review: the missing chapter

The Missing Chapter by Robert Goldsborough (1994)

I started reading the Nero Wolfe books by Rex Stout years ago.  A friend and I found them in a Half Price Books store, and we bought all the ones on the shelf, divided them up, and exchanged them when we had finished reading them.  For a long time we both looked out for other books in the series that we didn’t have.  It wasn’t until this past Cyber Monday that I discovered that Robert Goldsborough had continued the series and written eight additional Nero Wolfe novels, including a prequel telling the story of how Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe met.  Needless to say I immediately texted my friend and asked her if she knew about these new books; she didn’t, and we both engaged in some internet commerce that day.  I read Murder in E Minor first, which is the first in Goldsborough’s series and seems to pick up two years after the final Nero Wolfe novel published during Stout’s lifetime—A Family Affair. Now I have just finished The Missing Chapter, which is the seventh of the eight (and the last one, really, since the eighth book is the prequel).  The book was an interesting read, but I wouldn’t say it was as good as the first by Goldsborough.

For anyone not familiar with Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, here’s a bit of context.  Nero Wolfe is an infamous private detective who lives in a brownstone on Thirty-Fifth Street in New York City and commands “exorbitant” fees for his investigative services.  He rarely leaves home, and on the fourth floor of the brownstone are the plant rooms for the numerous species of Wolfe’s prized orchids, which are one of his chief delights.  Wolfe spends the hours between 9 and 11 and 4 and 6 in the plant rooms daily without fail (except on Sundays), and he gets to the plant rooms by elevator (which happens to break down completely in this novel).  His other chief delight is food—he has a live-in cook, Fritz Brenner, who makes gourmet meals for Wolfe.  Wolfe refuses to allow any discussion of business during meals.  He takes breakfast in bed while wearing his yellow pajamas, and when he’s doing the “brain work” to solve the crime, his lips push in and push out.  He’s a man of many idiosyncrasies and few words, which is one of the reasons we require Archie Goodwin in the story.  The stories are told in first-person through Archie’s point of view.  While Wolfe is your prototypical Great Detective of Golden Age Detective Fiction, Archie is the man of action.  He, too, is a private detective, but he’s worked for Wolfe for years as a kind of private secretary/right-hand man and does all the leg work, reporting his findings back to Wolfe.  One of the things that amused me about this novel is that Archie is asked if he’s a hardboiled detective or if he’s ‘urbane.’ It ends up that he’s urbane, thus reminding the reader that the novel itself is in the Golden Age tradition.  I’ll come back to this point later, but the main thing is that in my opinion, Goldsborough has done a wonderful job of capturing and remaining true to the characters of Wolfe and Goodwin as Stout created them.

The plot of this novel revolves around the death of a detective fiction writer, Charles Childress.  Childress (like his creator) has continued a series of detective fiction novels after the death of the series creator.  As the story unfolds, readers learn that some people praised Childress’ new novels in the series while others thought they were terrible.  We get the opinions of the suspects who are also part of the book world—his publisher, his editor, his agent, and a vicious newspaper literary critic—and a lot of what they say is couched within the discourse surrounding detective fiction as a literary genre—such as suspects, plots, the detective, etc.  Even Wolfe himself articulates one of the criticisms within that discourse when he summarily dismisses detective fiction and assures us that Tolstoy’s place in the canon is safe.  It all makes the novel an example of metafiction—it’s about the murder of a writer who has continued a beloved series of detective fiction written by a writer who is continuing a beloved series of detective fiction.  Like I said before, the novel is very conscious of itself as following the Golden Age tradition.  At one point, we are reminded of one of the main rules of detective fiction—that the novel itself is a puzzle, and that in the spirit of ‘fair play’ readers must be given all the clues they need in order to be able to solve the puzzle.  It also talks of red herrings, and there are plenty of those in this novel.  Another notable aspect of the novel is that one of the accusations leveled against Childress by his editor is that his plots are too thin and the suspects are too obvious.  As I was reading The Missing Chapter, I thought that the plot was a little thin. Now that I have read the entire book, I have to wonder if Goldsborough did this on purpose and that it is just another part of the metafiction.  If so, I think the novel definitely succeeds on that level.

The thing I have enjoyed about The Missing Chapter and Murder in E Minor is that they feel updated but familiar.  The Missing Chapter makes a host of pop culture references, including references to Leno and Letterman, and Archie makes use of personal computers.  Still, if you want to sample this new series of Wolfe novels, I would recommend starting with Murder in E MinorThe Missing Chapter is fine, but it’s not compelling and I had a hard time getting invested in the story.  I still want to read the other books in Goldsborough’s series, but I may have to lower my expectations.

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