review: archie meets nero wolfe

Archie Meets Nero Wolfe: A Prequel by Robert Goldsborough (2012)

Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe were originally created by Rex Stout, and somewhere in the 1990s, Robert Goldsborough wrote about half a dozen new Nero Wolfe novels.  I have already reviewed The Missing Chapter on this blog and I have also read Murder in E Minor, both by Goldsborough.  I just finished the novel that Goldsborough published last year which imagines how Archie and Wolfe met and how Archie came to New York City and started working for Wolfe.  On the one hand, it’s an inventive story of how it could have happened; on the other hand, it didn’t feel true to Archie Goodwin’s character as readers such as myself have come to know him.

The story begins with Archie Goodwin working as a night security guard.  He’s only 19-years-old and he’s brand new to Depression-era New York City.  Archie hasn’t been holding this job for long when criminals come to the location he is guarding and try to steal the goods owned by his employer.  Archie ends up shooting one of the criminals out of self-defense and in the duty of protecting his employer’s merchandise.  Although his employer appreciates this, Archie is still fired from his job and forced to look for work again.  He decides to try working for a private investigator and goes to the offices of Del Bascom.  Bascom tells him that he can’t afford to hire him because he doesn’t have enough work for one person, much less two.  Archie says he will prove himself by working for his first case for free, and Bascom gives him a case he hasn’t been able to solve.  Of course, Archie solves it, and for a while he works for Bascom.  It is through Bascom that Archie meets Fred Durkin, one of Nero Wolfe’s freelance investigators.  It is also through Bascom that Archie meets Wolfe.  Bascom, as well as Fred, Saul Panzer, and Orrie Cather, are asked by Wolfe to help him with his current case—the kidnapping of 8-year-old Tommie Williamson, son of ridiculously wealthy hotelier Burke Williamson.  The five men do all of Wolfe’s leg work, and eventually they rescue Tommie from his kidnappers.  Still, Wolfe is not satisfied that the kidnappers and the ransom money paid to them by Williamson remain at large, so the five men keep investigating and at the end of the novel in Wolfe’s typical fashion, the crimes are unraveled within Wolfe’s study with all of the suspects, law enforcement, and private investigators present.  Throughout the novel, the primary cast of characters with whom readers of Stout’s series are familiar eventually get introduced: Fritz Brenner, Wolfe’s master chef; Theodore Horstmann, Wolfe’s master gardener and assistant in the rooftop plant rooms where Wolfe’s prized orchids are grown; Inspector Cramer, the New York City chief of homicide, and Sergeant Stebbins and Lieutenant Rowcliff, also of the NYPD.  Wolfe’s brownstone is still in the same place, as is Wolfe’s daily routine and consumption of beer.  Even the red leather chair is there and accounted for.

While the plot and to some extent the characters and setting feel familiar, there are also things that feel off or wrong altogether.  Reading the dialogue of the private detectives often felt wrong—as though they were talking in a kind of slang that felt false.  Also, I’m used to seeing much more of Wolfe during the story, but in this prequel, the focus is much more heavily placed on Archie (which feels right) as well as the suspects themselves.  However, the primary reason why this novel felt unlike Rex Stout’s novels is the presentation of Archie himself.  Goldsborough gives us an Archie Goodwin who is at the beginning of his relationship with Wolfe, his life in New York City, and his work as a private detective.  So yes, of course the Archie that I’m used to isn’t represented in the pages of Archie Meets Nero Wolfe: A Prequel because that Archie does not yet exist.  And yet, maybe it’s the older, wiser, more experienced Archie that makes reading the Rex Stout mysteries so fun in the first place.  He is not the Great Detective, but he is the central character of the Nero Wolfe mysteries, and to have him be essentially missing makes the whole novel feel…just…too far afield.

One other notable aspect of this book is the dropping of dates and events that pin down the time in which the story takes place.  I read in an introduction to one of Stout’s books that he purposefully wrote the novels so that readers could enter the series at any time and didn’t have to read them in order of publication.  Perhaps that’s why it’s not obvious when the story is taking place.  In Archie Meets Nero Wolfe: A Prequel, Goldsborough makes it clear that the time of the story is  somewhere between 1929 and 1931.  The Stock Market Crash of 1929 has already happened, Prohibition has not yet ended, and the Empire State Building (completed in 1931) is being built but has not yet been completed.  The rise of telephones in the home and the models of cars also helps to date the events in the novel.

Goldsborough deserves credit for imagining how it all could have started between Archie and Wolfe.  I think the reasons I didn’t really like the book are that Archie at 19 is much different than the 30-something Archie I have always known, and I wanted more interaction between Archie and Wolfe.  Because of the story that Goldsborough wanted to tell—an origin story—neither of these things could be helped.  My advice is that if you haven’t read any of the Rex Stout books, don’t begin with this prequel.  If you have read the Stout books, take Archie Meets Nero Wolfe: A Prequel with a grain of salt and come to it expecting something different.  Different isn’t bad, it’s just different.

review: the little sister

The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler (1949)

The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler is the fifth novel in the series featuring hardboiled private detective Philip Marlowe.  It seems that I read one Marlowe novel a year, so this is my book for 2013.  What I will remember most about The Little Sister is my sense that this is the “odd” one.

