Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Fade to Black

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 Fade to Black (Bantam, 1990).

If you'd told me that one of the more entertaining of all the Nero Wolfe stories was one set against the backdrop of the 1980s cola wars between Pepsi and Coke, I'd have called you batty, but darn if Robert Goldsborough's fifth adventure of Wolfe and Archie isn't one of the most charming and clever in the whole series. It's easily the best of his first five, and a notch or two more entertaining than some of Stout's less inspired offerings.

So what's going on here is that a small advertising agency is at war with a big Madison Avenue firm. They each have contracts with cherry-flavored sodas with really contrived names and backstories (and, speaking as somebody who knows his ginger ales from Buffalo Rock to Ale-8-1 and back, I know contrived), but the smaller firm figures that there must be a mole somewhere, as the larger firm keeps trumping them with new copycat campaigns rushed out before they can get their original "creatives" into the public eye. Wolfe has little time for industrial espionage, and even less for soda pop, but agrees to let Archie ask some questions. Almost instantly, a potential informant from the big firm comes forward, and, in a none-too surprising development, Archie finds his dead body.

It's not perfect - there's a run of about thirty pages where every example of sparkling wit and clever dialogue gets interrupted by somebody very reluctantly agreeing to provide Archie with yet another alibi - but it's incredibly fun, with Goldsborough's best-developed and most amusing supporting cast. I also started detecting here a few circumstantial clues that suggest that he's actually aging the characters. It's never overt, but it makes the off-key use of the word "chap" in his previous novel seem a little more sensible. Something about the tone here and there makes me perceive Archie as, not merely clued-in to an earlier time than the supporting players, but actually a little bit older than the perennial late thirties of Stout's novels. Maybe I'm wrong, and maybe such things are sacrosanct, but the discordian iconoclast in me can't help but be amused by the notion of a silver fox-styled Archie. Recommended.

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