A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Rex Stout’s ‘The Mother of Invention’

A (Black) Gat in the Hand: Rex Stout’s ‘The Mother of Invention’

“You’re the second guy I’ve met within hours who seems to think a gat in the hand means a world by the tail.” – Phillip Marlowe in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep

(Gat — Prohibition Era term for a gun. Shortened version of Gatling Gun)

If you read more than just this Pulp series of mine each summer, you know that I am a gargantuan Nero Wolfe fan. It’s my favorite mystery series, and I have written a lot of fiction and non-fiction about Wolfe, and Archie Goodwin.

Rex Stout wrote several novels and many short stories, before the first Wolfe novel dropped in 1934. Of course, there was no looking back after Fer de Lance.

He placed “A Professional Recall” in the December, 1912 issue of The Black Cat magazine. “Pamfret and Peace” followed the next month. There would be three more over the next few years.

The Black Cat was founded by Herman Umbstaetter in 1895. He had gained and lost a fortune before managing to fund his own magazine in Baltimore. It was not a Pulp, and was about the size of the Dime Novels of the day (about 6” x 9”). Umbstaetter encouraged new writers, and paid based on the quality of the story, not by the word. His wife did the early covers.

The magazine was popular from the start, and he had contests with many cash and non-cash prizes (entries required a one year subscription at 50 cents). Health issues forced him to sell the magazine around 1914, and it went into a steady decline. After the sale, it had shifted to a standard Pulp-sized format – though not to Pulp paper.

It disappeared in 1920, resurfaced in 1922, and vanished for good in 1923. It was known for offbeat ‘different’ stories. Jack London appeared in the magazine. And as mentioned, so did Rex Stout.

In August of 1913, Stout’s “The Mother of Invention” appeared in The Black Cat. It was one of eight magazine stories he would have published that year.

The pretentiously named William Frederick Marston is a useless wastrel, son of the rich and stern Jonathan Marston. Marston’s father sent him on a summer tour of the Mediterranean before his senior year at Harvard. Marston had gone off trail, blown his money, and now found himself stranded in Paris three days before he needed to be at Harvard.

His father had sent money several times, and even booked him passage back to America. And the useless son had squandered it all. Until his last request for money received this reply:

“Walk home. Tired of your foolishness. Not a cent.”

Marston had no money, no skills, and no options. Typical of the spoiled, shallow son, he accepted no responsibility and grew ever more resentful of his father. He was too proud to ask for help one more time, or go to the US Ambassador. His trusted friends didn’t have the money. Ones that did, would wound his pride. He refused to work for his fare: only a first-class cabin was fitting for a Marston!

Marston is a haughty, useless, pompous, twit. He keeps conjecturing in the realms of the ever-more fantastic until he hits on a scheme. The story doesn’t overtly reveal what happens until the end, but it’s fairly obvious to the reader.


Look, you can get this in an ebook collection. The story is 111 years old. I take no responsibility for spoiling it for you if you continue reading on.


He has a friend in Philadephia paint the name and address of a vandal on the Liberty Bell overnight. The State Dept. requests the French police to arrest the man (at the address painted on the Bell), which they do. He agrees to extradition if he is guaranteed first class passage and not treated like a prisoner. The bemused French agree.

Upon arrival, the man turns out to be Marston, who laughs about the whole thing, and refuses to say one word about it. He is released – home, safe and sound – as the American papers decry the failure of the French police.

The story has an O. Henry-twist at the end. Marston is sitting with his father, playing things off completely. But his father tells him to knock it off, and there’s one even bigger ass than his son: the man who defaced the Liberty Bell for Marston.

And the story finishes:

“And by the way…it really is too bad that your little plot made it necessary to change your address. Of course that was why you missed my last cablegram. My advice to walk home was meant merely as a temporary pill. I wired you five hundred dollars the following day.”

And so ends that short story from the future creator of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.

It was interesting reading a story in which I didn’t like the protagonist. I wasn’t rooting for him to accomplish his goal. I hoped he’d fail. He’s of no use whatsoever, and frankly, I don’t know that he had one redeeming quality. I’ve always found it difficult o invest in a book or movie when I don’t like the main character.

The twist at the end was predicable, but it still gives some weight to the story. It clarifies what happened, and we get to see that Marston didn’t fool everyone.

It’s not a bad story. I may look at a few more of Stout’s short stories. And I really like The Great Legend, which was serialized in five issues of All-Story Weekly.

Prior Posts in A (Black) Gat in the Hand – 2024 Series (2)

Will Murray on Dashiell Hammett’s Elusive Glass Key
Ya Gotta Ask – Reprise

Prior Posts in A (Black) Gat in the Hand – 2023 Series (15)

Back Down those Mean Streets in 2023
Will Murray on Hammett Didn’t Write “The Diamond Wager”
Dashiell Hammett – ZigZags of Treachery
Ten Pulp Things I Think I Think
Evan Lewis on Cleve Adams
T,T, Flynn’s Mike & Trixie (The ‘Lost Intro’)
John Bullard on REH’s Rough and Ready Clowns of the West – Part I (Breckenridge Elkins)
John Bullard on REH’s Rough and Ready Clowns of the West – Part II
William Patrick Murray on Supernatural Westerns, and Crossing Genres
Erle Stanley Gardner’s ‘Getting Away With Murder (And ‘A Black (Gat)’ turns 100!)
James Reasoner on Robert E. Howard’s Trail Towns of the old West
Frank Schildiner on Solomon Kane
Paul Bishop on The Fists of Robert E. Howard
John Lawrence’s Cass Blue
Dave Hardy on REH’s El Borak

