review: archie meets nero wolfe

Archie Meets Nero Wolfe: A Prequel by Robert Goldsborough (2012)

Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe were originally created by Rex Stout, and somewhere in the 1990s, Robert Goldsborough wrote about half a dozen new Nero Wolfe novels.  I have already reviewed The Missing Chapter on this blog and I have also read Murder in E Minor, both by Goldsborough.  I just finished the novel that Goldsborough published last year which imagines how Archie and Wolfe met and how Archie came to New York City and started working for Wolfe.  On the one hand, it’s an inventive story of how it could have happened; on the other hand, it didn’t feel true to Archie Goodwin’s character as readers such as myself have come to know him.

The story begins with Archie Goodwin working as a night security guard.  He’s only 19-years-old and he’s brand new to Depression-era New York City.  Archie hasn’t been holding this job for long when criminals come to the location he is guarding and try to steal the goods owned by his employer.  Archie ends up shooting one of the criminals out of self-defense and in the duty of protecting his employer’s merchandise.  Although his employer appreciates this, Archie is still fired from his job and forced to look for work again.  He decides to try working for a private investigator and goes to the offices of Del Bascom.  Bascom tells him that he can’t afford to hire him because he doesn’t have enough work for one person, much less two.  Archie says he will prove himself by working for his first case for free, and Bascom gives him a case he hasn’t been able to solve.  Of course, Archie solves it, and for a while he works for Bascom.  It is through Bascom that Archie meets Fred Durkin, one of Nero Wolfe’s freelance investigators.  It is also through Bascom that Archie meets Wolfe.  Bascom, as well as Fred, Saul Panzer, and Orrie Cather, are asked by Wolfe to help him with his current case—the kidnapping of 8-year-old Tommie Williamson, son of ridiculously wealthy hotelier Burke Williamson.  The five men do all of Wolfe’s leg work, and eventually they rescue Tommie from his kidnappers.  Still, Wolfe is not satisfied that the kidnappers and the ransom money paid to them by Williamson remain at large, so the five men keep investigating and at the end of the novel in Wolfe’s typical fashion, the crimes are unraveled within Wolfe’s study with all of the suspects, law enforcement, and private investigators present.  Throughout the novel, the primary cast of characters with whom readers of Stout’s series are familiar eventually get introduced: Fritz Brenner, Wolfe’s master chef; Theodore Horstmann, Wolfe’s master gardener and assistant in the rooftop plant rooms where Wolfe’s prized orchids are grown; Inspector Cramer, the New York City chief of homicide, and Sergeant Stebbins and Lieutenant Rowcliff, also of the NYPD.  Wolfe’s brownstone is still in the same place, as is Wolfe’s daily routine and consumption of beer.  Even the red leather chair is there and accounted for.

While the plot and to some extent the characters and setting feel familiar, there are also things that feel off or wrong altogether.  Reading the dialogue of the private detectives often felt wrong—as though they were talking in a kind of slang that felt false.  Also, I’m used to seeing much more of Wolfe during the story, but in this prequel, the focus is much more heavily placed on Archie (which feels right) as well as the suspects themselves.  However, the primary reason why this novel felt unlike Rex Stout’s novels is the presentation of Archie himself.  Goldsborough gives us an Archie Goodwin who is at the beginning of his relationship with Wolfe, his life in New York City, and his work as a private detective.  So yes, of course the Archie that I’m used to isn’t represented in the pages of Archie Meets Nero Wolfe: A Prequel because that Archie does not yet exist.  And yet, maybe it’s the older, wiser, more experienced Archie that makes reading the Rex Stout mysteries so fun in the first place.  He is not the Great Detective, but he is the central character of the Nero Wolfe mysteries, and to have him be essentially missing makes the whole novel feel…just…too far afield.

One other notable aspect of this book is the dropping of dates and events that pin down the time in which the story takes place.  I read in an introduction to one of Stout’s books that he purposefully wrote the novels so that readers could enter the series at any time and didn’t have to read them in order of publication.  Perhaps that’s why it’s not obvious when the story is taking place.  In Archie Meets Nero Wolfe: A Prequel, Goldsborough makes it clear that the time of the story is  somewhere between 1929 and 1931.  The Stock Market Crash of 1929 has already happened, Prohibition has not yet ended, and the Empire State Building (completed in 1931) is being built but has not yet been completed.  The rise of telephones in the home and the models of cars also helps to date the events in the novel.

Goldsborough deserves credit for imagining how it all could have started between Archie and Wolfe.  I think the reasons I didn’t really like the book are that Archie at 19 is much different than the 30-something Archie I have always known, and I wanted more interaction between Archie and Wolfe.  Because of the story that Goldsborough wanted to tell—an origin story—neither of these things could be helped.  My advice is that if you haven’t read any of the Rex Stout books, don’t begin with this prequel.  If you have read the Stout books, take Archie Meets Nero Wolfe: A Prequel with a grain of salt and come to it expecting something different.  Different isn’t bad, it’s just different.

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.