Monday, June 2, 2014

Stout Hearts: The Fans Confront the Critic

On November 13, 1977, Julian Symons reviewed Agatha Christie's An Autobiography and John McAleer's Rex Stout: A Biography, in a New York Times review essay titled--rather inelegantly, it must be admitted, but I'm sure Symons was not to blame for that--"Two Who Dun It" (the two Crime Titans had recently passed on, Stout in October 1975 and Christie just a few months later in January 1976).

Julian Symons

Christie expressed opinions "about life and society" that "are never original, often banal," wrote Symons bluntly.  She was "both conservative and Conservative in the most conventional way."  Yet he found Christie's An Autobiography charming and the author herself "the creator of the most cunningly deceptive fictional plots of the half-century in which she lived."

Rex Stout's work and that of his biographer, John McAleer, did not come off so well.

About Stout personally, Symons was quite favorable, dubbing Stout "a remarkable and forceful personality" and noting his "constant and time-consuming support of radical causes."  Yet "no livelier man had been the subject of a duller book," Symons found.  McAleer, in Symons' view, included vastly too much detail.  Moreover, his "own comments are almost always jejune or banal." "We learn little of Rex Stout's personality as we trudge though this forest of fact," complained Symons.

Rex Stout: promise unfulfilled?
Symons noted that at the beginning of Stout's writing career, Stout had written four psychological novels, including one that "dealt with homosexuality" ("Can there have been some truth in those stories about Nero and Archie," Symons asked archly).

Yet instead of continuing to probe such challenging subject matter, Stout had found it "easier, more comfortable and more profitable to settle for Nero and Archie...."

Symons proceeded to cut Nero Wolfe down to size, so to speak:

At the risk of outraging an accepted American myth it must be said that McAleer absurdly inflates the stories' merit....Stout was simply not in the same stylistic league with Hammett, Chandler or Ross Macdonald.  His prose is energetic and efficient, nothing more.  His plots lack the metronomic precision of Ellery Queen's.  The books survive though Nero's personality and the Nero-Archie relationship, but to say that Nero embodies the values of Western civilization, or to suggest that he is a brother under the skin to Dr. Johnson, is ludicrous.

Stout's great achievement, in Symons view, was creating an outsize "Superman detective who will be remembered as long as people create crime stories"; yet "this figure operates in the context of books that are consistently entertaining, but for the most part just as consistently forgettable."

All this carping did not sit well sit well with some New York Times readers who were devout fans of Stout; and they composed letters of protest.

Marilyn Brooks of Needham Massachusetts asserted that for Symons to "rank Stout below Ross Macdonald (who is much more repetitive) or Ellery Queen (whose unrealistic devices and pretentious speech make his novels seem much more dated than Doyle) is to completely miss the character development that has taken place in Nero Wolfe and Goodwin though the years."

Brooks recommended that Symons "sit down and read all the Wolfe stories straight see how true-to-life the characters, events and dialogue are."

The late Professor Richard H. Reis (1931-2008), who was Chair of the English Department at the university of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, could only explain "the hostility of Julian Symons' review" by concluding that Symons was jealous of Stout's success: "As a far less successful mystery writer than Stout, he splenetically attacks a biographer, when his real target is the biographer's subject."

For her part, Mrs. Albert Ortega of Prado Norte, Mexico--"a mystery fan for over 50 years"--complained about that homosexuality quip concerning Nero and Archie that Symons had made: "How dare he make snide allusions to possible perversions," she demanded.*

*(Not that I think they were, but if Nero and Archie were a couple, what would we call them? Narchie?)

The letter writers praised the quality of McAleer's biography too.

In his defense, Symons assured Marilyn Brooks that "I have what I regard as the best of Stout on my shelves, and I do reread them."  Of Professor Reis, Symons wondered why he was "so gratuitously insulting?"  And he reiterated his criticism of McAleer's biography:

There'll always be fans fascinated to know how often their hero changed his socks and what he had for dinner on a particular day, but recording such things doesn't make a biography.  As a researcher Professor John McAleer is fine: as a biographer he doesn't exist.

