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.

Nero Wolfe Lives On

When Robert Goldsborough took over Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series in the mid 1980s, he brought Wolfe and his crew forward into the age of the personal computer (for the orchid germination records) without aging any of the characters. He wrote seven books, the last in 1994, before taking a break.

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Wolfe and Goodwin reappeared—and met—in the 2012 prequel Archie Meets Nero Wolfe, and Murder in the Ball Park, published in 2014, drops Wolfe and his usual crew, Archie, Lily Rowan, Fritz the chef, Lon Cohen from the Gazette, and Cramer and Stebbins from the NYPD, back into the mid twentieth century, a few years after the end of World War II. The ball park in the title is the old Polo Grounds (demolished in 1964), and Goldsborough has fun with NYC baseball of the period. He also delves into what we now call PTSD and the difficulties of men returning from combat.

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In Archie in the Crosshairs, Goldsborough stays in the mid-twentieth century, which was perhaps the peak of Nero Wolfe’s (and Rex Stout’s) career, the period many fans seem to prefer. All the usual characters are present, trying to figure out who is taking pot shots at Archie (apparently in revenge aimed at Wolfe) and who is blackmailing a naive young heiress. Could these cases possibly be connected?

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Stop the Presses! is set in the late 1970s, when Nero Wolfe is asked to determine whether or not a highly popular but widely detested muck-raking columnist committed suicide. Before his death he told his colleagues at the New York Gazette that he had been receiving threatening phone calls, and that he believed they were the work of one of five people he had gone after in his column. Inspector Cramer of the NYPD is convinced of the suicide theory, but the owner and the editor of the paper believe the columnist was murdered. As usual, Wolfe solves the case without ever leaving his brownstone. Archie, however, does a bit of traveling.

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I know there are Stout/Wolfe purists who decry the continuation of the series, but I’m enjoying the books. I read all the Stout novels (long ago) and I think Goldsborough has done a fine job recreating the characters and atmosphere. There are three more in the series waiting on my Kindle, and yet another scheduled for May 2020 (and Goldsborough is 82 years old!). Cheers to Open Road Press for making so many mysteries, both vintage and new, available.

And More Mysteries

I came back from RWA 2017 last week with a small stack of new romance novels (only eight this year, which is pretty conservative for a conference where free books practically fly into one’s tote bag—and picture 2000 women with identical green and blue tote bags!). I even bought three of them at the Literacy Signing (where RWA raised over $44,000 for literacy organizations).

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I’ll get to those books, and the several new downloads on my Kindle, sooner or later, but in the meantime, here are a few more mysteries. (The biggest mystery remains: when do I think I’m going to read all the books I collect?).

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The Great Detectives: The World’s Most Celebrated Sleuths Unmasked by Their Authors, edited by Otto Penzler, was first published back in the 1970s, so the detectives profiled date back to the early to mid twentieth century. Back in my voracious mystery reader days (how did I ever have that much time for reading?), I ran through the adventures some of these detectives: Roderick Alleyn (by Ngaio Marsh), Lew Archer (by Ross MacDonald), Jose da Silva (by Robert Fish), Nancy Drew (by Carolyn Keene), the 87th Precinct (by Ed McBain), Luis Mendoza (by Dell Shannon), and Mr. and Mrs, North (by Frances & Richard Lockridge), and I at least recognize most of the others (including the Shadow and Dick Tracy).

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The authors’ essays range from biographies of their characters to interviews with the detectives (a technique many authors favor) to discussions of how these fictional people were created (some well planned in advance, some appearing on the page with no warning). For me, those peeks into the minds of those writers was the most interesting part of the book.

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I know some Rex Stout/Nero Wolfe purists are not thrilled with Robert Goldsborough’s continuation of the series, but I’ve been enjoying his efforts. The Last Coincidence was published in 1989, and, although the characters have not aged over several decades, they are now living in the late twentieth century, and Archie is keeping the orchid records and doing other office tasks on a computer. His relationship with long-time lady friend Lily Rowan gets a bit more attention, too, although Archie remains a gentleman and never goes into detail.

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The Last CoincidenceIn this installment, Wolfe and Archie investigate the murder of a young man who assaulted Lily’s niece. For a moment even Archie might be a suspect, but attention soon turns to a collection of Lily’s relatives and their friends. The novel ends, as Wolfe’s cases often do, with all the suspects gathered in Wolfe’s office, as the great detective drinks beer and explains all.

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Many years ago, when I was a book-a-day reader, I barreled through all the Nero Wolfe novels. I’ve picked up and enjoyed a few of those more recently, but I’m also happy to see the cases continue. I’ve managed to accumulate all of Goldsborough’s entries on my Kindle—now I just need more reading time.

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Watching the DetectivesWatching the Detectives is the fifth entry in Julie Mulhern’s Country Club Murders series, Set in Kansas City in 1974, in that bygone era before computers, the Internet, and cell phones changed our lives. Ellison Russell has developed a remarkable talent for discovering bodies, sometimes in her own house, while juggling her teenage daughter Grace, her overbearing mother, and two attractive men, police detective Anarchy Jones and attorney Hunter Tafft. This time around, Ellison discovers an interior decorator whose life is as much a mystery as her death, contributes to a luncheon without finding out who the guest speaker is, and delves into some dark domestic secrets. Excellent as always. I’ve just preordered the next book in the series, Cold As Ice, available in October.

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