing to donate my printed copy of Plot It Yourself to you, in return for the many Wolfe volumes donated to me since the 1990s, when I had trouble finding the Wolfe volumes, and it took over 15 years until I finally was able to read them all.

Don't know if you would ever consider reading books in the electronic format, Starfish, but as pledged in another thread, I'm just about to launch a re-read of the Wolfe Corpus in nothing but digital versions (on my mobile phone), so I wouldn't mind lacking the printed version of Plot It Yourself; although printed versions may come in handy when checking/correcting typos in the electronic versions.

starfish wrote:
I would add Poison a la cart, which I know you don't care for

It's not so much that I “don't care” for it; I simply can no longer remember what the story was about. :oops: I'll be paying more attention to this one, too, the next time around.

starfish wrote:
but maybe my fave opinion comes from the video version, which I simply adore! (Alex, you M U S T watch the A&E dvd's !!!)

I'll do so as soon as I find the time; one must have leisure to enjoy these movies properly, so I don't want to rush this. 8)

starfish wrote:
Four to go, in my opinion, also would have been most entertaining on-screen.

I liked And Four to Go and thought it was among the better half of the Wolfe collections of novelettes.

starfish wrote:
They only filmed Christmas Party but Easter Parade and 4th of July could have been just as great. Can't recall off hand the 4th story. It must have been forgettable.

Indeed it was: ›Murder Is No Joke‹, and it was merely lumped together with the other 3, thematic stories.

But: later on that same year (1958), Rex Stout made a huge exception (think of Nero Wolfe having lunch at McDonald's), deciding to re-write and expand one of his stories. That was simply unheard-of for him; as a rule, Stout never rewrote anything either prior or after publication. And so, out of ›Murder Is No Joke‹ arose ›Frame-Up for Murder‹, only published posthumously in book form in Death Times Three [1985].

I currently find ›Frame-Up for Murder‹ to be the best Wolfe short story of all. So, you should definitely read it, Starfish, to see for yourself how much better it is compared to the shorter version of the same story, contained in And Four to Go.

starfish wrote:
Squirt on the other hand, I remember - Two Thumbs Down !!

Why, can anyone explain? :shock: I thought it was a lively, vivacious, Goodwinesque short story; typical Stout fare; no highlight of the Corpus by any means, but why all the acrimony heaped on this novelette :?: Bob Schneider, too, slams ›The Squirt and the Monkey‹ in his ratings of Wolfe novelettes, giving it an F:

Bob Schneider wrote:
F "The Squirt and the Monkey" 1951 (TRIPLE JEOPARDY 1952) – Potentially interesting storyline turned into a dull read by uninspired writing & loose ends.

Well, that's not enough of a justification for an F rating for me... I don't recall the story being “duller” than most other Wolfe stories; in fact I didn't think it was dull at all. (Perhaps I misremember it, or confuse it with another novelette :?: What I seem to remember about it is that it was dominated by Archie's narrative, rather than Wolfe's deduction.) A re-read of ›The Squirt and the Monkey‹ will be interesting for me. :wink:

By the way, Bob Schneider's rankings are pretty strict; he rates 3 Wolfe novelettes with an F (the other two Fs are from And Four to Go), whereas I have only found it necessary to rate a single Nero Wolfe story out of the 74 available with an F: the 1940 novel Where There’s a Will. There are numerous E and D ratings to be assigned in the Corpus, though, I'm afraid, especially among novelettes.

starfish wrote:
As an overall opinion, I would say to mystery writers, stay out of politics, social movements and wars.
Just stick to good old crimes of passion and/or greed.
Those stories will never be dated.

You're right :!: Still, there may be exceptions to the rule; for example, John le Carré's superb The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), not surprisingly dealing with the Cold War and called “the best spy novel of all time” by Publishers Weekly in 2006. Of course, that was a spy novel rather than a murder mystery; for classic murder mystery writers, what you say is very likely correct, Starfish. 8)


Sun, 16 Mar 2008, 9:01
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Alex, you are most generous to offer help with "Plot"! Should I be unsuccessful with Amazon I will surely send up an SOS. Thank you!
I have read books electronically. A great devise to get acquainted with the story, but when all is said and done,I like to have the actual book in my hands. Something I can lug around and read or reread at any time and any situation.
Presently I am rereading the Zeck Trilogy and this time, in sequence. Just arrived where, as the saying goes, "Elvis has left the building" . Good Stuff !!!

