ROBERT CRAIS: ON REX STOUT

Archie and Me

an introduction to Rex Stout’s ‘Before Midnight’

     I find comfort in friendship. I am a social animal and, even though I mouth off about being a rugged individualist, iron-willed and resolute, standing alone against all odds like some sort of hyperheroic Clint Eastwood, when push comes to reverse head kicks, I am as much a creature of the herd as, say, dingoes or chacma baboons or lions in the veldt. I seek family and friends and the patterns of human interaction and that is why, when I sat down to write Elvis Cole, I gave him Joe Pike.
     My publisher labels these books of mine An Elvis Cole Novel. That is but a half truth, no more complete than suggesting Holmes without Watson, Nick without Nora, Batman without Robin. Elvis and Joe are yin and yang, two halves to the whole, the light and dark of but one character. Theirs is a gestalt of friendship that hopefully yields a sum to the reader far greater than either might yield on his own. Sort of like Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe.
     Let me be honest with you. I never gave a damn about Nero Wolfe. Here was this fat guy who sat around his house, futzing with orchids and gorging himself on a high fat, high cholesterol diet and acting like a spoiled and peevish child when things didn’t go his way. Think about it. If Nero Wolfe were real, instead of fictional, and you or I actually had to deal with him instead of simply reading about him from the comfortable distance of our arm chairs, neither of us would like him very much. Nero Wolfe was a dick.
     I think Rex Stout knew that.
     And so he gave us Archie Goodwin, the filter through which we see Wolfe and an appealing anchor for our emotions. It is Archie in whom we invest ourselves, not Wolfe. It is Archie whom we like and care for, not Wolfe. Wolfe is interesting and intriguing, to be sure, but could you take that holier-than-thou pout of his, that superior air? Not me, friends. Wolfe, without Archie, would have surely died an unlamented death, like so many other pulp-era category fiction creations, long gone and never loved.
     But there was Archie, and Archie saved him.
     Here was Archie Goodwin, who we liked, telling us by his friendship toward Wolfe that Wolfe, in fact, was not a hideous bloated slug of a twerp, after all. If Archie could find value in the man, then maybe we had judged too quickly. Maybe there was more to Wolfe than an incisive intellect and an offensively eccentric life style.
     I loved Archie Goodwin, so let me tell you how we came to meet. Years ago, when I was growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and struggling with the first temptations of becoming a professional writer in an environment that valued only the oil industry and Southeast Conference football, I used to haunt a bookshop that sold second-hand paperbacks, underground comic books, and, discreetly displayed on a shelf above two cardboard boxes of coverless men’s magazines against the wall in the rear of the place, devices best described as ‘marital aides.’ It was a grungy, dirty, seedy kind of place, but I discovered Chandler there, as well as Ted Mark and Don Westlake and Don Westlake writing as Richard Stark. A paperback cost nineteen cents. If it had no cover, it cost a dime. I had gone through the Chandler and was working on the Hammett and I walked into the little store that day very much wanting a copy of Red Harvest. The stacks were divided by category (western, mystery, science fiction, etc), but were rarely alphabetized, so if you wanted a particular author, you had to look through all the mysteries, oft-times a tedious process. There was only a single copy of Red Harvest, and some yo-yo had written BITE ME across the cover in green ink, so that ended that. I won’t buy a book with BITE ME on the cover. Not even for half price. But I was in the store, and I continued through the stacks, and that’s when I stumbled upon five or six titles written by this guy Rex Stout. I picked one and skimmed the first pages and found the narrator coming home late one night while his boss, this other guy named Wolfe, was pissing and moaning about it because he’d been put out, really coming down hard on the first guy, demanding to know where he’d been and sort of whining about it and acting snappish and spoiled. You see? A dick. But already I’m liking the narrator, so who cares about this guy Wolfe? Rex Stout has given the narrator a clean appealing voice, just enough attitude to show that he’s nobody’s chump, and a wit like Marlowe on a day when all the bio-rhythms are up. So I’m reading, and liking this guy -- the narrator -- and then the client walks in and the narrator says, “He didn’t look tough, he looked flabby, but of course that’s no sign. The toughest guy I ever ran into had cheeks that needed a brassiere.” Right then and there, sitting on the floor in front of the mystery section in that crummy bookstore with that ragged paperback and its sticky cover, Archie Goodwin owned me. The book was If Death Ever Slept, and I still own that very edition, bought then over twenty years ago for nineteen cents, and now tucked away in a box somewhere here in the house in Sherman Oaks.
     Stout gave us Archie because Archie is us, or who we would like to be if we could get away with it. Smart, sharp, physically confident, and tough. We can identify with Archie, but not with Wolfe. Wolfe is just the freak in the house -- a turd in a cage who grows flowers and draws Sherlockian conclusions from insufficient data; fun to watch, but would you really want to share your time with the guy?
     Yet Archie does, and it isn’t just for pay. Oh, Archie is Wolfe’s employee, to be sure, but read the books and you will see that these two are more than employer/employee; they exist in a sort of symbiosis that transcends mere environmental or biological need or employment security. If that’s all there was to it, no one would give a damn. As fine and wonderful and entertaining as is Archie, there has to be more here for the reader. There has to be something that speaks to that innermost part of us, and keeps these books vital and alive in the marketplace through the passing decades. There is.
     Archie and Nero are family. They are friends. As we read the books, as we immerse ourselves in that world of theirs on West Thirty-fifth Street, so we share the warmth of that friendship, and seek to return to it, again and again, as if by returning we receive an affirmation for that which we seek not in fiction, but in our lives. For these books, these novels by Rex Stout, tell us things that we want very badly to hear.
     Stout says to us, “Here are two friends. Here are two people sharing their lives. As you wish for friendship, share in theirs. As you seek companionship, share in theirs. As you search for love, share in theirs.” Rex Stout invites us into the family and offers warmth and security and certainty. He affirms what we all seek on some primal level. If such disparate individuals as Wolfe and Goodwin can share friendship and love and caring and life, can not we? That’s the strength here. That’s the message and the feel-good inherent in the voice and character that Rex Stout has given to Archie Goodwin. In this cold world, it is a fire on which we may warm our hands. Holmes and Watson. Nick and Nora. Spenser and Hawk. Isaac Asimov’s R. Daneel Olivaw and Lije Baley. Tom and Huck and Jim. It runs deep in us, from literature to movies to comic books to television. Cagney and Lacey. Hope and Crosby. Batman and Robin. Cisco and Pancho. Is there any wonder that ‘buddy pictures’ are so often successful? Elvis Cole and Joe Pike. The appeal of friendship is old, and the pleasures inherent in such fictional pairings are no less valid today than they were in the days of Holmes and Watson, or in the thirties, forties, fifties, sixties, and seventies -- the incredible fifty decades through which Stout published Nero Wolfe. Check out Thelma and Louise.
    When I write about Elvis Cole and Joe Pike, I am defining their friendship, and exploring it, and expressing a profound belief in its value. Not just in the friendship that Elvis and Joe enjoy, but in the friendship that we all might share, or hope to.
     I think Stout believed in this. He certainly illustrated it through his work.
     Read this book and enjoy it, then read the others. They are testament to our humanness. They are also rollicking good yarns.

                                                                                           Robert Crais
                                                                                           Sherman Oaks, California
                                                                                           Easter, 1993

© 1993 by Robert Crais


   
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