Prior posts in A (Black) Gat in the Hand – 2022 Series (16)
Asimov – Sci Fi Meets the Police Procedural
The Adventures of Christopher London
Weird Menace from Robert E. Howard
Spicy Adventures from Robert E. Howard
Thrilling Adventures from Robert E. Howard
Norbert Davis’ “The Gin Monkey”
Tracer Bullet
Shovel’s Painful Predicament
Back Porch Pulp #1
Wally Conger on ‘The Hollywood Troubleshooter Saga’
Arsenic and Old Lace
David Dodge
Glen Cook’s Garrett, PI
John Leslie’s Key West Private Eye
Back Porch Pulp #2
Norbert Davis’ Max Latin

Prior posts in A (Black) Gat in the Hand – 2021 Series (7 )

The Forgotten Black Masker – Norbert Davis
A (Black) Gat in the Hand is Back!
Black Mask – March, 1932
Three Gun Terry Mack & Carroll John Daly
Bounty Hunters & Bail Bondsmen
Norbert Davis in Black Mask – Volume 1

Prior posts in A (Black) Gat in the Hand – 2020 Series (21)
Hardboiled May on TCM
Some Hardboiled streaming options
Johnny O’Clock (Dick Powell)
Hardboiled June on TCM
Bullets or Ballots (Humphrey Bogart)
Phililp Marlowe – Private Eye (Powers Boothe)
Cool and Lam
All Through the Night (Bogart)
Dick Powell as Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar
Hardboiled July on TCM
YTJD – The Emily Braddock Matter (John Lund)
Richard Diamond – The Betty Moran Case (Dick Powell)
Bold Venture (Bogart & Bacall)
Hardboiled August on TCM
Norbert Davis – ‘Have one on the House’
with Steven H Silver: C.M. Kornbluth’s Pulp
Norbert Davis – ‘Don’t You Cry for Me’
Talking About Philip Marlowe
Steven H Silver Asks you to Name This Movie
Cajun Hardboiled – Dave Robicheaux
More Cool & Lam from Hard Case Crime

A (Black) Gat in the Hand – 2019 Series (15)
Back Deck Pulp Returns
A (Black) Gat in the Hand Returns
Will Murray on Doc Savage
Hugh B. Cave’s Peter Kane
Paul Bishop on Lance Spearman
A Man Called Spade
Hard Boiled Holmes
Duane Spurlock on T.T. Flynn
Andrew Salmon on Montreal Noir
Frank Schildiner on The Bad Guys of Pulp
Steve Scott on John D. MacDonald’s ‘Park Falkner’
William Patrick Murray on The Spider
John D. MacDonald & Mickey Spillane
Norbert Davis goes West(ern)
Bill Crider on The Brass Cupcake

A (Black) Gat in the Hand – 2018 Series (32)
George Harmon Coxe
Raoul Whitfield
Some Hard Boiled Anthologies
Frederick Nebel’s Donahue
Thomas Walsh
Black Mask – January, 1935
Norbert Davis’ Ben Shaley
D.L. Champion’s Rex Sackler
Dime Detective – August, 1939
Back Deck Pulp #1
W.T. Ballard’s Bill Lennox
Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Phantom Crook (Ed Jenkins)
Day Keene
Black Mask – October, 1933
Back Deck Pulp #2
Black Mask – Spring, 2017
Erle Stanley Gardner’s ‘The Shrieking Skeleton’
Frank Schildiner’s ‘Max Allen Collins & The Hard Boiled Hero’
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: William Campbell Gault
A (Black) Gat in the Hand: More Cool & Lam From Hard Case Crime
MORE Cool & Lam!!!!
Thomas Parker’s ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’
Joe Bonadonna’s ‘Hardboiled Film Noir’ (Part One)
Joe Bonadonna’s ‘Hardboiled Film Noir’ (Part Two)
William Patrick Maynard’s ‘The Yellow Peril’
Andrew P Salmon’s ‘Frederick C. Davis’
Rory Gallagher’s ‘Continental Op’
Back Deck Pulp #3
Back Deck Pulp #4
Back Deck Pulp #5
Joe ‘Cap’ Shaw on Writing
Back Deck Pulp #6
The Black Mask Dinner

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Bob_TieSmile150.jpg

Bob Byrne’s ‘A (Black) Gat in the Hand’ made its Black Gate debut in 2018 and has returned every summer since.

His ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column ran every Monday morning at Black Gate from March, 2014 through March, 2017. And he irregularly posts on Rex Stout’s gargantuan detective in ‘Nero Wolfe’s Brownstone.’ He is a member of the Praed Street Irregulars, founded www.SolarPons.com (the only website dedicated to the ‘Sherlock Holmes of Praed Street’).

He organized Black Gate’s award-nominated ‘Discovering Robert E. Howard’ series, as well as the award-winning ‘Hither Came Conan’ series. Which is now part of THE Definitive guide to Conan. He also organized 2023’s ‘Talking Tolkien.’

He has contributed stories to The MX Book of New Sherlock Holmes Stories – Parts III, IV, V, VI, XXI, and XXXIII.

He has written introductions for Steeger Books, and appeared in several magazines, including Black Mask, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, The Strand Magazine, and Sherlock Magazine.

Notify of

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
K. Jespersen

Excellent ending, and greatly befitting the title. Thanks for writing a summary, because it would, indeed, be difficult to stick through the story of such a scoundrel. No hope, perchance, that the son or his father were made to foot the bill for the best conservator to clean the Bell, or that the son was kept on a short leash at Harvard?

This is not the only time I’ve heard “Marston” being used as a name for an unpleasant character. Perhaps it’s because the dominant phoneme bears a close resemblance to a certain slant-curseword. Common practice among authors and playwrights to remind readers that we’re not supposed to like certain characters by naming said characters something ick-adjacent….

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x