Maybe spoiler !



I don't really know why I dislike "Squirt". It is not so much the story itself, but the people are all unpleasant, even creepy and their routines, outlandish. Who would have a monkey spend his life in a cage just to be an exotic pet and part of the decor? Outrageous!
The only good part is Archie in action. He does his best to apply the yardstick of normalcy to this menagerie. The monkey who didn't shoot anyone, should have shot them all!
:twisted:


I am glad you pointed out that Spy stories, unlike many Mysteries, can delve into politics and do well.
A case in point is Somerset Maugham. He may or may not be your cup of tea, but six (as far as I know) of his short stories are about espionage:

Miss King
The Hairless Mexican
Giulia Lazzari
The Traitor
His Excellency
Mr. Harrington's Washing

Top drawer escapism - imo


In accordance with "Murphy's Law" I have "And 4 to go" with the bad "Joke" - but not " Death x 3" with the re-written "Frame-up". :evil:
Oh well, such is life. I will continue looking for it. :D


Sun, 16 Mar 2008, 20:22
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New post The Role of Literary Criticism
[A post sent today to the Golden Age Detection mailing list at Yahoo! Groups]

Nicholas Fuller wrote:
Stout's books feel meagre and lifeless, because the only real things in them are Wolfe, Archie, and the brownstone.

I disagree. Stout's best books are anything but meagre and lifeless. (Talk about Wolfe and meagre in a single sentence! :lol:) One of the most frequent mistakes committed by literary critics is “combing a writer's output with one brush”, that is to say: “I've read a few books by this writer, so I'm entitled to pass a judgment on him/her.”

That's patently false. Of course, if you dislike a certain writer, you're not going to read everything this author ever wrote. On the other hand, before passing a judgment on any author, one should at least read those works that are commonly held to be his or her finest.

You admitted yourself, Nick, you haven't read some of Rex Stout's most recognized achievements, such as Too Many Cooks, The Silent Speaker, In the Best Families, and Black Orchids. Whatever objection one may raise against these particular Wolfe volumes, calling them “meagre and lifeless” seems off-the-mark. :o

I'd also be interested in learning why Nick thought the premier Wolfe novel, Fer-de-Lance, was “bad”. Yes, it wasn't a good mystery novel, but it was a triumph on a purely literary level. Yep, I find the subsequent novel, The League of Frightened Men, to be bad both as a mystery and as a novel, but not Fer-de-Lance.

That's the trouble you get with these writers with prodigious output: we need to learn to separate the gems from the waste. Rex Stout wrote many mediocre books, including many mediocre Nero Wolfe volumes, but in assessing writers as a whole, one should, I believe, only judge writers according to the best they ever produced. And if that is to be our criterion, Rex Stout is no worse a writer than Chandler, Hammett, or Christie, as he seems to have produced a similar number of masterpieces as those three. They just tend to get lost amid all the mediocre stuff. The role of literary criticism, therefore, is to highlight those masterpieces to ensure due recognition for them and their author.

Finally a point of agreement where I heartily agree with Nick: he infallibly picked Where There's a Will as the worst Wolfe novel he ever read, calling it “dreadful”, and I absolutely agree. I feel vindicated by Nick's judgment, as fellow Wolfe fans tend to criticize me for my perpetual bashing of Where There's a Will. Now, the sad thing, though, is that Nicholas Fuller wasted his time by reading a truly atrocious Nero Wolfe novel, instead of reading masterpieces such as In the Best Families and Too Many Cooks. Now here is the role of literary criticism – to prevent such misfortunes from happening: warn readers against a writer's worst output, and guide readers to a writer's finest output.

This is a task only literary critics can master; you cannot rely on blurbs whose role is to depict every single book as a masterpiece!

In this sense, the publishers' role is the direct opposite of the role of literary critics. The role of the publisher of Nero Wolfe volumes is to blur the quality distinctions among the various Nero Wolfe volumes. That's because the publisher's aim is to get you to purchase all volumes. In contrast, the literary critic will guide you to the finest Wolfe volumes first. As a result, you may get “hooked on Wolfe” and end up buying all Wolfe volumes anyway, even the bad ones... :D The aims of both publishers and literary critics might thus ultimately produce the same happy result. 8)


Mon, 28 Apr 2008, 13:18
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