England had Sherlock Holmes but we had Rex Stout
In the gothic world of the mystery-murder-detective novel, the doyen of American practitioners was Rex Todhunter Stout, a wiry, goatbearded, argumentative, intense, immodest, highly talented artisan. His principal handiwork was Nero Wolfe, a Falstaff in girth and wit, a serious eater, a devoted orchidologist, an agoraphobe who solved crimes by sheer brainpower, albeit with the help of a brash but efficient legman, Archie Goodwin.
Nero Wolfe made his dazzling debut in 1934, when his creator was 47. And from then on, the 286-pound, sedentary sleuth triumphed over a variety of venal forces that included the FBI. He accomplished these feats from his New York brownstone. Dispensing with crime laboratories and the like, Wolfe relied on old-fashioned logic of the sort practiced by Sherlock Holmes, the vowels in whose name were identical to Nero Wolfe's, even in their order.
Stout's Nero Wolfe books sold more than 35 million copies. They made their author wealthy.
But writing mysteries was just one of Stout's endeavors. He was a banker, the boss of 3,000 writers of propaganda during World War II, a gentleman farmer and a dirt farmer, a businessman, cigar salesman, pueblo guide, hotel manager, architect, cabinet maker, pulp and slick magazine writer, propagantist for world government, crow trainer, jumping-pig trainer, mammoth pumpkin grower, conversationalist, politician, orator, potted-plant wizard, gastronome, musical amateur and president of the Author's Guild.
Stout was born in 1886. As a boy in Kansas, he was a prodigy in arithmetic. His parents exhibited him all over the state by age 9. He would be blindfolded while someone wrote a long column of figures on a blackboard. Then the blindfold was removed and he was turned around, and within a few seconds he could give the correct total. Fearing that his personality would be warped, his parents stsopped the exhibitions and took him out of school for a time. He spent that interval reading his way through his father's 1,200-volume library.
He wrote some for magazines, cranking out potboilers, but tired of the low pay, so he hit upon the notion of selling bankers child depositors. He formed the Educational Thrift System, in which bankers paid him so much a year for each child depositor, while the children got bankbooks and learned thrift in classrooms. The scheme was so susccessful that Stout was able to retire with $400,000 in 1927 (nearly $6 million in today's dollars) and go to paris to write serious fiction. His novels were favorably reviewed but not financial successes.
Then came the Depression, and then went Stout's fortune. He sought a way to make some quick money, and the detective novel proved the solution. His first Nero Wolfe book, "Fer-de-Lance," came out in 1934 and brought in solid cash. The rest, as they say, is history.
Stout died in 1975, but he remains popular. First editions of his early titles command prices in the low five figures.
Source: New York Times digital archive