Reviews by title
Reviews by author
Onyx reviews: Archie Meets Nero Wolfe by
A few years after Rex Stout died, journalist Robert Goldsborough wrote a
novel featuring Nero Wolfe for his mother. A decade later, Stout's estate
approved Murder in E Minor for publication. That was the first of seven
Wolfe novels from Goldsborough in the 80s and 90s. He broke away from Stout's
famous creation in the twenty-first century, writing five books featuring his
own characters. However, the recent publication of Spade and
Archer, a prequel to The Maltese Falcon, inspired him to return to
Wolfe to write the story of how the two men were brought together.
Stout wrote over thirty novels and several dozen short stories featuring
Wolfe, the idiosyncratic detective who rarely left his house on West 35th Street
in Manhattan, tended orchids in a hothouse on the top floor, counted bottle caps
to monitor his beer consumption, had his
own personal chef, and weighed a seventh of a ton. If someone wanted a mystery series to
continue, this would be the perfect choice. The rules of this fictional
universe are established (albeit with some continuity errors over the years) and
the cast of characters has been clearly
defined, albeit often in broad strokes. Readers know very
little about Saul Panzer, Orrie Cather and Fred Durkin (collectively known as
the 'teers) and the other regulars beyond the scant and superficial details (a
predilection for chewing on cigars, for example) Stout assigned to them. That means that a new author doesn't have to work hard to
capture their nuances. They don't have many. They are essentially chess pieces
with well-defined moves.
Even Wolfe is almost a self parody. Give him a gruff voice, a sneering
attitude, pay attention to his basket of foibles, and put him in the right places at the right times (in the orchid room
for two hours every morning and another two in the afternoon, in his office
drinking beer while facing the ensemble of suspects), and few readers
will complain. Give him a reasonably challenging mystery to work on (leaning
back in his chair, with his lips pursed, oblivious to everything going on around
him), and that task is mostly complete.
Archie Goodwin, the first person narrator of these stories, is the big
challenge. He is the one fully three-dimensional character. He is not
locked into any rote set of moves. He has his chores around the brownstone,
but is free to go out into the world and do whatever enters his head. Often,
he is acting in Wolfe's stead, but at times he is simply doing detective work.
Talking to people, flirting with women, and bristling at Wolfe's intransigence.
His voice is unmistakable and Goldsborough has done a fine job of
extrapolating backwards to a nineteen-year-old version of Archie, before he acquired
the maturity and wisdom that came from his years working
The book starts with Archie, fresh off
the bus from Ohio, knowing little about New York City. He has a job working
security at the docks. but after he kills two men who
attempt to rob his employers, he is first complimented and then summarily
dismissed. It's the depression, so jobs are scarce. He ends up volunteering as a private detective with Del Bascom (an infrequent
operative from the Stout novels) to gain experience. He proves himself on
his first investigation, so when Wolfe assembles the team to work on the
case, Bascom brings Archie along. Wolfe and Archie don't instantly hit it off,
but Archie demonstrates his reliability time and time again.
The mystery is serviceable to the story—the kidnapping of the
son of a wealthy businessman that has its basis in references from Fer-de-Lance.
The crime's scope is large enough to bring in just about everyone who has ever
appeared in a Wolfe novel, and it has enough twists and turns to require Wolfe's
brilliance to bring all of the perpetrators to justice, although one element of the
case hinges on an observation that, in retrospect, seems a little insubstantial.
The Upstairs/Downstairs scenes that come about after Archie goes undercover as a
chauffeur at the estate should appeal to Downton Abbey fans.
Goldsborough captures the prohibition and depression era
well. He makes a few missteps, not necessarily in details but in how he presents
them. For example, a character comments about the fact that you couldn't tell a
person was a redhead because the photograph was black and white. This would have
been obvious to someone from the time, and the point could have been achieved more
The book has to live up to its title and Archie does indeed meet Nero Wolfe,
several times, over its course. Every reader knows Archie is going to
end up working for Wolfe and living in the brownstone so there's no real
suspense on that front. When Wolfe offers Archie the position it happens without
much fanfare, which is as it should be. Offer made, considered and accepted.
There are not, perhaps, as many Nero Wolfe aficionados as there are, say,
ardent fans of Sherlock Holmes, but the Wolfe Society is alive and well,
sponsoring its Black Orchid events, so there are a lot of eyes on Goldsborough.
He has to make certain choices about the series chronology from among the
various, often contradictory, details in Stout's novels, which may place him at
odds with hardcore devotees. However, for normal fans of the series,
Goldsborough has produced a "highly satisfactory" novel to bring the
story of Archie and Wolfe full circle.
Web site and all contents © Copyright Bev Vincent
2012. All rights reserved.