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Onyx reviews: Archie in the Crosshairs by Robert Goldsborough

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 03/01/2015

Given the number of miscreants Nero Wolfe has sent to prison over the years, it should come as no surprise to the corpulent detective that he has a few enemies. Of course, there are the people convicted of (usually) murder most foul, but there are also the relatives of the murderers, many of whom cling to the belief that Wolfe got it wrong, thereby ruining innocent lives.

However, because of his refusal to leave the brownstone house that is also his office and his greenhouse, Wolfe is mostly inaccessible. Therefore, someone with an ax to grind has to settle for hurting Wolfe by proxy. That means killing Archie Goodwin, Wolfe's right hand man. His eyes, ears and legs. If Archie is removed from the equation, Wolfe will become a much less effective detective.

The offended party, however, isn't content to just plug Archie by surprise. Instead, he or she decides to make a game of it. A few bullets are tossed Archie's way one evening, but they deliberately miss. Then there are the phone calls, announcing the person's intentions. More bullets. The house goes into lockdown, although a convenient hidden back exit allows Archie to get out secretly from time to time.

The big question, though, is who is after Archie? There are myriad candidates. Between them, Archie and Wolfe narrow the field down to a handful of likely individuals. A second problem emerges, though. The bank account is getting perilously low and it costs a lot to run the brownstone. So, when a potential client appears, Archie goads Wolfe into accepting the case. A wealthy heiress is being blackmailed over youthful indiscretions while abroad. When the ransom drop takes a nasty turn, it becomes apparent that the new case and the vengeful killer are somehow connected.

There are numerous cases of new writers taking over the characters from popular series after the death of the original author, but few are as successful or as welcome as Robert Goldsborough's work with the Nero Wolfe series. Rex Stout's books were published over a span of four decades, and during those years he established a fairly rigorous framework for the stories. Wolfe's eccentricities laid the ground rules, which were only broken under exceptional circumstances. If he didn't go up in the elevator to attend to his orchids for two hours twice a day, something was wrong. If he discussed work during supper, things were definitely off. And if he went outside or, heaven forbid, rode in a car, then it was a catastrophe.

Goldsborough understands these conditions well, and knows when and how to break them. Most of the time, Wolfe is going to hew closely to his routine, because if he breaks the rules all the time in every book, they lose their power. 

Stout's books were somewhat chronological in history, but the characters did not evolve greatly over the course of those forty-something books. Goldsborough isn't picking up where Stout left off. Instead, he's leaping throughout their history, injecting new adventures into the chronology. His previous book, Archie Meets Nero Wolfe, is the origin story that Stout never wrote. The newest book takes place circa 1950, as indicated by certain external details, but in reality it could have happened at any point in their history.

The case brings Wolfe into contact with the usual coterie of emotional women and blustery, self-important men, and calls into play most of the regular support staff, all of whom dutifully fulfill their appointed roles. It would be an interesting challenge to see if someone unfamiliar with the Wolfe books could figure out which ones were by Stout and which by Goldsborough, that's how pitch-perfect the latter's novels are. The plot gets a little convoluted by the end, requiring a lengthy explanation by Wolfe to set everyone straight about who was doing what to whom, but otherwise this is a fine entry in a much-loved series.

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