Saturday, October 13, 2012

When Two Great Minds Meet

Whenever we walk into the brownstone of Nero Wolfe, we’re used to seeing everything in its place. Fritz is in the kitchen, doubtless making another fine dish for his employer. Theodore Horstmann is upstairs in the plant rooms, tending to ten thousand orchids. And when Wolfe isn’t up there himself, he’s in his office reading a book and attempting to ignore Archie Goodwin’s sarcastic digs, with the occasional cry of “Pfui!” But how did it all get there?

After all, Wolfe and Archie had to meet—what was that first encounter like? Were they working on a case together? What case was it? What did Archie do to impress Wolfe so much that something possessed him to hire the young man as his personal assistant, when their personalities are such polar opposites? To answer all these questions, Robert Goldsborough ended up writing Archie Meets Nero Wolfe, a prequel to Rex Stout’s famous series.

Archie Goodwin is new to New York, having just moved there from small-town Ohio. He’s not much over eighteen and the Great Depression is in full swing. It’s tough to find work of any kind, but Archie loses his position as a security guard when he shoots two people on the job in self-defense. He finds himself in a strange city with no prospect of a job any time soon.

And so he turns to detective work, getting a job from private operative Del Bascom and showing he’s a natural-born detective. As if on cue, Nero Wolfe hires Del, along with Archie, for a job. Someone has kidnapped Tommie Williamson, son of the hotel-chain king Burke Williamson, and the business mogul wants his son back. Along with Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin, Orrie Cather, and Bill Gore, Archie and Del must do Wolfe’s legwork for him.

Robert Goldsborough is the man who continued the Nero Wolfe series back in the late 80s-early 90s, with seven novels being released starting with Murder in E Minor in 1986. His last effort was The Missing Chapter in 1994. Although I own all of them, I did not read any of these continuations yet because I wish to read the Wolfe series in order first. But since Archie Meets Nero Wolfe is a prequel, that means later entries in the series won’t be spoiled! So here I am today…

First things first: Archie Meets Nero Wolfe is a good book. It’s highly readable and fairly entertaining. However, for much of the book, the voice of Archie Goodwin is missing. Personally, though, I rather liked this. Archie isn’t some wide-eyed innocent, but he does lack experience in detective work, and so the more he learns throughout the novel, the more his narrator’s voice develops into what we’re used to. It’s kind of weird not to have much Wolfe/Archie banter, but the reason for that is obvious.

However, Goldsborough very much nails Nero Wolfe’s voice— Wolfe sounds precisely like he does in Rex Stout’s original novels. So does Inspector Cramer, for that matter, as he shows up every once in a while and gets mad at Wolfe, whom he suspects of hiding information; these scenes felt very much like they could have come from Stout himself.   Was I ever fooled into thinking that Rex Stout wrote this novel? No— but then it’s hard to do that when the name ROBERT GOLDSBOROUGH is emblazoned on the cover.

What I really enjoyed was seeing Archie team up with the ’Teers as equals in solving one of Wolfe’s cases. He gets instructions and does legwork with the rest of them, and this leads to some interesting clashes of personalities. It’s a unique opportunity to see what the team does after getting instructions from Wolfe—usually at this point in the story, Archie would be sent out to question suspects and he would only see the results of the team’s investigations.

Goldsborough uses references in some of Rex Stout’s original stories to construct this novel. I recognized some of these. Others flew over my head, because I hadn’t yet read the story in question. Wolfe fans will spot expansions to references that can be found in Fer-de-Lance and the novella Fourth of July Picnic. The character of Bill Gore appeared in a handful of stories that I can recall, and Del Bascom certainly is referenced in The Silent Speaker and The Second Confession. Cramer, is, of course, well-known, but so are Lieutenant Rowcliff and Sergeant Stebbins, whose appearances in this book are quite welcome. And there are also some scenes that Archie refers to in In The Best Families.

When an author works at a pastiche, it’s most important to stay true to the original characters. (Poor Sherlock Holmes’ character has been betrayed too many times to count!) Happily, Goldsborough makes you feel right at home with these characters—Archie might not sound quite like his usual self until the end, but he feels like the same character. The same goes for everyone else—they feel like the same characters we know and love.

Goldsborough apparently drew inspiration for this book from Joe Gores’ Spade and Archer, the prequel to The Maltese Falcon that I read earlier this year. The influence shows. For instance, the first case we see Archie solve is a disappearance, the same kind of case we first see Sam Spade solve in Spade and Archer. But the books are also very distinct—Spade and Archer is more of a tangled story web, while Archie Meets Nero Wolfe is a relatively simple, linear story. Both are terrific reads.

But if you feel that such a story is an abomination on Stout’s stories and should never have been allowed, I doubt the book will make a convert of you. If a pastiche is done well, I can be entertained by it, but rare is the occasion where I’ve been fooled into thinking a story was part of the original canon. I thought Goldsborough did a terrific job with Rex Stout’s characters, the only potentially off-putting factor being how different Archie sounds from what readers are accustomed to. When you consider it, though, it’s a move that makes sense for this book.

