Gus Alexander on Rex Stout, Fer-de-Lance

An Elevated Lifestyle

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The amazing thing about Nero Wolfe, hero of Rex Stout’s Fer-de-Lance, was that he lived in a house with its own elevator. I was 14 when I first read the book. I was spending the school holidays with my mother and brand-new stepfather, who were then living on an oil pumping station in Iraq with the evocative Babylonian name of K3. The British expatriate staff lived in prefabricated bungalows assembled in various configurations to give the illusion of variety. These were commodious, well-planned and, when the air conditioning worked, comfortable, but characterless. And here was a private detective who lived in an enormous townhouse with its own passenger lift.

Not only that, it had a separate goods elevator to a special orchid-growing house on the roof, and any number of intercoms, alarms, built-in recording devices and electric safes. It even had a gourmet kitchen with its own entrance. Right on Wolfe’s doorstep were a dozen drugstores, delis, dry-cleaners and scores of cinemas. On K3 there was a single weekly showing of an ancient black-and-white film in the outdoor cinema, where, like Eric Morecambe, they played all the right reels but not necessarily in the right order.

Fer-de-Lance is the first in a series of 48 detective novels (or mystery stories as their author styled them). Starting in 1934, when he was 48, Stout spun out an average of one a year until his death in 1975. His hero, Nero Wolfe, is an enormously corpulent man who charges vast sums of money to people who need to hire New York’s finest private investigator – although Wolfe is keen to stress that he is essentially an intuitive artist, not merely a consulting detective. Apart from being huge, or perhaps as a result of being huge, Wolfe likes to move as little as possible, and by the time we are introduced to him he has established a routine that enables him to live an agreeable life more or less without having to move at all. Obviously he needs to earn a living

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About the contributor

Gus Alexander runs an architect’s practice in Smithfield. He has squeezed lifts into a hotel or two, and a few hostels, but he’s still waiting to be asked to fit one into a private house.

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