Sherlock Holmes changes over the course of the Canon; Nero Wolfe not so much. But though Wolfe arrived full blown, he didn’t come from nowhere.
At a recent meeting of the Tankerville Club of Cincinnati, we discussed how the Holmes we meet in A Study in Scarlet is not the Holmes we know best. In this first adventure, his youthful self-assurance is unleavened by defeat. The more mature Holmes, though not humble, is at least human. He can admit to John Openshaw the unpleasant truth that “I have been beaten four times—three times by men, and once by a woman.”
Or perhaps it is just that we get to understand Holmes better over the years along with Watson, who had never heard of Sherlock Holmes before the opening chapter of A Study in Scarlet.
By contrast, the Nero Wolfe of Fer-de-Lance in 1934 is little different from the Wolfe of A Family Affair in 1975. Archie has already been working for Wolfe some years as the book begins. In fact, the whole familiar establishment at W. 35th Street is already in place just as it would be for the next four decades.
Before he created Nero Wolfe, however, Rex Stout had a long apprenticeship writing fiction for at least 10 magazines between 1911 and 1918. And in these stories, we can find previews of Wolfe’s character and intimations of the mystery-spinning skill that Stout would later refine. Ira Brad Matetsky, leader of the Wolfe Pack, relates this backstory in his introduction to The Last Drive and Other Stories. “Some of Stout’s early stories show signs of the literary talents that would later give rise to the Nero Wolfe corpus,” he writes, “and some, frankly, do not.”
One that does is the title story in this Matetsky-edited volume, The Last Drive, the second mystery Stout ever wrote. While the amateur detective here bears no relationship to Nero Wolfe, the plot would be echoed years later in Fer-de-Lance. To say more would be a spoiler. “Stout was . . . demonstrably his own best inspiration,” Matetsky quotes Ross Davies as saying.
For that reason, the 11 stories in various genres brought together in The Last Drive and Other Stories provide a fascinating look at a great writer in the making.