It’s a delight to see Nero Wolfe back in action, and I’m really very pleased with the result. Robert Goldsborough’s Archie Meets Nero Wolfe is a welcome addition to Stout’s legendary series, and does a fine job telling a good story in the universe Stout created. You can see Fritz in the kitchen, Horstmann upstairs in the plant rooms, and Wolfe seated comfortably at his desk with a cold beer. And you can watch Archie Goodwin take his rightful place beside Wolfe as his right-hand man.

Archie Meets Nero Wolfe is set to be published by MysteriousPress.com on November 13th. A paperback will be available as well as an e-book. I know I will purchase a paperback for my collection as soon as it is released!

18 comments:

  1. Interesting... just reading this myself, also as a review copy, but I've not read any of the original stories, apart from half of Fer-De-Lance which I found a bit dull. Will be interesting to see what I think of it.

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    1. That's a shame-- Fer-De-Lance is one of the more forgettable entries in the series. A far better starting point would have been Book 2, The League of Frightened Men, which is an all-round excellent book. Hopefully you enjoy this, although the layer of fun I had in trying to spot the references will be lost on you, I'm afraid.

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    2. Well, my review's up on my site now... and without the knowledge of the references, I'm afraid I found it all rather dull...

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    3. I wish I could say I was surprised, but I'm not. The most delightful part of the book is spotting references to the Corpus, and FER-DE-LANCE is really one of the worse Wolfes I've read. Please don't give up on Stout -- his plotting is rarely great, but he does have a few successes, especially TOO MANY COOKS and THE LEAGUE OF FRIGHTENED MEN.

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  2. I read a couple of the Goldsborough continuations and enjoyed them. I shall almost certainly read this at some point. The one problem that I have is in specifically dating the story during the Great Depression. Wolfe and Archie never age throughout the series (a deliberate choice by Stout), and apart from the WWII stories there never seemed to be too much of an attempt to make them 'contemporary'. If they're going to place this story in 1930, then you have wonder how Archie can still be a relatively young man 45 years later when the last original novel was published...

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    1. I don't see the problem at all. Stout had his own anachronisms throughout the series, so you can't really say Goldsborough is going against that. THE DOORBELL RANG is certainly set after the 1964 publication of THE FBI NOBODY KNOWS. GAMBIT it set after the publication of the third edition of Webster's dictionary. FER-DE-LANCE is set during Prohibition.

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  3. I'm not too crazy about pastiches and continuations of series after the author is gone, but going by your review, I just might give this one a shot.

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  4. Thanks Patrick. I was a bit unsure whether or not to get this -- now I will.

    Sexton, nowhere is the problem more obvious than when Archie and Wolfe run into Paul Whipple 30 years later in A Right To Die and he's aged and they have not.

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    1. Glad I could help, Jeff! And thanks for the example. Trying to keep track of time throughout the series is a guaranteed road to madness. :)

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  5. I quite enjoyed the Gores book and you certainly make a good case here - I wasn't crazy about the original continuations that Goldsborough wrote as I recall, though I should point out that I read these in an Italian translation. I think, deep down, that i prefer the idea of a prequel to a sequel, probably because it is less likely to really intrude on the canon.

    Thanks Patrick - sounds like fun.

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    1. I guess we agree on the Gores. I haven't read Goldsborough's sequels so I really can't comment, but translation might have something to do with it. I know that I once read a nightmarish Polish translation of MRS. McGINTY'S DEAD which managed to suck out every trace of humour from the original story.

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  6. I'm almost at the finish line with this one and I agree with what you said about Archie not having his voice yet. That and the fact that the interactions with Wolfe were limited made this feel almost like something other than a Wolfe book. But I guess "Prequel" provided sufficient advance warning of all of this.

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    1. It does feel odd at first, doesn't it? But in the end, I felt it was an interesting experiment, and those odd points were only reasonable after all.

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  7. ***Mild Spoilers•••

    Yes, you shouldn't read any of Goldsborough before reading most if not all of Stout's original canon. Two characters that appear in the early stories but who are killed off in the middle and end of the series appear in this prequel. Goldsborough keeps up the Stout tradition of time standing still in the 1930's inside the brownstone with the outside in the present day, with only small concessions to modernity, such as Archie using a computer instead of a typewriter. I've only read "The Missing Chapter," it's a nice homage with tons of in-jokes, but it could never be mistaken for vintage Stout.

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    1. I own the complete series of Goldsborough sequels (and a near-complete Wolfe Corpus), and if I'm not mistaken the Mysterious Press is planning to re-release Goldsborough's sequels. Unfortunately I have to read the rest of the series first. Fortunately, that means I have plenty of Wolfe left to discover!!!

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  8. So glad to see this review. With all its detail. I had wondered what the book would be like and you have reassured me that I won't be disappointed. I love all the Rex Stout Nero Wolfe novels and novellas, especially Fer-de-lance, and enjoyed the other Goldsborough books too. Not Rex Stout, but still fun. Can't wait until it is available.

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    1. Tracy, thank you for commenting. I hope you enjoy this book as much as I did!

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