“Be seated,” Wolfe said. “You must pardon me; for engineering reasons I arise only for emergencies.”
“This is an emergency,” she said.
Maria Maffei is worried about her brother Carlo, who has vanished after accepting a mysterious new job. When police don’t take her concerns seriously, Maria turns to the famed private detective Nero Wolfe, who is larger than life in more ways than one.
Wolfe discovers that Carlo Maffei was taking an unusual interest in the death of university president Peter Oliver Barstow. What is the connection between the seemingly natural death of a blue-blooded academic and the disappearance of an immigrant metalworker? Wolfe and his legman Archie Goodwin are about to learn that the two men are bound by a secret more sinister than they could have imagined.
Fer-de-Lance is a pitch-perfect introduction to the world of Nero Wolfe, the gourmet and orchid fancier who solves the most complex crimes without ever leaving his Manhattan brownstone. Every member of his eccentric crew is fully formed right from the start. The fast, breezy tone and unusual characters set the right tone for the series to come, despite a slightly underwhelming ending.
Though this is the debut of a new series, Stout doesn’t waste any time on backstory. (Archie airily promises to reveal someday what brought him into Wolfe’s orbit seven years ago, but “it’s a long story.”) Instead, the reader is plunged straight into the Maffei case. The only clue to Carlo Maffei’s disappearance is a curious collection of newspaper clippings found in his room. The clippings all concern the death of Barstow, who collapsed on a golf course while playing a round with his son Lawrence, Lawrence’s friend Manuel Kimball, and his father E. D. Kimball. Wolfe becomes convinced that Bartstow was murdered, using a particularly ingenious method.
Life in the Barstow family has not always been harmonious. Barstow and his son disagreed over how much financial support Lawrence should receive for the airplane business he runs with Manuel Kimball. Ellen Barstow, though devoted to her husband, has long suffered from emotional disturbances. Her daughter Sarah tries to hire Wolfe in order to bury the case—is she trying to protect her brother and mother, or could she be involved herself?
Wolfe and Goodwin soon zero in on a particular suspect. Much of the narrative is devoted to proving their suspicions. The investigation is clever and often amusing, particularly their efforts to extract evidence from Anna, the downtrodden maid at Carlo Maffei’s boarding house. “She looked like she’d been scared in the cradle and never got over it,” but Anna proves unexpectedly tough for Wolfe to crack. Still, one can’t help wishing for a little more suspense along the way.
Rex Stout skillfully introduces the routines of Wolfe’s unusual household, even as he makes it clear that a certain amount of Wolfe’s eccentric behavior is pure showmanship. Archie and a staff of investigators put in a great deal of work to provide their boss with the information that allows him to appear omniscient to clients. At one point, Archie suggests that Wolfe actually leave the house to deal with an issue directly, but Wolfe demurs. “I understand the technique of eccentricity; it would be futile for man to labor at establishing a reputation for oddity if he were ready at the slightest provocation to revert to normal action.”
At the same time, however, it is always obvious that Wolfe’s talent for detection is real and unique. Even Archie, his longtime associate, remains awed by Wolfe’s gifts.
I knew what was going on, something was happening so fast inside of him and so much ground was being covered, the whole world a flash, that no one else could ever really understand it even if he had tried his best to explain, which I never did. Sometimes, when he felt patient, he explained to me and it seemed to make sense, but I realized afterward that that was only because the proof had come and so I could accept it. I said to Saul Panzer once that it was like being with him in a dark room which neither of you has ever seen before, as he describes all of its contents to you, and then when the light is turned on his explanation of how he did seems sensible because you see everything before you just as he described it.
Wolfe is utterly ruthless in pursuit of a killer, and here he faces a formidable opponent. Once the gloves come off between the detective and his quarry, their showdown should be mesmerizing. Instead, Stout takes a different direction that undercuts the drama of the situation. The ending, while spectacular in one sense, is unsatisfying in other ways.
Fer-de-Lance, while delightful, is not one of Rex Stout’s strongest mysteries, or maybe I’ve just read too many howdunnits lately that focus on one suspect at an early point. As usual, however, there is plenty of wit and personality to carry the reader happily along. It’s always a pleasure to visit the world of Nero Wolfe, and especially to find that world so perfectly realized at such an early point in the series.
Plotting isn’t really this novel’s great strength. The character of Nero Wolfe himself is the main interest of the book, and luckily he’s more than sufficiently interesting to carry the novel. The sparkling and witty style of Stout’s writing is also a considerable help.
Fer-de-Lance is available in paperback, ebook, and audiobook formats from Bantam.