Catching Up With Nero Wolfe

Murder, Stage Left is Robert Goldsborough’s twelfth entry in Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series. Judging by Wolfe’s current reading (Vance Packard’s The Status Seekers and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring), this one is set around 1963. (Goldsborough jumped forward into the computer age for a few books, but has since returned to a more Wolfean era—the books can be read in any order.)

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In Murder, Stage Left, the mystery revolves around a Broadway production, and finds Archie posing as a writer for a non-existent Canadian theater magazine to interview the members of the cast. This backfires when the director is murdered and Archie’s now-vanished alter ego becomes a suspect. Since the cast knows Archie as “Alan MacGregor,” Saul Panzer steps in to help with the investigation while Archie watches from the wings. The mystery follows the format of all the Wolfe tales, and the dialog occasionally reminded me of Damon Runyon, but as always I enjoyed the novel and Goldsborough’s continuation of Rex Stout’s series.

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Still in the 1960s, The Battered Badge finds Wolfe and Goodwin in the unusual position of coming to the aid of Inspector Cramer, the cigar-chewing homicide detective who maintains a semi-adversarial role throughout the series. This time, however, Cramer finds himself relieved of duty and replaced as head of the homicide squad by George Rowcliff, a detective who Wolfe really doesn’t like. The specter of dealing with Rowcliff in the future so discomfits Wolfe that he takes on investigating the murder that seems to have derailed Cramer’s career.

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As much fun as it was to see Cramer squirm a bit, and even more to see him collaborating (at arm’s length, but still) with Wolfe and Goodwin, the mystery itself fell a little flat. A couple of characters changed their minds on important issues simply because Wolfe told them to (pointing out the errors in their thinking), and the ending was a bit rushed (although it did see Wolfe leave the brownstone, riding white-knuckled in the rear seat as Archie drove). But these books are fun even if they don’t always hit all the high notes.

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Proving that the time line is the least of Goldsborough’s concerns, Death of an Art Collector is set in the late 50s (Frank Lloyd Wright, who died in 1959, makes a brief, and notably arrogant, appearance, and the opening of the Wright-designed Guggenheim Museum figures in the plot). The mystery in this one doesn’t run deep, and it’s almost a toss-up as to whether Wolfe solves it or it solves itself, but I continue to enjoy Goldsborough’s handling of Archie and Wolfe, Wolfe’s books of the moment (The Ugly American, for one), and Fritz’s amazing menus.

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Mr. Goldsborough turns 83 this year, but he has a new book out, Archie Goes Home. Good for him, and inspiration for us all.

Two Old Favorites Return

Stuart Kaminsky’s Toby Peters mysteries were a pleasure I shared with my mother for years. I still have nearly all of them in paper copies, some from the old Doubleday Mystery Book Club (good paper, small print), and some in paperback (yellowed paper, even smaller print). I have e-book copies of the two I never did find in print. Recently the first one, Bullet for a Star popped up in an e-book sale, and I snapped it up (even though I have that one on the shelf).

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The series starts in 1940. Toby Peters, ex-cop, ex-security guard at Warner Brothers, is a downscale private detective in Los Angeles, when a producer at Warner’s calls him to handle a blackmail payoff involving a photo of Erroll Flynn and a very young girl. That wouldn’t surprise anyone, but Flynn says he’s never seen (or anything else) this particular young girl. And Toby soon finds out someone is willing to kill to get his (or her) hands on the negative, real or not.

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Rereading Bullet for a Star is a bit of a time machine trip for me, back to 1977 when my mother, a great movie fan as well as a voracious mystery reader, and I first discovered Toby, and back to 1940, which Kaminsky renders in delightful detail. Kaminsky was a professor of film studies, and the Toby Peters series weaves together hard-boiled detective action, Hollywood history, and a sardonic sense of humor. At the end of Bullet for a Star Toby gets a phone call from a frightened Judy Garland, leading the way to the next book, Murder on the Yellow Brick Road. These little teasers continued throughout the series.

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The call from Judy Garland leads Toby to the M.G.M. lot and the sets for The Wizard of Oz, seldom used since a year has passed since the picture was released. But there Toby finds the body of a little person in Munchkin costume, something the studio would like to keep as quiet as possible. So Toby takes on the case, interviewing witnesses (Clark Gable and Victor Fleming), aided at one point by an enterprising young suspense writer named Raymond Chandler, harassed by his brother (an irascible LAPD lieutenant), and targeted by the killer. Next: the Marx Brothers. There are 24 books in the series, so it will take me a while to catch up.

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Another mystery series that I have recently picked up in ebook form even though I have old paper copies on my bookshelf is Charlotte MacLeod’s Peter Shandy stories. As the series opens in Rest You Merry (1978), Shandy, a middle aged tenured professor at Balaclava Agricultural College, has overdone the Christmas decorations at his campus home and left town for the holidays, his form of protest over the annual “Illumination” festival. Feeling a bit guilty about his shenanigans, he returns to find Jemima Ames, wife of his best friend and chairwoman of the Illumination, dead in his locked house. Accident, or something more sinister?

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Becoming a detective by necessity is a big change for Shandy, co-developer of the famous and profitable Balaclava Buster rutabaga, but an even bigger change results from the arrival of Helen Marsh, a distant connection of the Ames family, and just what our bachelor professor needs. Together, Peter and Helen investigate deaths, arson, and the mysterious thefts of old books from the long-ignored Buggins Collection. Add in a variety of eccentric faculty members and spouses, students dressed as elves, and a tipped-over bowl of fried marbles, and you have a delightful tale. There are ten books in the Shandy series, but MacLeod wrote many others as well.

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Cheers to Mysterious Press and Open Road Media for making Toby Peters and Peter Shandy available again.

New From Leslie Marshman

The Goode Fight is Leslie Marshman’s second Crystal Creek mystery, continuing the adventures of Texas Ranger Samantha Goode, now stationed in her old home town. While Sheriff Eddie Marshall is out fishing one day, Sam catches a case too close to home: the body of a young woman, clearly laid out to satisfy some bizarre ritual, found on the hunting ranch belonging to Sam’s best friend, Army sniper Nicole Chance.

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Does this murder, or the disposal of the body on the Chance ranch, have something to do with rather heavy-handed offers to buy the property, or is it part of a string of murders scattered between San Antonio, Houston, and Victoria over the last few months? Did some vagrant killer dump the body on the Chance ranch for no reason, or is the killer closer to home?

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Marshman builds a complex mystery, layered with Sam’s personal relationships and ending with a solution I did not see coming. An excellent choice for readers who like a tough professional heroine and a gritty tale of obsession and murder.

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