Where There's a Will

BOOK: Where There's a Will

Rex Stout

, the creator of Nero Wolfe, was born in Noblesville, Indiana, in 1886, the sixth of nine children of John and Lucetta Todhunter Stout, both Quakers. Shortly after his birth, the family moved to Wakarusa, Kansas. He was educated in a country school, but by the age of nine he was recognized throughout the state as a prodigy in arithmetic. Mr. Stout briefly attended the University of Kansas, but left to enlist in the Navy, and spent the next two years as a warrant officer on board President Theodore Roosevelt's yacht. When he left the Navy in 1908, Rex Stout began to write free-lance articles and worked as a sightseeing guide and as an itinerant bookkeeper. Later he devised and implemented a school banking system which was installed in four hundred cities and towns throughout the country. In 1927 Mr. Stout retired from the world of finance and, with the proceeds of his banking scheme, left for Paris to write serious fiction. He wrote three novels that received favorable reviews before turning to detective fiction. His first Nero Wolfe novel,
, appeared in 1934. It was followed by many others, among them
Too Many Cooks, The Silent Speaker, If Death Ever Slept, The Doorbell Rang
, and
Please Pass the Guilt
, which established Nero Wolfe as a leading character on a par with Erle Stanley Gardner's famous protagonist, Perry Mason. During World War II, Rex Stout waged a personal campaign against Nazism as chairman of the War Writers' Board, master of ceremonies of the radio program “Speaking of Liberty,” and member of several national committees. After the war he turned his attention to mobilizing public opinion against the wartime use of thermonuclear devices, was an active leader in the Authors' Guild, and resumed writing his Nero Wolfe novels. Rex Stout died in 1975 at the age of eighty-eight. A month before his death, he published his seventy-second Nero Wolfe mystery,
A Family Affair.
Ten years later, a seventy-third Nero Wolfe mystery was discovered and published in
Death Times Three.

The Rex Stout Library


The League of Frightened Men

The Rubber Band

The Red Box

Too Many Cooks

Some Buried Caesar

Over My Dead Body

Where There's a Will

Black Orchids

Not Quite Dead Enough

The Silent Speaker

Too Many Women

And Be a Villain

The Second Confession

Trouble in Triplicate

In the Best Families

Three Doors to Death

Murder by the Book

Curtains for Three

Prisoner's Base

Triple Jeopardy

The Golden Spiders

The Black Mountain

Three Men Out

Before Midnight

Might As Well Be Dead

Three Witnesses

If Death Ever Slept

Three For the Chair

Champagne For One

And Four to Go

Plot It Yourself

Too Many Clients

Three at Wolfe's Door

The Final Deduction


Homicide Trinity

The Mother Hunt

A Right to Die

Trio for Blunt Instruments

The Doorbell Rang

Death of a Doxy

The Father Hunt

Death of a Dude

Please Pass the Guilt

A Family Affair

Death Times Three

The Hand in the Glove

Double for Death

Bad for Business

The Broken Vase

The Sound of Murder

Red Threads

The Mountain Cat Murders


writer is influenced by everything he reads. Everything. That means not only novels and short stories but newspapers and magazines and cereal boxes and even—God, spare us—the inscrutable scribblings of politicians. If a writer's dog drags home a wad of old paper which is unappetizing to the human eye but on which the mutt has chewed and slobbered with enthusiasm, the writer will be influenced by whatever he reads between the tooth holes and saliva tracks. Although his conscious mind may be easily bored, his subconscious is a perpetually wonderstruck infant that will find a wealth of fascinating data to store away from that dog-gnawed paper.

Aware that the subconscious is a cosmic sponge, writers are often willing to experience anything in the interest of finding material. They will sail to Burma on a freighter to participate in a yak-heaving contest, subject themselves to a survival trek in the Amazon rain forest where they must eat grub pâté to escape starvation, have the inner rims of their nostrils decorated by a carnival tattoo artist at a county fair-grounds
in Alabama, and even watch Phil Donahue—all in the hope that the subconscious will mull over these adventures, discover aspects and achieve insights beyond the perceptive ability of the conscious mind, and generate brilliant ideas for novels or short stories.

Some of these writers, with tiny tattooed flames blazing from their nostrils and their shoulders aching from heaving one yak too many and bits of grubs still stuck between their teeth, will react with horror to the suggestion that they might want to
as broadly as they travel. If one of these scribblers considers himself a “literary” writer, he doesn't want to contaminate his subconscious mind with an awareness of the styles and prose rhythms of “popular” writers, for fear he might wind up writing a novel that has relevance beyond the insular world of the self-appointed literati or that, God forfend, even has a plot. If he is a science-fiction writer, he may read science fiction to the exclusion of all other forms, convinced that any tale of genetically engineered, brain-eating, laser-toting, cyberpunk aliens with a psychotic need to conquer the universe is certain to be more intellectually stimulating than any story to be found in lesser genres. Some popular writers will not read literary types, partly as a payback for the undeserved insults they have received from those artistes. Some mystery writers will read only mysteries, some Western writers only Westerns, some historical novelists only historicals.

