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.

Mysteries & Mayhem

The Man Who Lived By Night is David Handler’s second mystery featuring ghost writer Stewart (”call me Hoagy”) Hoag and his basset hound Lulu. Hoagy’s celebrity assignment The Man Who Lived By Nightthis time around is faded rock star Tristam Scarr, now living in isolated grandeur on his estate in the English countryside. Originally published in 1989 (most of the series was republished in ebook format by Open Road Press in 2012), the book is a travelogue through the music scene of the 60s and 70s, British and American, peppered with real people. Handler tells chunks of the story through tapes of Hoagy’s interviews with Scarr and his associates, peeling away the past until the motives for current murders are revealed.

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Somehow I missed this series completely when it was first published, but I’m enjoying it now: I identify with both writers and basset hound owners.

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I haven’t missed one of Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone mysteries since the first one came out in the 1970s. The latest, The Breakers, follows Sharon’s search for a missing friend. We first met Chelle Curley in earlier books as an enterprising teenager who often pet sat for Sharon’s cats. Now she’s in her early twenties and has had some success The Breakersrehabbing old buildings in run down sections of San Francisco. When her parents call Sharon from Costa Rica because they haven’t been able to get in touch with Chelle for days, Sharon takes up the search.

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The investigation leads to an assortment of characters, friends and/or possible suspects, and to other crimes. Sharon’s husband Hy and her various employees work mostly in the background on this one, which is primarily Sharon’s story. The Breakers, the one-time hotel, now a deteriorating and nearly empty apartment house that Chelle is living in while rehabbing it, holds a number of clues, if only Sharon can puzzle them out in time. A little slower and less complex than some previous entries (and fairly short at 260 pages), The Breakers is still a solid addition to the series.

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Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin investigate the advertising business in Robert Goldsborough’s Fade To Black. I read all of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series back in the day (when I apparently had more time for reading), and I enjoy Goldsborough’s continuation of the series just as much, as he brings Wolfe and Archie into the computer age (without aging them a day). In this one Archie and Wolfe work to discover who’s passing ideas about the ad campaigns for one cherry soda (yuck) to the ad agency for another. Lots of familiar characters, and the routine at the brownstone never changes.

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In their next adventure, they become reluctantly involved with murder at a megachurch in Silver Spire, but only because long-time associate Fred Durkin is accused of the killing.

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In The Missing Chapter, Goldsborough has a little fun with his own career, as Wolfe and Archie investigate the possible murder (or was it really suicide?) of a “continuator,” an author who has taken up the pen of a well-loved mystery writer, producing new cases for the homespun Sergeant Barnstable and making lots of enemies, including his editor and agent, a fellow writer who borrows his “word processor” (this one was published in 1993), a missing cousin, and even his fiancee. Needless to say, Wolfe and Archie winnow out the truth.