The Second Confession | Chapter 5 of 32

Author: Rex Stout | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 2659 Views | Add a Review

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Introduction

W

hen I was a teenager, I thought something was wrong with me: I didn’t like Sherlock Holmes! I found him pompous and rude, narrow-minded and opinionated, neurotic and egocentric. Oh, he was smart, all right. And he sure knew it. To me, he was an obnoxious show-off. Nor did I have much respect for poor, dull, dutiful, dim-witted Watson, who seemed to worship the man without reservation.

But I enjoyed stories of detection. I liked assembling and connecting clues and matching my intellect with that of the Great Man (although I never thought it was quite fair that he could identify the region where tobacco had been grown when I hadn’t had the chance to examine the ash for myself), and so I read the entire Conan Doyle canon.

One day my well-meaning local librarian, who knew my reading habits, said to me, “You should try Nero Wolfe. He’s a lot like Sherlock Holmes.” Rather than confess my low-brow literary taste (everyone, I understood, loved Holmes), I borrowed a couple of Rex Stout novels.

And I discovered that my librarian was right: Wolfe was a lot like Holmes, and I didn’t like him, either. Wolfe was arrogant and vain, grouchy and lazy, and as far as I could tell, his only interest in life was making a lot of money so he could eat, raise orchids, sit in comfortable chairs, avoid travel, boss Archie Goodwin around, and impress people with how smart he was.

Yet I devoured the books! The difference was Archie. He saw Wolfe the same way I did (Archie sometimes referred to his employer as “the worm”), and I was grateful to him for it. Archie validated my feelings about Wolfe, who tended to infuriate me. Archie did all the work, it seemed to me, investigating and detecting and gathering clues, which he brought back and deposited in the fat man’s lap. And Wolfe’s most generous expression of appreciation was: “Satisfactory, Archie.”

But Archie, bless him, echoed my feelings perfectly by retorting, “Don’t strain yourself.” He put Wolfe in his place and thereby made him tolerable. Archie’s wry irreverence allowed me to accept Wolfe’s eccentricities and admire his brainpower.

Archie was the perfect complement to Wolfe—and the ideal narrator. Together, they made an entertaining Odd Couple and a detecting team designed for the long haul. Wolfe was the Great Detective, the problem solver, the brain, in the classic Sherlock Holmes mold. But Archie was no mealymouthed yes-man. Rather, he was a genuine hard-boiled detective in his own right, with a narrative voice as sharp and earthy as anything out of Hammett or Chandler.

There is no question that Rex Stout knew precisely what he was up to. In pairing Wolfe with Archie, he found the perfect reconciliation between the classic British drawing room mystery and the naturalistic American novel of the mean streets—Sherlock Holmes meets Sam Spade.

In the 1950s, when my librarian introduced me to him, Rex Stout was around seventy, and he still had another several dozen stories left in him before his death in 1975. In his life as a writer, he published fifty-one novels and seventy-five novellas and short stories, all but a handful of which were Wolfe-Goodwin yarns. I guess I eventually read most of them. I liked some of the storylines better than others (The Second Confession happens to be one of my favorites), but I didn’t read them for their puzzle or plot. I just wanted to spend more time with Archie.

Many of the books—including this one—address important social issues of Stout’s time: fascism, McCarthyism, racism, communism, censorship, and the FBI. This is not surprising. Stout himself was a political activist—often a controversial one. He broadcast anti-Nazi propaganda during World War II, then argued for crippling economic sanctions against Germany after the war. When he became chairman of the Writers’ Board for World Government in 1949, despite the clear anticommunist sentiments expressed in The Second Confession (“intellectually contemptible and morally unsound”), published that same year, Stout was accused of communism by a congressional committee. He responded by attacking McCarthyism. He steadfastly supported Nixon’s Vietnam policies, and then, in response to Watergate, called Nixon “unquestionably the greatest danger that ever occurred to American democracy.”

Rex Stout did not use Archie and Wolfe to promote his causes, however. He never lost sight of his purpose—to write entertaining detective stories populated with compelling characters.

When, sometime around my fortieth birthday, I was struck by the urge to try to write a novel, I was vastly comforted to learn that Rex Stout didn’t write his first Nero Wolfe tale until he was forty-seven, and that he proceeded to write them right up to his death at the age of eighty-eight. It was considerably less comforting to learn that he typically completed a novel in thirty-eight days, and that he always got it right on the first try.

P. G. Wodehouse once said, “Stout’s supreme triumph was the creation of Archie Goodwin.”

That’s how I’ve always felt about it, too. When I returned those first Rex Stout books to my librarian, I said to her, “Do you have any more of these Archie Goodwin stories?”

She smiled, I recall, and said, “Why, yes. Dozens.”



—William G. Tapply

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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