Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Passing Tramp on Rex Stout

excerpt from that mighty fine blog The Passing Tramp

About Rex Stout

By that time, Stout declares in his 1971 interview, he had realized "I was a storyteller and I was not a great writer" (I believe Stout means--ahem!--A Great Writer).

Those who have what they see as higher artistic aspirations for the mystery/crime tale (that it be Great Literature), will probably find Stout disappointingly lacking in nobler aspiration here.  I think this is how Julian Symons felt when, in the 1950s, he suggested that Stout should consider killing off Nero Wolfe.  In Symons' view Stout, a talented writer, had been coasting too long on his corpulent sleuth's tremendous popularity.

In the 1971 interview Stout continues: "It seemed apparent to me [in the 1930s] that writers of the first rank get themselves involved in the difficulties of the people they write about.  It was obvious in a paragraph the way Dostoyevsky felt about Raskolnikov, or the way Tolstoy felt about Natasha, and their feeling was of a degree that I wouldn't get."*

*(of course some crime genre theorists have urged consideration of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment as a crime novel; Julian Symons once took this position himself, but later came to believe, as he states in Bloody Murder, that Dostoyevsky's works "far transcend anything the crime novelist achieves or even aims at").

Stout however urges that creating memorable characters "has nothing to do with the level of literature." Tarzan and Scarlett O'Hara are great characters, he says.  He doesn't like the fiction of Bernard MalamudPhilip Roth and John Updike, because these authors are interested in problems, not people.

As for mystery/crime writers, Stout gives mixed praise to Georges Simenon ("Simenon has written some damn good ones, but he's also some written some damn lousy ones") and Ross Macdonald ("a hell of a good storyteller, but I wish he'd quit telling the same story over and over again").

However, he's unequivocally higher on Josephine Tey and Dashiell Hammett (a coupling I think Julian Symons would have found rather odd):

I'd put Josephine Tey...just after Dashiell Hammett, who was the best American detective story writer not counting Poe, who started the whole thing.  In The Glass Key Dash Hammett did the thing Hemingway tried to do in every book he ever wrote, and a better job of it--establishing the essential manliness of the hero by telling a story about him, what he did and what he said and how he handled a situation.

Symons enthusiastically agreed about "Dash."

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