John J. McAleer
Whew! I recall looking over a library copy of the Rex Stout biography by the late John J. McAleer (1923-2003), a longtime professor of English literature at Boston College, back in the 1990s, but I can't recall too much about it. I admit I did not give it a detailed read, but I will simply have to read it now! The late Professor Jacques Barzun, I must note, deemed the book the "definitive account by a master biographer."

As far as Symons' motivations in publishing this tough review essay go, I think Professor Reis was unduly hasty in prescribing such pettiness to the esteemed English crime writer.

I feel sure Symons honestly believed that Stout had somewhat wasted his talent by not writing "crime novels"--i.e., psychological novels about crime--while Agatha Christie (and Ellery Queen) had lived up to what they did best in writing puzzle-oriented mysteries (I recall that Symons is far less positive about the later, more novelistic, Queen novels).

To Symons Stout was not as clever a puzzle-master as Christie or Queen (or John Dickson Carr he would have added), nor as "serious" a writer as Hammett, Chandler, Macdonald; and he is accordingly downgraded.  This criticism may be true enough, but I think it still leaves room for greatness.

Perhaps Stout better fits in the manners mystery writers Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh, authors whom Symons also tended to undervalue, but who in their best mysteries both plotted and wrote quite well.  Stout may have been "just" an entertainer to Julian Symons, but, as my recently posted review of And Be a Villain suggests, to me he unquestionably belongs in the pantheon of great writers of detective fiction.


  1. Great that you rescued all of these Curt - fascinating stuff. Did Reis really refer to Symons as 'Julia" though?

  2. Maybe a transvestism dig, Sergio? Seriously, you spot any more typos, just let me know! Blogupational hazard.

  3. While I disagree with Symons on a lot of issues - including, now, his wrong-headed review of McAleer and Stout - it is worth noting that he certainly never approached the level of imbecility, pettiness and hostility shown by Edmund Wilson. For that, I suppose, we can be grateful.

    1. Les, I certainly would never accuse Symons of imbecility! He was a very smart guy, and he loved a lot of the mystery genre for which Edmund Wilson would have had contempt. I disagree with him on a lot of things but can often understand where he's coming from. It's true that Stout turned away from writing psychologically penetrating analyses of distorted minds, but maybe Stout so excelled at what he settled on, the Wolfe mysteries, we should be happy about it! After all, we can plenty of the psych jobs today.

  4. I seem to recall a review of BLOODY MURDER by Kingsley Amis. Amis praised aspects of it, but felt that Symons had unrealistic expectations. Although some proper literary novel which illuminated the human condition was possibly better than a well done detective novel, the former was so rare that most readers were happy to accept the high levels of skill and ingenuity on display in the latter. A good genre novel was better than a second rate literary novel. This idea would probably have Symons up in arms, but I do believe that it is true. Stout never felt that he was a great writer, but believed that he was a good one. He knew what people wanted, and was happy to supply it. I don't think that an artisan is somehow less important than an artist.

    1. I think that's a nice distinction. I recall in Masters of the Humdrum Mystery calling John Street one of the "supreme artisans of murder." I think Symons would have felt there was art in the creation of Wolfe and the Nero-Archie relationship, but I think he may have underestimated the art in the lighter detective novel of the higher sort, like those written by Sayers, Allingham, Marsh, Tey and Stout. They may not be dark, intense gritty and gloomy, but that's not what they were intended to be. We don't expect Jane Austen be Dostoyevsky. Wasn't Stout's favorite novel Emma, by the way?

  5. I think that Stout felt that Austen was just about the greatest writer (male or female) ever! The point about Austen is that the content of her stories has been pirated a thousand times in various rom-coms, but none of the pirates approaches her writing skill. Good writing is good writing, whatever the genre. Symons perhaps reached the point where he felt that the crime novel needed to be much closer to the 'proper' novel. It's a bit like saying that the symphony is the only legitimate form of music, and ignoring quartets, choral, string and all of the other forms. A Wolfe novel has its own legitimacy, rather than being simply a thwarted serious novel, as I think Symons thought.

  6. Yes, I agree. and I think that, to the extent that Stout emulated mainstream novels with the Wolfe books, it may be that, like Sayers and Allingham, he had more in mind as models the English social manners novels. That's what made me think of Jane Austen and how Rex Stout admired her so much. I think I read that he said he reread Emma every year. Probably Symons was more admiring of gloomy Russians. ;)