WWII Army rank - novella's depiction possible/reasonable?

This weekend I will be leading a discussion of a novella which takes place (and was written during) World War II. The story is set in March 1942. Our Hero is a major in Army Intelligence. He has been in the Army for two months. His civilian career was as a private detective. In a similar real life situation is it likely that he would have been a major*, or is this likely to be just creative license? I can add that as the story opens, Our Hero has only been a major for three days.

*Is it even likely that a real life PI would have been inducted into Army Intelligence on the basis of his work experience? Let’s say he’s been a PI (or PI’s apprentice) for ten years prior to the war.

It seems like a bit of a stretch to me. I wouldn’t say that it couldn’t have happened but I would think that he would get a commission as a lieutenant. Doctors get commissioned as captains when they come in, but they’re a whole different world compared to “normal” Army. Now all that being said, I have no experience or anecdotal evidence in regards to WWII rank and structure to back up what I’m saying (I was in the Army, but quite a few years removed for that time, 89-92).

It could have been possible in 1942. With the war in full swing, leadership was minimal, and officers at a premium. The rank of major seems a bit high, although there could have been mitigating factors such as prior active service at officer grade. Also, it could be that officers recruited for the intelligence service were brought in at higher grades so they could cut through the red tape more easily.

Let’s say he’s Nero Wolfe’s assistant, Archie Goodwin :wink: :

Wolfe would have had the clout, and Archie the experience, to have managed arranging the rank …

Yes, that’s the novella. I deliberately didn’t mention it in the OP because I didn’t want to get into in-story reasons, at least not right away. And of course, the in-story reason reason is that Archie is awesome. :cool:

Thank you, Intergalactic Gladiator and Chefguy, for your responses. My totally uninformed impression was that the author, Rex Stout, was employing creative license for the sake of the story. After all, what did Stout know of Army practices? He was in the Navy! :wink:

I could understand a civilian police Captain or Chief being given a reserve commission as a Major or LtC in the Army in 1942. A PI with no previous military experience? Maybe if he had done some work for the Army before he was commissioned (that the FBI or CIC couldn’t do?) or had Connections?

Well, in the series the novella is a part of, Archie may well have had connections; at the very least, his boss Nero Wolfe undoubtedly did. To tell you the truth, though, I’m not sure if Archie would use them. He presumably went into the Army as a captain, and that would have been due to his reputation – and Wolfe’s.

That’s a fairly plausible work-around. Archie could have been working cases involving Axis-sympathizers that he was debarred from writing about by national security considerations.

Otherwise, even Archie’s Awesomeness™ :cool: wouldn’t justify an O-4 initial appointment.

Whether we know nothing about what was possible/reasonable then it’s possible and reasonable to think that people in 1942 would be pretty good judges. It would have been considered wildly insulting to give a character a blatantly unrealistic rank at any point during the war, yet I don’t know of any backlash against Stout at the time for doing this. If nobody said anything at the time, then at most it was a slight stretching of the truth but more likely something that had precedent readers would know about.

Also, readers back then understood that such trivia is unimportant to the story.

The reaction – if anyone thought about it at all – would be “Oh, Archie is a major. That’s nice. Let’s see what he does.”

All right, then, when do you think this changed? Or do you think it hasn’t changed? I mean, it’s certainly possible to enjoy a story with a far-fetched premise or circumstance, and if all of us don’t do it, most of us do (the old suspension of disbelief). But I often see here people complaining that this author or that screenwriter obviously knows nothing about _______. To me, it’s not always so obvious. I often think when I see such threads that maybe the author/screenwriter/whoever does know the subject matter, but is putting forth a scenario that is not totally realistic for the sake of drama. Were people back in the 40s (and 50s? 60s? 70s) actually less likely to nit-pick, or is it just that the nit-pickers were not able to reach such a wide audience as today?

Plus he could have been given two steps up in “operational rank” while still having a regular commission as a Lieutenant, specifically due to the job assignment. It was not uncommon in the US military up to WW2 to have wartime op-rank be not just one but several grades above your regular rank.

(BTW if Archie were a college graduate, for the time period he would have almost certainly been required to go thru ROTC and would enter as an officer)

This is called brevet rank, for those not familiar with the term.

It may or may not have been needed. Military Intelligence was its own world in the war.

Ha! I only saw JRDelerious’s reply in my email, and came here to ask if he was referring to breveting, and there was Exapno Mapcase’s reply, just as if he’d read my mind!

Hmm, I’d never considered Archie might have been breveted. And we don’t know much about his background; what we are told is somewhat contradictory. But it does seem unlikely that he graduated from college.

And if you folks will bear with me, this brings up another question I’ve occasionally wondered about. The Wolfe series is full of inconsistencies. The address of the brownstone changes. Telephone numbers change. In the first book Archie says both his parents are dead. Later on Wolfe mentions that Archie’s mother had visited the month before. There is one mention of Archie having a sister, but aside from that there are no other mentions of siblings. It is my impression, and it may be an unusual one, that today’s reader would be jumping on such incongruities, discussing them wherever they could find an audience, and perhaps even sending letters (or emails) to the author. I don’t think such was case when Stout was writing; at least I’ve never heard any indication of it. So, when did this preference for continuity by readers come about? Any ideas, insights as to why this change in attitude occurred?

Science fiction fandom had this from almost the very beginning, because Hugo Gernsback made letter columns a fixture in his magazines. They’d write in and jump all over contradictions and scientific mistakes and anything else. This soon developed a separate culture of fanzines, where the fans could comment on all works, not just the ones in a particular issue of a magazine. Thousands of sf fanzines, with the total number of issues in the hundreds of thousands, were published from the early 30s on.

