Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Back to Wolfe’s Lair

I was pleased recently to be able to conduct an e-mail interview with Robert Goldsborough. The 76-year-old former Chicago journalist is the author of nine novels (thus far) expanding Rex Stout’s already rather extensive series of whodunits about Manhattan armchair detective Nero Wolfe and his more energetic legman/secretary, Archie Goodwin. The first of Goldsborough’s Wolfe outings was Murder in E Minor (1986), which he followed up over the next seven years with half a dozen sequels. However, the author dropped that series back in 1994, and instead concocted an unrelated handful of historical mysteries featuring a Chicago police reporter, Steve “Snap” Malek. Not until last year did Goldsborough return to the fictional environs of Wolfe’s West 35th Street brownstone in order to deliver a spirited prequel to Stout’s series, Archie Meets Nero Wolfe.

Now he’s back with Murder in the Ball Park (Mysterious Press/Open Road), a yarn that finds Archie trying to convince his rotund boss to tackle the shooting death, at New York City’s renowned Polo Grounds baseball stadium, of a state senator--an assassination that was witnessed by both Archie and another of Wolfe’s regular operatives, Saul Panzer. Meanwhile, all of Goldsborough's previous Wolfe/Goodwin novels have been made available again in e-book format.

A good chunk of the interview I conducted with Goldsborough found its way into my latest column for Kirkus Reviews. But as so frequently happens, I had far more questions of the author than could be answered in the space of that column. So I’m installing the balance of our exchange below.

J. Kingston Pierce: Where do you live in Chicago?

Robert Goldsborough: My wife and I live in Wheaton, a western suburb, and we also have a small condo in the city. I was reared in Elmhurst, another western suburb, and have lived in the Chicago area all my life.

JKP: I’m not sure I buy the story that as a teenager, you told your mother you were bored, and her response was to give you a magazine serialization of one of the Nero Wolfe mysteries, thereby making you a Wolfe and Archie Goodwin fan for life. Is there not more to the tale than that? And how old were you at the time?

RG: The story is not more complicated; that is essentially what happened, and the publication was the long-gone American Magazine. I was about 13 at the time.

JKP: By the way, do you remember which serialized Nero Wolfe novel it was that first hooked you?

RG: No, but it would have been one published about 1950.

JKP: It sounds as if you had a close relationship with your mother. Can you tell me more about that? And were you equally tight with your father? Was he a Nero Wolfe fan as well?

RG: I was close to both my parents, but my mother was the one who loved mysteries, the Wolfe stories first and foremost, but closely followed by [Agatha] Christie’s Poirot stories. My father, who was an architect, wasn’t much of a mystery reader. His preference ran to non-fiction, mostly biographies and books on history.

JKP: After your initial introduction to Rex Stout’s many novels, how quickly did you read the Wolfe series? And have you read all of his non-Wolfe works as well?

RG: I probably was well into college before I had read all of the Wolfe novels and novellas. I’ve also read a number of Stout’s non-Nero Wolfe books. The ones that come to mind are How Like a God [1929], The President Vanishes [1934], and Red Threads [1939], an Inspector Cramer mystery.

JKP: So, name your five favorites among Stout’s Nero Wolfe books.

RG: My hands-down winner is The League of Frightened Men [1935]. The other four, in no particular order, are The Golden Spiders [1953], The Doorbell Rang [1965], Some Buried Caesar [1939], and A Family Affair [1975].

JKP: What do you think the Nero Wolfe tales can teach today’s crop of crime- and mystery-fiction writers?

RG: That a fast-paced, exciting, and well-constructed mystery can be crafted without resorting to gratuitous violence, obscenity-laden passages, and graphic sex.

JKP: Your initial set of new Wolfe novels was published between 1986 and 1994. But then you stopped writing them. Was that your choice, or was it the decision of your publisher, Bantam Books?

RG: Some of both. Bantam chose to go in other directions, and these books of mine had accomplished one of the goals of both the publisher and the Stout estate--namely, to revitalize the extensive backlist of Stout books. This was accomplished. Also, I had for some time wanted to write books with my own protagonist.

JKP: A decade later, Three Strikes You’re Dead was released, introducing a protagonist of your own devising, Chicago Tribune reporter Steve “Snap” Malek. What did that newsie and his world offer that Wolfe and his armchair detection did not?

RG: I’ve always been interested in Chicago history and Chicago newspaper lore, and this series gave me a chance to explore both areas.

JKP: Why did you choose the post-Second World War era as your backdrop for the Malek yarns?

RG: Actually, two of the Malek books take place before and during the war (1938 and 1942). I’ve always been interested in the Chicago of the ’30s and ‘40s, probably because I was beginning to come of age during those years, at least the ‘40s.

JKP: For those people who haven’t read the Malek series, could you just briefly describe its protagonist and his professional milieu?

RG: Malek is a late-30ish Chicago Tribune police reporter operating out of the press room at Police Headquarters, which in that era was located at 11th and State streets. He is brash and street smart, somewhat in the manner of one Archie Goodwin. He goes out in search of scoops and ends up becoming an amateur detective, sometimes at his peril.

