Whenever we walk into the brownstone home of Nero Wolfe, we’re used to seeing everything in its place. Fritz is in the kitchen, doubtless making another fine dish for his employer. Theodore Horstmann is upstairs in the plant rooms, tending to ten thousand orchids. And when Wolfe isn’t up there himself, he’s in his office reading a book and attempting to ignore Archie Goodwin’s sarcastic digs, with the occasional cry of “Pfui!” But how did it all get there?
After all, Wolfe and Archie had to meet—what was that first encounter like? Were they working on a case together? What case was it? What did Archie do to impress Wolfe so much that something possessed him to hire the young man as his personal assistant, when their personalities are such polar opposites? To answer all these questions, Robert Goldsborough ended up writing Archie Meets Nero Wolfe, a prequel to Rex Stout’s famous series.
Archie Goodwin is new to New York, having just moved there from small-town Ohio. He’s not much over eighteen and the Great Depression is in full swing. It’s tough to find work of any kind, but Archie loses his position as a security guard when he shoots two people on the job in self-defense. He finds himself in a strange city with no prospect of a job any time soon.
And so he turns to detective work, getting a job from private operative Del Bascom and showing he’s a natural-born detective. As if on cue, Nero Wolfe hires Del, along with Archie, for a job. Someone has kidnapped Tommie Williamson, son of the hotel-chain king Burke Williamson, and the business mogul wants his son back. Along with Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin, Orrie Cather, and Bill Gore, Archie and Del must do Wolfe’s legwork for him.
Robert Goldsborough is the man who continued the Nero Wolfe series back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, with seven novels being released starting with Murder in E Minor in 1986. His last effort was The Missing Chapter in 1994. Although I own all of them, I have not read any of these continuations yet because I wish to read the Wolfe series in order first. But since Archie Meets Nero Wolfe is a prequel, that means later entries in the series won’t be spoiled! So here I am today.…
First things first: Archie Meets Nero Wolfe is a good book. It’s highly readable and fairly entertaining. However, for much of the book, the voice of Archie Goodwin is missing. Personally, though, I rather liked this. Archie isn’t some wide-eyed innocent, but he does lack experience in detective work, and so the more he learns throughout the novel, the more his narrator’s voice develops into what we’re used to. It’s kind of weird not to have much Wolfe/Archie banter, but the reason for that is obvious.
However, Goldsborough really nails Nero Wolfe’s voice—Wolfe sounds precisely like he does in Rex Stout’s original novels. So does Inspector Cramer, for that matter, as he shows up every once in a while and gets mad at Wolfe, whom he suspects of hiding information; these scenes felt very much like they could have come from Stout himself. Was I ever fooled into thinking that Rex Stout wrote this novel? No— but then it’s hard to do that when the name Robert Goldsborough is emblazoned on the cover.
What I really enjoyed was seeing Archie team up with the ’Teers as equals in solving one of Wolfe’s cases. He gets instructions and does legwork with the rest of them, and this leads to some interesting clashes of personalities. It’s a unique opportunity to see what the teamdoes after getting instructions from Wolfe—usually at this point in the story, Archie would be sent out to question suspects and he would only see the results of the team’s investigations.
Goldsborough uses references in some of Rex Stout’s original stories to construct this novel. I recognized some of these. Others flew over my head because I haven’t yet read the story in question. Wolfe fans will spot expansions to references that can be found in Fer-de-Lance and the novella Fourth of July Picnic. The character of Bill Gore appeared in a handful of stories that I can recall, and Del Bascom certainly is referenced in The Silent Speaker and The Second Confession. Cramer, is well-known to Wolfe fans, of course,but so are Lieutenant Rowcliff and Sergeant Stebbins, whose appearances in this book are quite welcome. There are also some scenes here corresponding to events that Archie refers to in In The Best Families.
When an author works at a pastiche, it’s most important to stay true to the original characters. (Poor Sherlock Holmes’ character has been betrayed too many times to count!) Happily, Goldsborough makes you feel right at home with these characters—Archie might not sound quite like his usual self until the end, but he feels like the same character. The same goes for everyone else—they feel like the same characters we know and love.
Goldsborough apparently drew inspiration for this book from Joe Gores’ Spade and Archer, the prequel to The Maltese Falcon, which I read earlier this year. The influence shows. For instance, the first case we see Archie solve is a disappearance, the same kind of case we first see Sam Spade solve in Spade and Archer. But the books are also very distinct—Spade and Archer is more of a tangled-story web, while Archie Meets Nero Wolfe is a relatively simple, linear story. Both are terrific reads.
But if you feel that such a story is an abomination on Stout’s stories and should never have been allowed, I doubt that the book will make a convert of you. If a pastiche is done well, I can be entertained by it, but rare is the occasion where I’ve been fooled into thinking a story was part of the original canon. I thought Goldsborough did a terrific job with Rex Stout’s characters, the only potentially off-putting factor being how different Archie sounds from what readers are accustomed to. When you consider it, though, it’s a move that makes sense for this book.
It’s a delight to see Nero Wolfe back in action, and I’m really very pleased with the result. Robert Goldsborough’s Archie Meets Nero Wolfe is a welcome addition to Stout’s legendary series, and does a fine job telling a good story in the universe Stout created. You can see Fritz in the kitchen, Horstmann upstairs in the plant rooms, and Wolfe seated comfortably at his desk with a cold beer. And you can watch Archie Goodwin take his rightful place beside Wolfe as his right-hand man.
Archie Meets Nero Wolfe will be published tomorrow by MysteriousPress.com. A paperback will be available as well as an e-book. I know I will purchase a paperback for my collection as soon as it is released!
Originally published at the author’s website, At the Scene of the Crime, which The American Culture heartily recommends for mystery aficionados. Reprinted with permission.