Friday, November 26, 2010

Murder in E Minor

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Murder in E Minor (Bantam, 1985).

Now, Robert Goldsborough, for a while there, he was living the dream. Not very many people can claim that they've turned a fanfic hobby into the real thing. In 1977, a couple of years after Rex Stout had passed away, Goldsborough, then a Chicago Tribune staff journalist, wrote a Nero Wolfe novel for his mother, who loved the character and missed having any new adventures. In Sherlock Holmes fandom, this sort of writing is referred to as a pastiche; dozens, hundreds have written their own.

In 1985, Bantam Books and Stout's estate started looking around for an author to officially continue the Wolfe canon. (Actually, in Wolfe fandom, it's called the "corpus." Every fandom has its own quirks.) The character was then still quite well regarded and remembered by the general public, even if an early '80s TV adaptation on NBC failed after a half-season and was loathed by purists. I'd actually like to see that, despite its pedigree. William Conrad was possibly a pretty good choice to play Wolfe even if he refused to shave his beard - the fastidious Wolfe should always, always be clean-shaven - but Lee Horsley as Archie Goodwin, now that was a genius move. He must have made a terrific Archie.

So, if I understand rightly, Bantam and Stout's biographer, the estimable John McAleer, cast around for a new chronicler and Goldsborough submitted his seven year-old fanfic. It's really not bad at all. I actually enjoyed it a good deal more than three or four of the original novels. It's set two years after the events of A Family Affair - the date, 1977, is given in the text - and Wolfe has been retired since things went to hell in that book. Cramer hasn't darkened the brownstone's door in all that time, and while Archie has been getting antsy and doing some freelance work to stay busy, it really looks like Wolfe's career is over.

Getting Wolfe to shift his seventh-of-a-ton back to work is going to take something huge and personal. Goldsborough's solution is to reunite Wolfe with one of the freedom fighters that he and the late Marko Vukcic had known in Montenegro years before. He had also made his way to New York after several decades, changed his name, and is now the director of the city's orchestra. There's a certain note of predictability that befalls this plot in fiction; the original Nero Wolfe stories helped cement it. Important, yet never-previously-mentioned faces from the past end up dead. Before long, the threats against Stevens' life which have brought him back in touch with Wolfe via his great-niece have been carried out and the police have arrested his great-niece's fiance, a violinist with the orchestra. Wolfe doesn't believe they have the right killer, and his renewed relationship with Cramer is off to as terrible a start as it ended.

I found it to be a very good addition to the corpus. Certainly it has the feel of postscript or apocrypha to it, but having seven additional Wolfe novels of this quality available, if occasionally tricky to find, pleases me greatly. I'm glad to have the chance to read them and enjoy Wolfe and Archie's company a little longer.

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