Putting up with the Universe

Rex Stout was among a handful of authors in the pre-World War II era to document the grimy underbelly of the American dream, and his six dozen works are cited along with Dashiell Hammett’s and Raymond Chandler’s as among the most influential of the century. The “pulp” genre had inauspicious beginnings in the nineteenth century, as writers in newly urbanized environments poured out sordid crime stories printed on cheap paper (thus the name). The form demonstrated (and exacerbated) a tenacious anxiety that cities were havens of evil filled with dens of iniquity run by vile sinners. (It would come to be known as “hardboiled,” like an egg cooked so long it’s tough on the outside and good luck getting in.)

The genre has been criticized in recent years for its celebration of half-drunk, perpetually penniless carousing bachelors. (From Chandler’s The Long Goodbye: “Alcohol is like love. The first kiss is magic, the second is intimate, the third is routine. After that you take the girl’s clothes off.”) Such casual misogyny has given rise to queer readings – Freud would have much to say about so many men and oh so many guns. Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are markedly kinder (and more sober) than Hammett’s Continental Op and Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, but the duo still revel in the muck of humanity. Like other gumshoes, Wolfe and Goodwin will find trouble when trouble doesn’t find them first. (It usually does.)

Perhaps the most distinctive (and parodied) aspect of hardboiled fiction is its language: euphemisms, sharp turns in logic, extended metaphors that can be sharp or languorous but always precise. From Chandler: “He snorted and hit me in the solar plexus.” From Hammett: “I haven’t laughed so much over anything since the hogs ate my kid brother.” And, of course, Nero Wolfe: “I have no talents. I have genius or nothing.” Such conflations and contradictions suggest a world collapsing, a blurring of good and evil, the rise of an anti-hero – and not a small amount of delight in the mounting rubble.

The genre’s glee with the unseemly parts of human nature – boundless greed, lust, and corruption – would be quickly tempered. The cloying normalcy of I Love Lucy, Leave It to Beaver, and The Andy Griffith Show was a salve after the devastation of the Depression and World War II. By the 1960s, readers had turned away from one of America’s most dominant literary genres as political turmoil demanded more urgent forms.

But sleuths are still sleuthing – and not just Garrison Keillor’s Guy Noir. Robert Mosley’s Easy Rawlins and Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch tangle with evil with the kind of lazy indignation that kept Philip Marlowe soaked in gin. Sue Grafton’s alphabet soup and Gillian Flynn’s recent novels have enhanced the form with women crime-solvers who’d rather be home alone, and probably in the dark. They’re all (mostly) welcome reminders that we still need unlikely heroes. Or, as Nero tells Archie in The Red Box, “I cannot remake the universe, and must therefore put up with this one.”

Might as Well Be Dead - Nero Wolfe Cover by Bill English - Viking Press

Might as Well Be Dead – A Nero Wolfe Mystery Novel. Cover Design by Bill English, Viking Press 1956.


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