By Melanie I. Hernandez |
In 1996, a bronze plaque was placed to pay tribute to mystery novelist Rex Stout’s seventy-two Nero Wolfe stories at 454 West 35th Street in New York City. Stout’s protagonist, Nero Wolfe, was a private investigator who solved crimes that the New York Police Department and FBI couldn’t. He did this without leaving his private brownstone apartment located in midtown Manhattan. He used his sidekick, Archie Goodwin, for the footwork needed to piece together the mysteries. He would travel all around the city, interviewing, interpreting, and investigating leads.
While there were once numerous brownstones lining West 35th Street, today there are only apartment buildings. The building where Rex Stout’s plaque is placed is concrete and painted burgundy. All of the windows have bars. Dark curtains keep people from peering in or out. There are no signs telling what’s inside. When the address is put into a search engine, it gives no clear answers other than the possibility that it is a homeless shelter or housing development.
In Stout’s stories, various locations on West 35th Street are used to refer to Wolfe’s brownstone. Given this confusion about the exact location where he could’ve lived, the Stout Estate decided upon 454 West 35th Street, which is the estimated middle of the various possibilities (“The Wolfe Pack”). Since there aren’t any brownstones standing today, we can’t experience the setting of Stout’s Nero Wolfe stories. However, visiting the plaque that lives outside this secretive building not only illuminates a deep appreciation for Stout’s contribution to the mystery genre, it also invokes an unrelenting curiosity about the building’s use. The plaque reads:
On this site
Stood the elegant brownstone of
The corpulent fictional private detective
With his assistant
Mr. Wolfe raised orchids and dined well
While solving over 70 perplexing cases
As recorded by novelist
From 1934 to 1975
Plaque paced by the Wolfe Pack
Stout’s 1951 novel, Murder by The Book, is about the twin deaths of an editor named Joan Wellman, found “on a secluded road in Van Cortland Park,” a large municipal park in the Bronx, and of a “confidential clerk in a law office” named Leonard Dykes (Stout 22, 8). Although these two deaths don’t seem connected, they end up setting the stage for a much larger crime by a shadowy author going under the alias of Baird Archer. Archer has written a story that will result in all of its readers being killed, hence the novel’s title, Murder by the Book. While Wolfe stays in the confines of his brownstone, Archie is sent to multiple locations to seek out information about the suspect Baird Archer. As he travels across New York City tracking down people who might know about the suspect, he hits many roadblocks because the interviewees keep end up being murdered right before he gets to speak with them. Despite these unfortunate occurrences, he still searches all of the premises, finding tiny clues that he carries back to Wolfe. Once Wolfe has all of the evidence in hand, he methodically pieces together the clues to figure out who Baird Archer is.
As a reader of the Nero Wolfe series, you wish you could see Wolfe’s luxurious private brownstone. It’s a shame that this vital piece of American Literary history has been erased and forgotten. Since the plaque was placed twenty years ago, residents of the area and visitors to the site share a confused reaction to each other. I must admit I’d never heard of Rex Stout until the award-winning mystery novelist Jane Cleland recommended I read his series. Her personal favorite is Murder by The Book, and for good reason, as the plot is extremely suspenseful, leaving you guessing until the last minute who the guilty party is.
Taking place in a heavily populated city, Stout’s stories leave excessive potential for anonymity, conditions which made it possible for the mystery genre to develop. In urban communities where people don’t know one another, crimes become harder to solve. With this surge in urban living, authors began creating stories that resembled the news stories, especially the murder cases (“History of Mystery”). Almost every crime Wolfe is hired to solve is a homicide, since the act of killing is a capital crime making the need to catch the culprits essential. Stout leaves you immersed in his captivating narratives about detectives and killers.
Like many mystery authors of his time, Stout was prolific. He never wrote a second draft. His genius allowed him to create on a whim, leaving him constantly writing and publishing three to five books and stories a year. Of Stout’s seventy-two stories written about Wolfe and Archie, thirty-three were novels and thirty-nine novellas, which were published from 1934 to 1975. The last one was released just four months before his death. His literary experience started in 1910, when he worked writing pulp fiction. He also wrote in other genres, but none was as popular as his Nero Wolfe stories. During World War II, he wrote only controversial pieces about the war and the presidents at the time, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. In addition to finding success as a writer, Stout made a fortune through his and his brother’s invention of the school banking system, used by schools that collect tuition. He moved to Paris until the stock market crash of 1929. He was then forced to move back to New York City. He later moved to High Meadow and built a house on the state lines of New York and Connecticut, where he lived until his death in 1975.
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Melanie I. Hernandez is is an aspiring professional writer and yoga instructor who adores cats and basketball.