Current reviews
  Reviews by title
  Reviews by author

  Contact Onyx

  Discussion forum


Onyx reviews: Archie Meets Nero Wolfe by Robert Goldsborough

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 for Wolfe.

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 kidnapping 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 subtly. 

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.