Saturday, November 17, 2012

Pierce’s Picks: “Archie Meets Nero Wolfe”

A weekly alert for followers of crime, mystery, and thriller fiction.

Archie Meets Nero Wolfe, by Robert Goldsborough
(The Mysterious Press/Open Road):

Several years ago, when I re-read Rex Stout’s first Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin novel, Fer-de-Lance (1934), I was rather surprised at its paucity of back-story. I’d somehow forgotten that the more than 40 novels and dozens of novellas Stout penned about his rotund and eccentric, yet brilliant armchair detective and Wolfe’s more dynamic legman/sidekick, Goodwin, supplied little in the way of history for either character. Readers were told much about the everyday rituals at Wolfe’s West 35th Street brownstone and Archie’s endeavors to charm women (particularly female suspects), but considerably less of an intimate nature about Stout’s odd couple. In Archie Meets Nero Wolfe, though, Robert Goldsborough--who concocted seven Wolfe novels in the 1980s and ’90s, beginning with Murder in E Minor (1986), before moving on to unrelated literary endeavors--tries to change that a wee bit, imagining how Goodwin might have earned his memorable place in Wolfe’s retinue. Set during the waning years of America’s Prohibition era (1920-1933), Goldsborough’s tale finds the then 19-year-old, Ohio-born Archie having decamped to Gotham with hopes of expanding his realm of experience, only to wind up working as a night watchman--a job during which he shoots a couple of burglars. Promptly dismissed for being “trigger happy,” he wangles a better position with a moderately successful (and seemingly honest) private investigator by the name of Del Bascom. It’s when Bascom is recruited to help solve the kidnapping of young Tommie Williamson that Goodwin meets Wolfe. Burke Williamson, Tommie’s dad and a wealthy hotel owner, has hired Wolfe to figure out who snatched his boy from the family home, and get him back pronto, no matter the cost. As you might well guess, Archie proves more than able in resolving this mystery, impressing Nero Wolfe with both his memory and his moxie. The rest, as they say, is history. This concept could have come off as egregiously gimmicky, but Goldsborough--capturing something akin to Stout’s voice and storytelling energy--delivers a whodunit that satisfies above and beyond its place as a Wolfe prequel. Having enjoyed this novel, I now hope to go back and read Goldsborough’s earlier Wolfe/Goodwin pastiches, which have been released in e-book format.

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With Thanksgiving coming next Thursday, and several other professional assignments drawing heavily on my time, I’ve decided to take a week off from writing “Pierce’s Picks.” So let me leave you with mentions of a few other new crime-fiction works to investigate while I am busy elsewhere: Road to Nowhere (Thomas & Mercer), by Jim Fusilli, about a drifter whose life takes an unexpected and violent twist after he plays Good Samaritan to a young woman; Crashed (Soho Crime), by Timothy Hallinan, which introduces burglar-turned-gumshoe Junior Bender in a story having to do with sabotage on a porn-film set and the downward-spiralling career of a once-beloved child star; and A Death in the Small Hours (Minotaur), the sixth of Charles Finch’s mysteries featuring Victorian politician and amateur sleuth Sir Charles Lenox, who in these pages finds his relaxation in a country village upset by a succession of odd vandalisms that may indicate a substantially more sinister plan in the works.

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