Kansas-based Alex Grecian is the New York Times best-selling author of the Scotland Yard Murder Squad series. His latest book, The Saint of Wolves and Butchers, releases in 2018 and follows the dangerous path of a rookie Kansas Highway Patrol officer confronting a neo-Nazi cult.
Rex Stout was at one time the most widely read author in America, which is something every author aspires to, but for me, the accomplishments of this fellow Kansan hit a little closer to home.
A staggeringly prolific writer, Stout produced hundreds of short stories and novels at a rate that makes other writers blanch. He rarely spent much more than a month working on a book, and he never revised his manuscripts. (By contrast, I’ve sometimes spent as much as a year on a novel and gone through three or four drafts.) He effortlessly churned out as many as four books a year, then spent the other half of his year traveling, dining with the likes of Mark Twain, and working to benefit his favorite causes.
His greatest achievement came relatively late in his life, with the creation of his most famous characters: Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. They are arguably the most important pair of literary detectives since Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.
Wolfe (in case you haven’t yet read one of the 72 stories that feature him or seen any of the numerous TV series based on his character) famously weighs a seventh of a ton, favors the color yellow, and spends most of his time cultivating orchids in the rooftop greenhouse of his New York brownstone. Archie is his right-hand man, a wisecracking, steadfast, top-notch investigator in his own right. Wolfe rarely leaves his home, so most of the legwork is left to Archie, who also narrates the mysteries. They are aided—not in their detective work, but in their daily lives—by Theodore Horstmann, who tends the orchids, and Fritz Brenner, the master chef who tends Wolfe’s prominent stomach.
I first encountered Nero Wolfe at the Topeka Bookmobile, which parked at the curb outside my elementary school every Friday afternoon, just before the last bell. As I recall, there was a shelf of children’s books on one wall of the converted bus, but they never interested me. My tastes ran more toward the horror anthologies, with their lurid jacket art, and the many volumes of Alfred Hitchcock’s mystery series. But when I exhausted Sir Alfred’s series and ventured farther along the shelf, just beyond works by Ed McBain and Ellery Queen, I eventually found Rex Stout’s books waiting for me.
I don’t remember which of Stout’s novels I read first. It might have been the Nero Wolfe series debut, Fer-de-Lance, but I doubt it. It’s more likely I picked up one of the many collections. (The books were endlessly repackaged and reissued.) I only know that I was hooked from the start. I kept reading until I had read them all, then I went back and began again. Even now I start the series over again every few years, devouring Rex Stout’s confections the way Nero Wolfe digs into Fritz’s pork cutlets and onion soup. They are comfort food.
At some point I discovered Rex Stout had grown up near me in Topeka, Kansas, and my career goals snapped into focus with sudden clarity. I had thought I might like to be an author someday, but since I didn’t (and don’t) live in New York, where so many of my favorite authors worked, that seemed an unlikely prospect.
It must have seemed unlikely for Stout, too. His family bought a farm in Wakarusa when he was two years old and he grew up there, showing signs of his prodigious talent at an early age. Stout claimed to have read the Bible from cover to cover twice before he was four, and his mother caught him making marginal notes in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire before he was old enough to attend school. Eventually, Stout would graduate from Topeka High School, attend the University of Kansas and move to the East Coast, leaving Wakarusa behind.
There isn’t much left to connect young Rex with his childhood home. In preparing for this essay, I visited Wakarusa to scout the site of the old Stout farm, hoping to catch some glimpse of literary history. But it was late in the season. Crops had been harvested, fields were barren, and the Stout family’s home was long gone, including his father’s vast personal library and the warm kitchen, where Rex spent most of his days reading.
As I walked through Wakarusa, brown husks crunched underfoot and I was reminded of Wolfe’s famous lecture on the versatility of sweet corn, ending with “No chef’s ingenuity and imagination have ever created a finer dish.” There are traces of Stout’s Kansas upbringing sprinkled throughout his work. I can clearly see his parents’ devotion to education and books and family—and his desire to pass those values along to millions of readers around the world.
Back home, I’ve just picked up one of my favorite Wolfe novels (The Doorbell Rang. Wolfe tangles with J. Edgar Hoover himself!), and it’s whet my appetite for more. I’m pulling other books off my shelf, setting them aside to read next, the stack growing as I thumb through them and remember. (Here’s And Be a Villain, in which Wolfe first encounters his nemesis Albert Zeck, and here’s Some Buried Caesar, in which Archie has a close encounter with a bull and meets his longtime girlfriend, Lily Rowan. They go on the pile.)
Rex Stout’s word choices are precise and witty, and his plots are clever. Yet I don’t read his books for the plot or for the language. Not really. I read them so I can spend a little more time with two of my all-time favorite characters.
There’s no “finer dish” than comfort food.