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Onyx reviews: Murder in the Ball Park by Robert Goldsborough

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 02/08/2014

Up until the fourth inning of the afternoon baseball game between rivals New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers, everything had been relatively quiet. Senator Orson Milbank had led his flag-waving retinue to their place in the stands in celebration of Flag Day, one of his favorite causes. Then, the Giants' best hitter, Reed Mason, smashed a line drive into left field. It clears the wall for a home run and everyone in attendance leaps to their feet.

In the roar, no one hears the gunshot from a sniper hidden in the closed-off outfield bleachers. The bullet finds the temple of the state senator. Seated nearby, Archie Goodwin and Saul Panzer are among the first on the scene, but there's little they can do, so the two detectives leave the experts to do what they do so well.

Except the NYPD doesn't do very much over the next few days. There's a lot of political and public pressure to solve the blatant murder of such a high-profile individual, but the motives for anyone wanting to kill Milbank are weak. He has angered different factions over his shifting position on a parkway that would join Manhattan to a number of proudly insular communities to the north, but it's been a long time since anyone was killed over a highway, as Nero Wolfe points out. There is also a Mafioso in the mix, but Franco Bacelli has his own legal problems to keep him preoccupied.

And then there's the fact that Milbank had a reputation as a lady's man and may have been carrying on an affair with his attractive, married right-hand woman, Mona Fentress. As it turns out, the widow, Elise DuVal, a former actress, is a neighbor of Lily Rowan, Archie's long-time girlfriend, a woman who moves in the lofty social stratosphere. This tenuous connection is the only thing that goads Wolfe into hearing the details of the case from DuVal, who becomes their client. Wolfe's bank account is cushy enough that he doesn't need to work, and he's lazy enough that it often takes Archie's best efforts to prod him into action.

The case has a few interesting twists and turns. Archie has to head to the far reaches of the proposed parkway to interview interested parties, and he has the odd run in with the the mobster's henchmen, but no one can offer a convincing reason for the senator's murder. Politics or personal life? The explanation may surprise some readers while others may have been struck by one particular detail that is emphasized perhaps a touch too heavily.

Goldsborough has written several Nero Wolfe novels, all with the blessing of the estate and family of the late Rex Stout. The most recent was an origin story, Archie Meets Nero Wolfe. This latest novel takes place at the midpoint of Wolfe's history as a private detective, which ran from the early 1930s until the mid-1970s. World War II is still fresh in people's minds, and one interesting subplot that Goldsborough emphasizes is what we now call PTSD among soldiers returning from the war, and how little was done for those who had problems readjusting to normal life. In that sense, the book is relevant to contemporary readers, even though it is set some 60 years ago.

Goldsborough has an excellent handle on all of the characters and their foibles. He is assisted (and, perhaps, hindered) by the fact that Stout loaded Wolfe and his gaggle of detectives and house help with a very specific set of attributes. Wolfe's behavior on any given day borders on obsessive compulsion, as does his reaction to any particular set of circumstances. Inspector Cramer will always enter the brownstone as if in the midst of a tempest and at some point will usually toss his well-chewed cigar stub at the garbage can and miss. The characters are rarely allowed to do anything notable and, in Goldsborough's situation, the cases cannot be so noteworthy as to cause a shift in Wolfe's and Goodwin's future history. Otherwise, Archie would have mentioned any momentous events in future accounts.

One of the most delicate things Goldsborough has to handle that Stout did not is the characters' reactions to things that were well-known at the time but perhaps need an explanation to readers from the 21st century. Stout didn't need to worry about this because he was writing about his own era, so he didn't have the benefit of future sight. At times it feels like Goldsborough over-explains things that would have been common knowledge at the time. This is the only false note, though, in this serviceable but unexceptional addition to Wolfe's casebooks. 

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