Archie Meets Nero Wolfe by Robert Goldsborough: a prequel to Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe Mysteries

I was thrilled to hear this book was going to be published. I’m a huge Stout fan: I’ve read or listened to all of the Wolfe novels and short stories, and I own a copy of the cookbook. That is, I’ve read or listened to all of the stories by the original author. After Rex Stout’s death, his family allowed another author to continue the series. Before this I’d only read one of the Goldsborough novels, Silver Spire, and I believe it was the first Wolfe I ever read, so beyond a generally favourable impression, I can’t say I recall much of it. I thought it a pity he ended the series in 1994, although I liked that he’d used the last novel, The Missing Chapter, to kill a character so clearly based on himself. He went on to write other novels, with his own detective. So, nineteen years later, when I heard Mr Goldsborough had decided to revive the series and write a prequel, I found myself looking forward to it with great anticipation.

In his dedication Mr Goldsborough thanks Max Collins for his help. I’ve read a lot of Mr Collins’s work because I’m a Monk fan and he is the author of the spin-off series of novels. This struck an ominous cord for me, because I think the characterisation of Monk in the novels is extreme, so I was concerned that the characters would misfire in this book. With one obvious exception, my fears were unfounded. The two lead characters (Nero Wolfe, an armchair detective, and Archie Goodwin, his streetwise legman) don’t have the feel of Stout’s characters, but you could argue that’s because Archie is far younger than in the books, and he and Wolfe haven’t entered into the odd symbiosis which moulds them both in their later careers.

The one character who stood out as misused in the book was Orrie Cather. Without offering spoilers I’d note that this character and the narrator (Archie) fall out in one of the later books in the series, but before that he was portrayed as competent, and even charming to the people he was investigating on Wolfe’s behalf. In this book, he’s made to carry the Idiot Ball, and it’s not necessary. Wolfe novels don’t use a Watson: a character who follows the hero everywhere so the author can give information to the reader through  dialogue. Instead, Archie assumes that the reader is perusing a memoir of his adventures written by that annoying Stout guy who is their literary agent. This allows Archie to speak to the reader directly, rather like the spycraft tips in Burn Notice, if less overtly. In this book, instead, whenever the author wants the characters to make sure all the readers are keeping up, Orrie asks the necessary-but-dumb question, which makes you wonder why Wolfe hires him, because he’s clearly not the cleverest guy in the room.  He also fires at the suspects, thereby letting them escape, for no particular reason that I can see.

The ending seemed a bit perfunctory to me: Archie becomes Wolfe’s assistant (really, not a spoiler), but it isn’t satisfying.  It’s not clear what Wolfe did before he had an assistant. Saul seems to be doing the job, which is just odd, because he’s clearly still a freelancer, like in the later books.  Archie’s the preferred choice because he can repeat conversations verbatim, which is understandable, but there’s no sense that the Archie on the final page of this book is the Archie of the Stout books. I suppose you could say his inexperience helps to explain his weird behaviour in Fer-de-Lance, which is really due to it being the first book of the series, so the characters had not yet congealed into their later forms.

So, good, but not the place to start on this series. I’d start with The Silent Speaker, but other people often suggest The Golden Spiders.