Archie Meets Nero Wolfe by Robert Goldsborough

For those of you unaware of the writer, Rex Stout wrote 33 detective novels and 39 short stories featuring the detective Nero Wolfe. Wolfe is an eccentric genius who rarely leaves his New York home – which is equipped with a rooftop greenhouse for one of his obsessions, orchids – and as such employs the young detective Archie Goodwin as his eyes and ears on the street. I say for those of you unaware because while Stout and Wolfe may be well known in the USA, I think it’s fairly safe to say that the series has not had the same degree of popularity over here, outside of the detective fiction cognoscenti. That may not always have been the case, but a trawl through my local Waterstones reveals a grand total of zero books in the series. Most of the series seems to be available on ebook and paperback though, if you look online.

I digress. Since the death of Rex Stout, and with the approval of his estate, Robert Goldsborough wrote seven additional Wolfe mysteries between 1986 and 1994. Now, after an eighteen year gap, he returns to the series to write a prequel, indicating how Archie Goodwin meets Nero Wolfe (the more observant of you will have worked this out from the title!) I was asked to give it a look, and I thought I’d give it a go. Not that I’m ever one to turn down the offer of a free book, but also, I’ve read a grand total of one third of a Nero Wolfe novel – so without any frame of reference with regard to in-jokes and the such like, I figured that I could judge this on its own merits.

First of all, let me offer you a link to another review – Patrick, on his blog At The Scene Of The Crime, has already reviewed the book, and he, unlike me, has read a lot of the “official” series already. His review is pretty positive.

I’m sorry to say, mine isn’t.

Let’s address my history with Wolfe first of all. An age ago, Sergio at Tipping My Fedora gave a glowing review to The League of Frightened Gentlemen, the second Wolfe novel. Inspired by this, I picked up a two-book volume of the first two books, namely that and Fer-De-Lance. After two attempts, I gave up on Fer-De-Lance as it was basically rather tedious. And I hadn’t given the series much thought beyond that.

Anyway, I figured this could be a good way back into the series. Archie seems a likeable enough narrator, fairly desperate to prove himself as one of the big boys despite his recent recruitment to the post of private detective. He starts the book as a security guard, but, after a shooting incident, starts working for one Del Bascom as a detective. He then, along with a group of other private eyes, is recruited to work for Wolfe on a kidnapping case.

I gather the gang of detectives all feature to a greater or lesser extent in the canon. Unfortunately, this distinction was fairly lost on me and I found them fairly interchangeable. This isn’t a major issue, as Archie’s narration keeps the reader focussed on his story, but it did seem that there were some unnecessary characters knocking around.

Wolfe doesn’t actually get much of a look-in; as he’s a character who never leaves his home, I presume his appearances in his own books are more substantial as in those, Archie is also living in the house, but as at this point he isn’t, the interaction seemed quite limited. As Wolfe is also one of those detectives who keeps everything to themselves, there’s not a lot going on in these exchanges either.

But the clincher for me, I’m afraid, has nothing to do with the characters or my knowledge or lack of it of the series. I simply found the mystery extremely dull. This is in part due to a lack of urgency (the kidnap victim isn’t in danger for very long and it’s only Wolfe’s stubbornness that keeps the investigation open). There’s a fairly inconsequential murder early on, but the book for the most part takes on the genre of the hard-boiled mystery as Archie and his detective chums hunt for the heavies involved in the kidnapping. There is a mild whodunnit in terms of who inside the household may or may not have been involved, and, to be fair, it is fairly clued, but I get the impression that the author was more interested in the hunt for the thugs. Indeed, the guilty party who is unmasked in the final chapter seems to have contributed so little to the crime that I found it very hard to care about them at all.

This concentration of the action over the mystery may or may not be a theme of the actual series – I simply don’t know – but if it is, then I’ll probably steer clear of Nero Wolfe in future. If you are a fan of Nero, then do check out Patrick’s review – you’ll probably get a better feeling for the book than from this newcomer. But if you are a newcomer, I’d suggest heading straight to the originals…

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About Puzzle Doctor

I'm a mathematician by nature and as such have always been drawn to the logical side of things. Hence my two main hobbies being classic mysteries and logical puzzling. Oh, and cats. No logic there, I'm afraid.
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13 Responses to Archie Meets Nero Wolfe by Robert Goldsborough

  1. It’s probably worth admitting that with Stout it was never about the plotting, though the best of them do offer perfectly adequate narratives too. It was always about the characters, the humour and the atmosphere conjured up in the Wolfe brownstone and the surprising mixture of a hardboiled narrator and a soft-boiled genius detective. Wolfe featured in novellas rather than short stories incidentally and, if you are ever tempted to try him again (which doesn’t seem likely by the sound of it), I would really recommend you trying the earlier collections like CURTAINS FOR THREE or BLACK ORCHIDS which collect three and two novellas each – these offer more concentrated plots and still leave plenty of room for the characters to breathe and the humour to flow – if you don;t like these, give up! FER-DER-LANCE is very far from being my favourite Wolfe book and is rather slow to get going.

