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…