[(essay date 1995) In the following essay, Isaac discusses the composition and literary significance of Stout’s first Wolfe novel, Fer-de-Lance, enumerating the distinctive features of Archie Goodwin and Wolfe, explicating the relationship between the two characters, and noting the ways in which the novel combines elements from both the genteel “Golden Age” of detective fiction and the rougher, hard-boiled strains of American writing in the genre.]
Some fictional characters seem destined to be created, to fill a gap. They fit both their time and the needs of the genre so perfectly that they are immediately seized upon by the public as emblematic of their genre. Such a character was the combination of Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe in their first adventure, Fer-de-Lance (1934).
Consider first the time of their appearance. In a variety of ways, the mid-1930s was a schizophrenic period in American popular culture. While the nation, and indeed the entire world, slogged through the Great Depression, the most important entertainment form for many Americans was the movies. And among the most popular film styles of that era, if our historians may be believed, were western sagas and high society romances. This dichotomy of the irretrievable past and the unachievable present is almost painfully striking today. On the other hand, the songs of Gene Autry, the adventures of Tom Mix, the elegance and high living of Busby Berkeley’s “Gold Diggers” series, and the social challenge presented by “It Happened One Night” captured for their audiences a variety of emotions that are difficult to comprehend more than half a century later.
The paradoxes between the screen images of the great stars of the studio era and the lives of their viewers may not have been so obvious to those millions who lost themselves in the great movie palaces and small-town theaters as they are to us, sixty years later. Though it is in some ways a purely nostalgic commentary, Woody Allen’s romantic comedy The Purple Rose of Cairo contains many of the contradictory impulses of the era. The woman whose wish to leave her current life is so strong that she wills the hero of a movie into reality may be a fantasy, but it was an important part of life in times when jobs were scarce and people felt abandoned by reality and had recourse only to their dreams.
In the realm of detective fiction, the distance between the poles was no less dramatic. On one side the popularity of the English Country House story familiar since World War I continued to grow, and some of the form’s classics date from that period. In the mid-1930s Agatha Christie would write some of her best stories, including Murder on the Orient Express (1934) and The ABC Murders (1936); Dorothy L. Sayers would reach the top of her form in The Nine Tailors (1934) and Gaudy Night (1935), before abandoning Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane altogether in 1937; and Margery Allingham would continue to develop Albert Campion and his supporting cast in Death of...