My Copy: 9780553278194 (image by goodreads.com)
The first Nero Wolfe novel, and one of the best stories.
Rex Stout wrote many short stories and novellas since this first one in 1934, but this introductory glimpse into the world of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin (his literal leg-man) is too much fun, with enough twists and complications to make any reader wonder what’s going to happen next.
Fer-De-Lance begins with another private eye bringing Maria Maffei to Wolfe and Archie’s attention. Her brother Carlo has gone missing, but the police insist he just went back to Italy. Eventually the investigation goes far beyond the missing immigrant into the death of a college president, Peter Barstow. But D.A. Anderson isn’t amused. The death had been ruled of natural causes until Wolfe deduced the incredible manner of death.
And Wolfe’s wagered Anderson $10,000 that he would find the murderer first.
This was not the first Nero Wolfe I read, and with my penchant for reading things in order, I would’ve wanted to. However, as Loren D. Estleman explained in the introduction, Rex Stout solves the problem of consistency with characters by making sure they rarely if ever change. Side characters come and go, but others will always stay the same.
After enough of the books the past decade, I can say that’s an accurate assessment. There’s something assuring in the fact that the brownstone on West 35th Street, New York, New York will never change. It’s like revisiting an old friend time after time, or an annoying uncle and smart-assed cousin when their tempers are up. Fielder’s choice.
Speaking of consistency, I did find it a bit startling at first that on the law’s side, Inspector Kramer was nowhere to be found. On the other hand, one of the cases would take place well out of his jurisdiction. In the confines of New York, though, he’s the best stick-in-the-mud on the side of justice.
But the arrogant and semi-clueless Anderson is a decent stand in. We get the idea that he rubbed Wolfe the wrong way regarding a case’s conclusion sometime before the events of Fer-De-Lance.
And I can’t help but smile when I re-read these words Anderson prompts from Wolfe for Archie’s ears. It’s one of my favorite Wolfe moments:
“I have just been explaining to Mr. Anderson that the ingenious theory of the Barstow case which he is trying to embrace is an offense to truth and an outrage on justice, and since I cherish the one and on speaking terms with the other, it is my duty to demonstrate to him its inadequacy.” (pg 261-62)
Regarding the case, it’s definitely got it’s ups and downs, but in a good way. It keeps you guessing and wondering what else could’ve happened to Carlo Maffei and Peter Barstow, and how dangerous it could get to Wolfe himself before the murderer is neatly caught.
I’d recommend this to anybody who likes mysteries, especially those called “cozies,” though it has some edges as well as comedy. I love Archie Goodwin; he’s a fun narrator.