Sometimes, you just want to sit back, relax, and take in the game. For Archie Goodwin and Saul Panzer, the sport of their choice is baseball. And so they venture out to the Polo Grounds to catch the Giants and the Dodgers battling it out. Of course, there’s a friendly bet on this game as with any other, and the winner will find himself being treated to an exquisite dinner at Rusterman’s Restaurant.
But this game isn’t quite like any other. There’s a notable guest in the stands, state senator Orson Milbank, who is at the Polo Grounds for Flag Day, enthusiastically supporting the American flag and getting some good publicity out of it. He needs all the publicity he can get, after losing many voters over some of his not-so-popular decisions. But apparently, he made one particularly bad enemy, because in the game’s fourth inning, the senator slumps over dead from a gunshot wound.
It’s a big case, but Archie has no interest in it and decides to leave it alone – no need to involve Nero Wolfe in the matter. That is, until the senator’s widow shows up on Nero Wolfe’s doorstep, an astronomical check in hand. Archie’s mind is changed, but Nero Wolfe remains recalcitrant. It looks like, to solve this case, Archie will have to deal with one of Nero Wolfe’s famous “relapses”… oh, and Inspector Cramer is right on schedule, barging into Wolfe’s office and demanding to know just what the hell is going on.
Murder in the Ballpark follows on the heels of Archie Meets Nero Wolfe, a prequel penned by Robert Goldsborough and released in 2012. Murder in the Ballpark is not a direct continuation of the series – it does not take place in the modern day, instead set sometime after World War II and before the Korean Conflict. It’s good to see Goldsborough taking up his pen and doing these continuations again. Say what you will about continuing an author’s work after they’re gone (don’t mind if I do), Goldsborough has a real knack for these, and I like ‘em. I particularly like the way he recreates the Archie/Nero Wolfe banter. It feels authentic, true to the corpus as Rex Stout wrote it, and it’s nice to revisit these beloved characters and feel as though you could still walk down West 35th Street and pop into the brownstone for a visit (assuming the number hasn’t changed again).
The plot is okay. A common criticism of the Nero Wolfe series is that the plots could often work better and more efficiently in novella form or as a short story. There are some exceptions (such as Too Many Cooks or The League of Frightened Men), but it’s a legitimate point. Plotting just wasn’t, generally speaking, Rex Stout’s forte. What matters most in these stories is the narration of Archie Goodwin, the banter between him and Nero Wolfe, and the snappy dialogue. And Goldsborough delivers, especially when it comes to Nero Wolfe – Wolfe’s dialogue is uncannily good, just like something Rex Stout would have written.
Unfortunately, something Rex Stout might not have written is all the miniature speeches we get throughout the book. A recurring theme is the way American WWII vets are mistreated in the public eye after having saved the day in Europe. They were hailed as heroes, and then promptly dismissed from the public consciousness, the book makes clear. And although I could see Rex Stout delivering a lecture or two on the subject in novel form (after all, Nero Wolfe does lecture about race issues in Too Many Cooks), something about the way these speeches are written seems too modern. There’s clearly a contemporary influence behind these moments, and the more you get, the more clearly you can see them.
It also doesn’t get much better when a second subject is introduced, the matter of women in public office, with characters making these oh-so-wacky predictions about women becoming more and more prominent in these roles (Bosh, I say! Absolute piffle! It would be most unorthodox!) (Also an unsubtle plug for Hillary Clinton’s expected presidential run?–Ed.)
Fortunately, none of this becomes a fatal problem. It’s a bit of a flaw, and sometimes it took me out of the world of the brownstone as I was reminded that this is a contemporary work after all. But it didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the book. For what it’s worth, I still think it’s a darn good read, with terrific dialogue and Archie/Wolfe banter. The brownstone comes to life for a few hours, and for me, that is good enough.
If you’re already a fan of the Nero Wolfe series, Murder in the Ballpark is a good book to read. It might not be the greatest introduction to the series, but even to the uninitiated I think it’s a solid enough read to recommend. I hope we will be able to see more of these in the future.
Note: Murder in the Ballpark will be published by The Mysterious Press later this month; currently the date on Amazon is January 28th. I received a free copy of the book via NetGalley, and was asked in exchange to provide an honest review.