One novelist I've encountered is reluctant to read
novels other than his own, for fear of polluting his creative tidepool. If he reads John D. MacDonald,
Philip Roth, Charles Dickens, or anyone else, isn't it possible (he worries) that he will then call forth his own muse only to discover that she is a hideous mutant, twisted beyond all recognition by contamination with those
writers? He apparently functions under the impression that his talent came with an engraved-in-stone stylesheet of prodigious specificity, a gift from God that has acquired no patina from life, and that he would have written precisely the same stories when he was two weeks old as he writes now, if only his fingers had been big enough to deal with a typewriter at that tender age.

When it comes to reading fiction, I am an omnivore, largely because I love to read but also because I fear that reading
will result in my writing being shaped by too narrow a range of influences. Unlike the skittish writer in the previous paragraph, I think that by reading everything, I water down the influence of any one writer and thereby preserve my natural voice. For all of my adult life, I have devoured both popular and “serious” fiction, love stories and science fiction, Westerns and horror novels, tales of academic angst and animal stories, stream-of-consciousness self-indulgence and clockwork-mechanism mystery novels, Jim Harrison and Jim Thompson, John LeCarre and John Barth, Philip K. Dick and Philip Roth and Philip Jose Farmer, though I find the recent work of the middle Philip too Philippic.

I have learned a great deal from an omnivorous literary diet, but two lessons in particular apply to this introduction. First, the very best examples of writing from any genre are equal in quality to the best
examples from any other genre, and the finest popular fiction is equal to the finest “serious” fiction. The fragmentation of fiction into genres was largely a marketing ploy of modern publishing. Likewise, the division between popular and serious work was a scheme perpetrated by academics in need of creating a false pantheon of living writers when it became impossible to come up with fresh dissertation topics (to earn degrees and prestige) concerning the writers in the true pantheon, who had been analyzed to exhaustion. Second, the more widely a writer reads, the more he learns about craft and technique, and the more interesting and flavorful his style becomes, just as a vegetable soup becomes more interesting with a multitude of vegetables than it is with only, say, lima beans and broccoli.

Twenty years ago, when I was struggling to find my own voice as a writer, I was reading five novels a week in addition to putting in full days at the typewriter. (We didn't have the great blessing of computers and word-processing software back then. But we didn't have freeway shootouts or Donald Trump, either, so it wasn't altogether a less appealing era.) It was exciting to “discover” a great writer like John D. MacDonald, who had a backlist, and read one book after the other to the point of intoxication. Or Donald Westlake. Hammond Innes. Irwin Shaw. John P. Marquand, who wrote the Pulitzer-winning
The Late George Apley
and other mainstream novels while also turning out Mr. Moto mysteries, which would be impossible in today's more severely—and absurdly—divided worlds of popular and serious fiction. Robert Heinlein. Evan Hunter, Ed McBain, Somerset
Maugham, Keith Laumer, and so many many others.

Rex Stout.

You wondered if I was ever going to get to him, didn't you? One of the best tricks in a writer's bag is anticipation. If you set up an expectation in the reader, then draw out the fulfillment of that expectation with skill (though never at
great a length), he can be made to enjoy the wait and, because of waiting, can be teased to a greater appreciation of the Big Dramatic Moment than he would have if you had given it to him quickly. This technique I learned from reading Rex Stout.

I think the first Rex Stout novel I read was
The Father Hunt
, which was published in 1968, when the author was eighty-two years old. It was a Nero Wolfe story, of course, and I was swept away, drawn into the palpable atmosphere of that brownstone house on West 35th Street in Manhattan, where the fat detective and his good right hand, Archie Goodwin, lived and worked. I recall finishing the book with purest delight at what I had discovered (after resisting my wife's importunings to read one of them for, oh, two or three years), and with dismay that the author was of such an advanced age that he would never be able to write enough in this wonderful series to satisfy my new hunger for it. Then I discovered there were at that time forty-three Nero Wolfe titles, counting collections of novelettes.

Consider that Rex Stout was born in 1886, and did not write his first Nero Wolfe mystery,
, until 1934, when he was forty-eight years old, then proceeded to become one of the most widely published and famous mystery writers in the world. Talk about
a successful second career! Or maybe it was his twenty-first career, since he sometimes claimed to have held twenty jobs between the time he finished his service in the Navy until he created the fattest and most eccentric and most brilliant detective of all time. More likely mystery writing was his first
career, as it cannot have been possible to conduct twenty others between his early twenties and late forties; everything prior to Wolfe was preparation.

By the time I read five of Stout's mysteries, I realized I was in the hands of a writer who knew a great deal about a wide variety of subjects and was mining extensive real-world experience, but I also knew that he was, like me, an omnivorous reader. His best books glow because of it. They are filled with literary allusions of exquisite subtlety, clever references and associations to the work of myriad other authors, the use of genre traditions in ways that can only be conceived by a writer who knows not merely the genre in which he works but its relationship to all other categories of fiction and to mainstream literature. Understand, he never bores you with his erudition. He never shoves it in your face. It's possible to read his books, never cotton to a single allusion, and still enjoy the hell out of them. But the reason you
enjoy the hell out of them is because the surface story has all those hidden supports.

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