Monday, June 22, 2015

The Return of Nero Wolfe (and Archie)

Reviewed by Jeanne

Robert Goldsborough’s mother was an avid fan of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries.  After Stout’s demise, her son decided to write a new Wolfe novel for his mother’s reading pleasure.  The book was authorized by Stout’s estate and so in 1986 fans again visited the old brownstone in Murder in E Minor.

Goldsborough turned out several more Nero and Archie adventures before taking a hiatus and writing his own stories.  Recently, however, he’s returned to his origins, starting with 2012’s Archie Meets Nero Wolfe and continuing with two more adventures.

For those who aren’t familiar with the series, Nero Wolfe is a genius detective who rarely leaves his New York home, preferring to drink beer, tend his ten thousand orchids, read, and eat gourmet meals prepared by his chef.  Unfortunately for Mr. Wolfe, these occupations demand a good deal of money, which he earns by solving cases based on information gathered by his assistant Archie Goodwin and  an assortment of other operatives.  Stout cleverly blended two distinct mystery styles:  Archie is the tough talking, street wise partner in the mode of Sam Spade while Wolfe is the erudite connoisseur of the British gentleman sleuth school.  

In Murder in the Ball Park, Archie and series regular Saul Panzer are attending a baseball game when a state senator is shot to death.  Since the senator was behind a very controversial highway improvement plan, reneged on a deal with a crime boss, was carrying on an affair with a married woman under the nose of his wife and had his sights set on higher office, the line of suspects extends around the block.  Goldsborough does a good job with his 1950s setting, and I could almost smell the hot dogs in the ball park.  He also introduces some colorful characters and has the classic Wolfe gathering of the suspects at the climax.

Archie in the Crosshairs brings Wolfe to a case by making it personal:  someone takes a shot at Archie.  Since both Archie and Wolfe have made numerous enemies over the years, the line of suspects extends two blocks.

As a long time Nero Wolfe fan, I have to admit that these two efforts fall short of the original novels for several reasons.  One is that the characters are somehow shadows of the originals, without the nuances that I so enjoyed.  Archie is a bit more naive; Wolfe is bluster without substance.  There’s an attempt to convey the love of language, the love of food, and stimulating conversation, but the books just don’t quite pull it off. The original Wolfe was a man of ideas and ideals and could express them eloquently, whether or not a reader agreed with him.  

Another is that these are now historical novels.  Stout wrote the books in the present, while Goldsborough seeks to recreate an era.  He’s certainly done his research.  He likes to drop in little tidbits and explanations, aware that a contemporary audience wouldn’t have any idea about watching the Giants play at the Polo Grounds.  The trouble is that the explanations just remind me that this is all in the past in a way I never felt I was in the original books, even though those began in the 1930s.

All that said, I did enjoy these books because they reminded me of characters I love.  Goldsborough also worked hard at evoking a time and place in American history and succeeded to a certain extent.  I will read any others he produces.  I'm not the only one: we recently had a Rex Stout fan who lives outside of our service area to come and get a card from us because we were the only library in the area which had these two titles. If I were to choose just one to recommend, I'd go with Murder in the Ball Park just because I felt the setting was a bit better done and I had a good sense of place.  I'm not a pro baseball fan, so that aspect didn't influence my choice.

But I will also go back and reread Rex Stout’s original novels.  Maybe I’ll have a hot dog while I read. I've been craving one ever since I read about the Polo Grounds.

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