The story begins with Marlowe in his office.  He obviously doesn’t have a case or anything to do, so his focus is on a blue bottle fly.  Marlowe watches the fly, waiting for his chance, and when it finally arrives, his phone rings.  Marlowe answers, asks the caller to hold a moment in a soft voice, and then squashes the blue bottle fly. Then he returns to his caller, Orfamay Quest.  Orfamay is from Manhattan, Kansas, and she is in Los Angeles to find her brother, Orrin Quest, who has gone missing.  She is the eponymous little sister of the title, and with reluctance on both of their parts, Orfamay becomes Marlowe’s client.  Marlowe sets out to investigate, and in the course of two days he stumbles upon two murders, both of which he reports anonymously to the police.  From the second crime scene, he takes a piece of evidence that eventually leads him to a Hollywood starlet, Mavis Weld.  Though she declines his offer of assistance, Marlowe convinces her agent to retain his services so that Mavis Weld, too, is one of his clients and on whose behalf he can do further investigation.  It is also for her benefit and protection that Marlowe gets further enmeshed into the morally corrupt and decaying world that is Chandler’s fictional world of Los Angeles, to the point that he too gets his hands dirty, all in the name of protecting his client. Ultimately, Marlowe does find Orrin Quest and solves the series of murders that occur during his investigation, and as readers have come to expect, Marlowe is irrevocably changed by his experiences and the choices that he makes.

In The Little Sister, Chandler gives us a darker, edgier Philip Marlowe in the sense that it feels like, if Marlowe ever had any hope for humanity, it is now all gone.  He’s 38 years old in this novel, five years older than the Marlowe we meet in The Big Sleep.  It’s as though he has given up or lost some important part of himself and now all he has left is his personal code of ethics that drives his sense of duty to do the best for his clients.  I felt this especially in Chapter 13, where Marlowe repeats the phrase: “You’re not human tonight, Marlowe.” There’s also a point in that chapter where he narrates: “Well, what is my business? Do I know? Did I ever know? Let’s not get into that.  You’re not human tonight, Marlowe. Maybe I never was or ever will be.  Maybe I’m an ectoplasm with a private license.  Maybe we all get like this in the cold half-lit world where always the wrong thing happens and never the right.” This is what I mean when I say Marlowe has lost something important, and here he states plainly what that something is: his humanity.  It’s this loss of feeling human that plagues Marlowe throughout the novel, and what makes it more interesting is his response to the three women in the novel.

Hardboiled detectives are always confronted with the femme fatale, and though they are tempted by them, they can never give into them.  This blueprint is followed in The Little Sister.  Orfamay Quest, Mavis Weld, and Dolores Gonzales (another actress) each represent sexual temptation and at various moments, damsels in distress in need of Marlowe’s help.  Also typical of Chandler’s femme fatales, they express the extent of the moral decay and corruption of Chandler’s post-war Los Angeles.  All three women are transplants to Los Angeles, and all three succumb to its corrupting influence and, like Marlowe, lose part of their own humanity.  Not surprisingly, it is the woman who has kept some semblance of humanity that gains most of Marlowe’s support and becomes the one woman he’s willing to sacrifice himself for.  Because even though this Marlowe is older and more cynical, we are still supposed to see him as the knight from The Big Sleep.  Tarnished and forced to get dirty in order to serve his clients, but a knight nonetheless.  But it’s Marlowe’s response to all of these women that intrigues me in that they throw themselves at him, and he doesn’t resist, but there’s also no pleasure either, and I think this is intended to further demonstrate his loss of human.  No, he’s not supposed to care for these women in a romantic sense, but it’s also that he seems to lack the ability to care for these women beyond a detective-client relationship.  I’ve always had difficulty with the way Chandler characterizes women, but at the same time, I can see how his characterization of them is intended to be representative of the world Marlowe is forced to navigate.  This novel in particular, though, seems more intent upon developing the female characters so that they highlight the growing disillusionment and nihilism of Marlowe’s worldview.

I said above that I would think of The Little Sister as the “odd” one.  Throughout the novel, Marlowe is just bumbling along, not sure where he’s going or what he should do next.  This is typical of hardboiled detective fiction, but this novel is even more chaotic and nonsensical than most.  This wasn’t my favorite Chandler novel, but what I did like was the evolution of Marlowe’s character.  If you’re reading the entire series, don’t skip this one; if you haven’t read any of the books in the series, definitely don’t start with this one.  It can stand alone, but it isn’t the right one for an introduction to Philip Marlowe.  My final analysis is that The Little Sister was okay, but I’m hoping the last novel, The Long Goodbye, will be better.