JKP: How much of Malek’s experience as a Trib reporter reflects your own later experiences with the same newspaper?

RG: For several months in 1959, I was a City News Bureau cub reporter assigned to the Police Headquarters press room. This was in an era where there were four intensely competitive Chicago dailies, and much of what I put into the Malek books, particularly the press room scenes, is drawn from my own experiences and observations working with those colorful characters from the dailies.

JKP: You labored on behalf of the Chicago Tribune from 1960 to 1982. That wasn’t the high point of American newspapering, but it wasn’t far off. What do you remember best from being a newspaperman during the Kennedy, Vietnam, and Nixon years?

RG: The event that stands out most was when I was part of a Tribune team that put together, almost overnight, a 32-page section, I think it was, with the complete transcript of the Watergate tapes. It was devastating to the Nixon presidency. We worked around the clock to get that section out fast.

JKP: Did you have mentors who taught you the newspaper game?

RG: The greatest influence on me in the newspaper business was Clayton Kirkpatrick, who was managing editor and then editor of the Tribune during my years there, and I had the privilege of serving as his administrative assistant for a stretch. Kirk, as he was called, was as principled as anyone I ever met in almost 50 years in the business. He steered the once-reactionary and resolutely Republican paper into a more centrist position as far as its editorials were concerned, and after he read the Watergate tapes, Kirkpatrick wrote the editorial titled “Nixon Must Go.” It has been claimed that when the president read that editorial, he said something to the effect that “when the Tribune turned against me, I knew I was through.”

JKP: Do you feel at all sorry for today’s young journalists, missing the bigger-than-life members of the press and robust energy of the newspapers you witnessed?

RG: I feel sorry for them more because of the straits newspapers find themselves in today. It is true that the business was more colorful generations ago, but also in some cases more irresponsible. Today’s journalists are as a whole smarter, more dedicated, and better educated than in earlier times. Unfortunately, there are fewer papers today than at any time in the last 150 or 200 years, and if the trend continues, the ranks of dailies will shrink further.

JKP: Why did you move from the Tribune to become the editor of Advertising Age in the early 1980s? And was that a vastly different work environment from your time at the Trib?

RG: I had been at the Trib for 21 years and felt the need for a change. I wanted to try my hand at business journalism, and Advertising Age was--and is--a fine example of a business publication. One major difference, of course, is that I went from a daily to a weekly. To make a correction, I was never the editor of Ad Age, but one of its senior editors. I greatly enjoyed my 23 years there. I never was much of a job-hopper, with two employers in 44 years.

JKP: So back to Snap Malek. Once more, you penned only a handful of those yarns--five in all--and then you suddenly gave up the enterprise. Why stop? Did you just have no more ideas for Mr. Malek?

RG: You’re right that I was out of ideas after my fifth Malek story, Terror at the Fair [2011]. But I never say never. I enjoyed writing those books, and it’s very possible that at some point, I will do more.

JKP: I was a bit surprised to find, in your new Wolfe novel, Murder in the Ball Park, a couple of historical anomalies in the text, especially your use of the honorific “Ms.,” which wouldn’t have been familiar in the 1950s. What are your feelings about getting everything historically accurate in a period novel?

RG: Ouch! Did I use Ms. in Murder in the Ball Park? Shame on me. When I am unsure as to when a word came into general usage, I usually consult The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, which gives a five-year window as to when a word entered the lexicon. In my (feeble) defense, I now have consulted that same dictionary, which says “Ms. came into usage in the 1950s as a title before a woman’s surname when her marital status was unknown or irrelevant.” Your point remains well taken, however, as I question how widespread the use of Ms. was in the early ’50s.*

JKP: Thinking back, I remember that there were some readers who were disappointed in how you originally handled Nero Wolfe, Rex Stout, and their familiar cohorts. This second time around, are you feeling more reader love for your Stout-ish tales?

RG: Going into the project the first time, I knew it was inevitable that some readers would be dissatisfied. However, I was pleasantly surprised that I got about a 95-percent approval rating from readers who wrote me--this being a time before the rise of e-mail. And given the relatively early returns on Archie Meets Nero Wolfe, I would say the positive rating is still around 95 percent, based on e-mails and Amazon comments.

JKP: And what do you think you bring to Nero Wolfe’s world that Rex Stout didn’t--or, perhaps, wouldn’t--deliver?

RG: I have tried to be as true to the spirit and the flavor of Rex Stout’s work as I could. About the only substantive change I made was to give Archie Goodwin a personal computer with which to enter the orchid germination records.

* A representative of Open Road Media, Goldsborough’s publisher, tells me that “we are planning on fixing the ‘Ms.’ in the next printing” of Murder in the Ball Park.

READ MORE: Rick Kogan on Robert Goldsborough’s Second Calling” (Chicago Tribune); “Featured Writer: Robert Goldsborough,” by Jerry Patterson.

1 comment:

Patrick said...

Thank you so much for this piece. I really enjoyed Goldsborough's recent prequel to the Wolfe series, and I thought MURDER IN THE BALLPARK was pretty good also. It's good to know more about the guy behind the name. Whatever faults his continuations might have, I will keep reading them because they always seem to capture the Archie/Wolfe banter to a tee.