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.

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