A few mystery fanzines existed in parallel to the sf zines. And some mystery conventions developed in parallel with the zillions of sf conventions. I think Bouchercon was the first, starting in 1970.

Mostly, though, mysteries didn’t have this public culture, but individuals would write to the author or the publisher giving their opinions. These were taken fairly seriously, since they were the only contact with their audience that ever occurred. In fact, I wrote Rex Stout with these kinds of questions when I was a teenager and getting into mysteries, and he sent back a nice letter. The only thing I remember about it is that I had noticed that Archie never refers to Wolfe by a name in any of his dialogue and asked what Archie calls him in private. The answer was “Mr. Wolfe,” which even as a teen I didn’t believe.

My guess is that continuity became critical in the 1960s. Tons of obsessive fans started to share their love of the culture, especially that of visual media, which had far larger audiences than print media. Marvel Comics was building a shared universe of superheroes that made appearances in each others’ books and continuity was much discussed in the letter columns that Marvel touted. TV shows like The Avengers, The Man from Uncle, and Star Trek were parsed to the last detail in fanzines and fan fiction. This only grew in the 70s with the coming of movie franchises.

But there’s a difference between continuity errors, which nobody outside of obsessive sf fans cared about until recently, and saying anything bad, wrong, or misguided about the military while the war was going on. It Just Wasn’t Done. No editor would let it slip past either. And that story was published first in a magazine, then in book form, and then in an Armed Forces paperback, which surely wouldn’t have happened if there was anything in it that could be perceived as an insult to the troops. I’ve never read any comment about it in any of the mystery criticism in my collection, and I have all the major works. My opinion is what I said earlier: the rank was legit and nobody would have thought twice about it.

Yes, I’m aware of the publishing history behind the story (well, not the Armed Forces paperback) and that Stout was very involved in the war effort. What you say about no one being willing to publish anything insulting to the troops is a good point, which I never really considered, although I’m not sure that giving Archie a rank a bit higher than might be considered realistic for dramatic purposes would be considered insulting by most readers. Still, my knowledge of the military could at best fill a thimble, and WW2 was before my time and I’m not much of a history buff, so I wondered. Thanks for your input. I really appreciate it.

I’ve been reading and rereading the Nero Wolfe series for something around 40 years, and most of the inconsistencies that fans bring up never really bothered me. Sure, each time I read a particular story where something seems potentially incongruous I wonder for a second or two, but then I go on reading and don’t let it spoil my enjoyment of the tale. But after having discussions with other fans, and joining in the game of coming up with plausible explanations of the inconsistencies, I began to wonder. The issues were apparently not a concern of Stout’s, and was this unconcern unique to Stout, or representative of the times? My impression was the latter, and so I was curious as to when things changed. Thanks for shedding some light on this for me.

As Mr. Wolfe might say,

My best regards,


Superman’s parents were named John and Mary and then Eben and Sarah. They didn’t become Jonathan and Martha until the 1950s.

Ellery Queen, one of the very few mystery characters bigger than Nero Wolfe, had a secretary named Nikki Porter introduced in his radio show. She was reintroduced, with a different background, in one of the movies (badly) adapted from his books. And reintroduced, with a third different background, in a 1943 novel. And given yet another different background in a 1953 novel. She then disappears and is never referred to again.

Yeah, the times were different. History wasn’t recorded and available in full as we expect it to be. You saw a movie when it was released, and maybe in a revival, but probably not. You heard a radio program when it was released, and then maybe on a summer rerun but probably not. You read a magazine, and then threw it away and one story of a hundred got reprinted in an anthology. You bought a mystery, but probably waited until you could get a cheap dollar hardback reprint, which fell apart on reading, or went to the book rental section of the pharmacy and paid four cents for a week. You didn’t have all the books at hand to reread. Paperbacks started changing that in the 1940s, as every major mystery got reprinted, but that took a decade or more and those got tossed or passed around or donated to the troops.

Culture lived in a perpetual “now.” Popular culture had no history at all. It was disposable in a very literal way. You consumed it and then forgot it. Even in the 60s my keeping every book I bought was a weird idiosyncrasy. I literally knew no one who did that beside me until I got to college. There was no history of 50s music in the early years of The Beatles. We knew nothing that we hadn’t heard that very morning. It was all rediscovered later when nostalgia got invented.

This brew of all popular culture existing simultaneously is one of the biggest changes since I was a kid. It went from unimaginable to omnipresent. Now, of course, we think it was like that always. It’s utterly bizarre.

The Sherlock Holmes Society (London) and the Baker Street Irregulars (New York) were both founded in 1934:

They were mostly to provide fans with a light-hearted frame to continue discussion of a series for which no new material could be expected. Taking it all seriously is new.

When writers of popular fiction published mostly in magazines (and, in a character’s earlier days, were not anticipating decades of stories), they generally didn’t bother chasing the continuity too closely.

I think that this goes double for Rex Stout, because Wolfe and Archie existed in a continuous present for forty years – how useful would a birth date be in those circumstances?

I have never read a Nero Wolfe book or story and, thanks to you people, I know better than to start. I have enough trouble keeping up with my other addictions.

And what Exapno said. It’s weird to see shows I haven’t seen in fifty years suddenly being broadcast every day in higher quality than we could imagine back then, but that’s another thread.

And the first dissection of the Doyle the hack was given in a 1911 lecture by Ronald Knox.

But Holmes was very much the exception. We’ve discussed this in other threads, but despite some attempts there was nothing else like Holmsians. And they were a tiny, insignificant cult that the vast majority of Holmes readers had never heard of. The minuscule sf fan world was an order of magnitude larger. You might get a mocking article on them once a decade or so in a magazine but they were as invisible as bottle cap collectors.

William S. Baring-Gould wrote a “biography” of Wolfe, giving dates and times and places. It’s an almost majestically insane book.