Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Book Review: Archie Meets Nero Wolfe by Robert Goldsborough

Title: Archie Meets Nero Wolfe
Author: Robert Goldsborough
Publisher: Mysterious Press
Series: Nero Wolfe - prequel
Source: Library
Adult Mystery 

Let me try to explain the depths of my joy when I spotted this on the bookshelf at the library I work at:

No, really. I startled a passing librarian with my shriek and dance of joy. I had a much better reaction from one of our other co-workers, who also was quite excited about this find.

Archie Goodwin is one of my top five favorite men of mystery, if you will. I don't actually remember how I stumbled upon the Nero Wolfe series, just that someone put the second of Rex Stout's novels in my hands (The League of Frightened Men) when I was a teenager and told me to read. So read I did, and I fell in love in with Fritz and Wolfe and Archie. But mostly Archie.

If you're unfamiliar with the Nero Wolfe series, it is set in New York and starts in the early 1930's (although carries through several decades after) and follows the cases of Nero Wolfe, a private investigator. Nero Wolfe has several extreme eccentricites, including the fact that he very, very rarely leaves his brownstone home, follows a regimented schedule every day that cannot be broken, he eats very lavish meals prepared by a live-in chef (that would be Fritz), and grows orchids in a rooftop hothouse. Wolfe does not tolerate the iterruption of his schedule, his authority being questioned, his privacy being invaded, most women, most men, stupidity, business talk over dinner, and a great myriad of other situations.What he does tolerate (with or without grace) is Archie Goodwin.

Archie is Nero Wolfe's presence outside the brownstone. He serves as legs and ears and eyes while interviewing witnesses, trailing suspects, and chasing perpetrators. Archie also serves as a thorn in Wolfe's side -it's offically part of his job- to motivate his boss into taking cases so they can get paid. He's a charmer and a smooth talker; a ladies man and always a gentleman. He's savvy and street smart and he quits as many times as Wolfe fires him, but it's always an idle threat. When Rex Stout's series starts, Archie's been working for Wolfe for several years.

Rex Stout passed away in 1975, and eleven years later Robert Goldsborough had his first Nero Wolfe novel published, Murder in C Minor. With the blessing of the Stout estate, he wrote several more Wolfe and Archie mysteries. Now, he hasn't written a Wolfe book since 1994 (which for you non-instant math people like me is 19 years ago) and what better way to return to the scene than with the fan's dream: an origin story. A prequel. Hallelujah.

Archie Meets Nero Wolfe opens with Archie, fresh from Ohio, working a job as a night watchman on the docks. He's nineteen and looking for his big opportunity in the city - and winds up killing two men in self defense. He's let go from the watchman position, but impresses P.I. Del Bascom and gets taken on in the private detective's office. Archie's big opportunity comes with the Big Case. Tommie Williamson, son of a very wealthy businessman, is kidnapped and his father taps Nero Wolfe to take the case. Wolfe calls in the best detectives he knows, including Bascom who brings Archie to the table. The race is on to find the boy and find the kidnappers and to secure Archie's place in literary history.

As a longtime Archie fan, I loved this book. It was a fun trip through 1920's New York with a young, sharp Archie who relayed details to the reader with great panache and flare. As a long time mystery reader, it left something to be desired. The story moves quickly, from the small introductory mysteries that set up Archie's skills into the bigger mystery of Tommie Williamson's disappearance. There's some legitimate detective legwork, and you do get a sense for Archie unfolding the process of how he'll operate as a detective for the first time. We're also shown Orrie Cather and Saul Panzer (who are very important supporting characters in most of the Rex Stout novels) meeting Archie and how they work both with and independently of Wolfe.

Speaking of Wolfe, he's not a prevalent in the book as I was expecting, but when he was he was utterly and perfectly Wolfe. Short fuse, fabulous vocabulary, and an all seeing eye to rival Sherlock Holmes himself all wonderfully played out. It was just wasn't enough! Part of the joy of the Goodwin/Wolfe read is their exchanges and interactions and I suppose I was expecting more of them having some of those first conflicts and concessions.
Wolfe is not amused by your shenanigans.

For the most part, Goldsborough does a good job with Archie's voice. Archie is a very distinctive first person narrator. Some of the story felt like it was being told by a nineteen year old Archie and some of the story felt like it was being told by the Archie who matured over the course of several decades. However, and this might be more important, Archie is completely charming throughout. And I think that's what it is. If you're approaching this book with the intent of sinking your teeth into a meaty mystery, you may come away wanting. If you're approaching this book as a handshake, as polite introduction to one of the mystery genre's greatest men, you'll be pleasantly delighted.

So, if you like 1920's New York, cozy mysteries, classic private investigators, or already love Archie and Wolfe, you should definitely pick up Archie Meets Nero Wolfe. If you've not been to the world of Stout as of yet, I don't think I would recommend you start here. Start with The League of Frightened Men or Champagne for One and then consider hitting the prequel.

Usually I try to find out if any movie rights are associated with a book, and in this case there are not. However, Archie Goodwin was brought to life by Timothy Hutton in the A&E Nero Wolfe series which ran for two seasons 2000-2001. Timothy Hutton and Maury Chakin are Goodwin and Wolfe, respectively, and neither one of them could be more perfect for the roles. It's a great mystery series with fantastic costuming and dialogue. It's available on DVD.
Perfect Archie Goodwin is perfect.

If you speak Italian, YouTube also has episodes of the newer Italian version of Nero Wolfe. While Timothy Hutton is perfection as Archie, the Archie in those episodes is also quite wonderful.

No, I don't speak Italian.

Italian Archie is also good looking.

Yes, I'm learning Italian.
I recommend the Wolfe/Goodwin series to pretty much everyone, no matter whether you start with the original Stout or pick up Goldsborough's prequel. They're great characters you should definitely get to know.

Hope you all enjoy the upcoming St. Patrick's Day!

Don't drive spifflicated!


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