    • There is a difference, though, between a complicated plot that either doesn’t make any sense or isn’t remotely fairly clued (e.g. Whose Body?) and one that is just not very interesting. Unfortunately, this book falls into the latter category. Interesting that Patrick’s review barely mentions the plot at all – surprising, given his love of locked room mysteries, that he’d be OK with this one. I guess the characters do carry it, if you care about them.

      • Try the novellas mate and see if you prefer those – Stout (and Wolfe) are worth maybe one more effort (honest). There is also TROUBLE IN TRIPLICATE, THREE DOORS TO DEATH, TRIPLE JEOPARDY and so on (you can see the pattern emerging I am sure)

  2. Bill says:

    As a Wolfe fan who’s read all but a half dozen of the Stout books and five of the seven Goldsborough ones I have mixed feelings about this one. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who’s not a fan and those who are fans are probably going to read it no matter what anyone says.

    • Somehow I think that’s the conclusion that I’d have come to if I knew more about the canon.

      But… would a hardened Nero-phile automatically pick up a pastiche despite a dubious review? I seriously doubt I’d be intererested in, say, a Poirot pastiche, no matter how good the reviews were.

  3. Patrick says:

    I wish I could say I was surprised, but I’m not. The most fun about this book is spotting references to the Corpus, and sadly you haven’t had a great introduction to it. Try TOO MANY COOKS — Stout’s greatest plot — or THE LEAGUE OF FRIGHTENED MEN — a classic in the genre. My personal favourites: THE SILENT SPEAKER, AND BE A VILLAIN, and THE DOORBELL RANG come to mind.

    Stout was not a great plotter most of the time, so I never expect much from that when I approach a Nero Wolfe story. And I didn’t want to give too much away about the plot in my review, which is why you note that I don’t talk about it too much. But I do think that it’s a very fun book for fans.

    • Is there really that much plot to give away? Maybe that’s a little mean, but this story is so much more about the character of Archie than anything else.

      Out of curiousity, is the proportion of the book featuring Wolfe typical of the canon, or does he normally appear more often?

      BTW And Be A Villain has been ordered. I think Stout deserves another chance…

      • Patrick says:

        I’d personally recommend TOO MANY COOKS as the best possible starting point, and also one of my personal favourites. It’s got one of Stout’s best plots. AND BE A VILLAIN is also pretty good, but it’s the start of the Arnold Zeck trilogy and you might want to read more Wolfe first in order to better appreciate that. Everyone praises SOME BURIED CAESAR, but the ending kind of annoys me because Wolfe has to manufacture fake evidence to get anywhere. It’s still one of the liveliest and most fun Wolfe books, but I seem to be the only one who isn’t a fan of the ending, is all.

        Wolfe is usually a lot more prominent than he was here, but at the same time, Archie always gets more “screen time”. He comes in and reports to Wolfe every once in a while, and Wolfe sends him out to do something else.

        The plot of this one isn’t much, as you say, but I found it fascinating. See, often Wolfe will need to find evidence, so he calls in a group of detectives to do some errands for him. He never tells Archie what they’re looking for, so Archie usually spots them only once they’ve finished their errands and have the results in hand. This is a unique opportunity to see what these errands might look like and how they move around to get their results.

  4. Skywatcher says:

    I’ve not read this, but Wolfe is generally highly prominent in the books. As has been said, a lot of the fun of the stories comes from listening to Wolfe and Archie’s banter. Stout’s plots are generally workmanlike, with some very clever stories. THE DOORBELL RANG is good fun, and the novellas might be more to your taste. Give Stout another chance.

  5. William Pinn says:

    NIce review. I’ll have to check this one out.

  6. Pingback: The Puzzly – The ISOTCMN Book of the Month – October 2012 | In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

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  8. Charles Loveridge says:

    Just finished “The Missing Chapter” by Goldsborough…..very similar to a previous Nero Wolfe novel by Rex Stout ….. which one ?

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