I thought that I was through with Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe for a time after my second pass through the corpus. Then I read that Robert Goldsborough, who had written seven novels continuing the tales of Wolfe and Archie Goodwin into the early nineties, at least five of which I had enjoyed a good deal, was working on a prequel to the series. Goldsborough's last Wolfe adventure, The Missing Chapter, was published nearly twenty years ago, and I was pleased to learn that we'd have another story of these squabbling associates and friends, with the sparkling wordplay and fun character quirks that elevate all of their many adventures.
I was fortunate to receive a prerelease edition of the novel, but I'm sad to say that I'm of two minds about it. Goldsborough is the expert, and I bow to his craft, but this is far from the meeting that I had envisaged. What I can say, gladly, is that Goldsborough tells his story extremely well, and uses Stout's supporting cast effectively. He gives some players, notably Del Bascom and Bill Gore, more page time than Stout ever did, and since Saul Panzer takes the lead in the groundwork investigation, Goldsborough shows us just why Archie has such respect for his talent and ability. It does raise the question, however, about why Panzer is so accommodating and cordial to the newcomer. And, of course, Cramer, Rowcliffe and Stebbins are all present and correct, growling at the private eyes and threatening their licenses.
That's perhaps my problem: it's too by-the-book. Despite Goldsborough's genuine success in crafting a believable Prohibition-era mystery - it concerns the kidnapping of Tommie Williamson, as alluded in the first Wolfe novel, Fer-de-Lance - and grounding it firmly in the period, he plays it too safe. I confess to some bias; some months ago, I really enjoyed an early novel by John Lescroart called Rasputin's Revenge, which unofficially, and pseudonymously, places a younger Nero Wolfe in action in Imperial Russia during the Great War, and it struck me how much more vibrant and fun Wolfe is when stripped of his rules and routines. Some of the most memorable imagery within Stout's novels come from those instances, such as Too Many Cooks or his war against the criminal Arnold Zeck, where Wolfe is uprooted from his comforts. I had hoped in vain to read of Wolfe putting his world into place, but, sadly, his routine is already set in stone. The only difference is that, rather than Archie explaining to a prospective client that his boss is up in the orchid rooms from four to six, it's Panzer explaining it to Archie.
While this is a huge quibble for me, I can imagine that Wolfe's many fans will happily overlook it just for the satisfaction and the genuine pleasure of returning to the brownstone and enjoying more time with one of detective fiction's greatest characters. Both in constructing a good mystery, and in detailing the too-young-to-vote Archie Goodwin, Goldsborough really succeeds, and while he's unfamiliar with New York City and new to the detective game, there's an honest and realistic spark to Goodwin as a person. When Wolfe offers him a permanent position in his household, it's natural and believable.
I also have to credit Goldsborough for playing within the rather ridiculous rules of time within the original corpus. Readers are forced to handwave away the fact that none of the regular or recurring players seem to age within the forty-year span of Stout's novels, because the tradition is that each story is set around the time of its publication. Consequently, a story that takes place six or seven years before Fer-de-Lance has to be a story set around 1928. Goldsborough does a fine job evoking the time, with attendant quirks of language ("autos," "beanery"), technology, and customs, but while I can imagine that many readers will finish this book hoping for Wolfe and Archie's next adventure, it leaves me hoping that, if Goldsborough does have another story in mind, it is set in 1924 or thereabout, and is a tale of a Wolfe who has not yet become sedentary and hidebound. That's what I'd like to read. Recommended for Wolfe's fans.
A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for the purpose of review. If you'd like to see your comics or detective fiction featured here, send me an email.