Friday, January 25, 2013

Archie Meets Nero Wolfe by Robert Goldsborough

Reviewed by Jeanne

I’m a fan of some of the old mystery authors: Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Dorothy L. Sayers, Josephine Tey, and others. One of my all time favorites was Rex Stout, creator of Nero Wolfe, the overweight orchid aficionado, gourmet, and avid reader who solves mysteries while seated at his desk drinking beer. Wolfe’s aversion to doing investigations in person meant he had to have an assistant. Archie Goodwin acts as Wolfe’s eyes and ears. He’s a wisecracking and energetic, and never misses a chance to thumb his nose at certain cops whom he feels don’t deserve their badge. In short, Stout melded the gentleman detective genre with the hard-boiled school to produce a wonderful hybrid.

Unfortunately, Rex Stout died in 1975, which meant no new adventures from him short of a seance. In 1986, with permission from Stout’s estate, Robert Goldsborough wrote Murder in E Minor with Archie and Wolfe investigating the murder of a conductor. Goldsborough’s mother had been a fan of the series and he’d begun the story to entertain her. He went on to write six more, with the last one appearing in 1994. As someone pointed out, the story about a murdered writer who was continuing the series of another author seemed to be a good tongue in cheek way of ending the series.

I’d read several of Goldsborough’s books and while they weren’t quite up the originals, they made for a pleasant diversion. I hadn’t thought of them in some time, until 2012 saw publication of  Archie Meets Nero Wolfe. I liked the idea of finding out how the first meeting of these two played out-- or at least one writer's view.

Archie is fresh off the farm, albeit with a two week diversion to college, and trying to make his way in the big city. He gets a job as a night watchman, but that job ends when he shoots two people. Although the Crash of ’29 is still a couple of years away, the economy still is tight for young guy looking to do more than wash dishes. He meets up with aging private eye Del Bascom and offers to work as an assistant for next to nothing. Then they’re called in to help with a huge case: the young son of a tycoon has been kidnapped, and Nero Wolfe is on the job. Wolfe suspects an inside job, but the tycoon is sure all his employees are loyal. The police aren’t to be brought in, but they’re plenty suspicious of Archie and company, especially after they’re spotted in the vicinity of a murder. Not coincidentally, the murder occurs just where the ransom money was to be dropped.

There have a been a lot of post WW I books lately, but most of the ones I’ve read are either set in Europe or else are America as seen through immigrant eyes. Archie is originally an Ohio farm boy, and while he's a bit of a greenhorn, he’s neither awed nor cowed. He knew he was looking for a faster paced life and quickly adapts. Prohibition is still on the books, but that doesn’t mean the booze doesn’t flow for those in the know. The plot is well done, complete with the standard Wolfian gathering of suspects for the denouement. The characters are serviceable. Sometimes a line or two wouldn’t ring quite true, but since it’s been several years since I read Stout’s work I don’t know if that’s a true impression or false memory.

Frankly, I enjoyed the book. If you haven’t read Stout’s work this makes a nice introduction.

Of course, I read a few online reviews and was a bit dismayed to find that most of the criticism was of the nit-pick variety. For example, one searched for references to the kidnapping case (mentioned in passing in Stout’s works as an early case) to conclude that it couldn’t have happened in 1926.Don't get me wrong:  I do understand many fans' desire for absolute fidelity to the original and to a point I'm sympathetic.  On the other hand, if I held for absolute authenticity in any work by another author, I would have missed some very fine Sherlock Holmes stories written by Laurie King, Nicholas Meyer and others.

This brings me to the question I had pondered: would non-Stout fans like this book? My answer is yes, and probably more than the avid fans looking to pounce on every variation from the original books. If you like period mystery pieces with a bit of the hardboiled about them, then give it a try or just go straight to Rex Stout’s books.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll add that I enjoyed the A & E Nero Wolfe, even if the actor playing Wolfe didn’t match the one I’d imagined. Tim Hutton was a dandy Archie and the series was fun. They took liberties but caught the spirit, at least to my way of thinking; much more so than the short-lived NBC series in which Wolfe was secretly a softie.

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