Jeanne is back today…
Treadmill Books: Robert Goldsborough’s Nero Wolfe
Repeat readers of this column may be taken aback that I do sometimes read mysteries not involving a cat. It does happen. I am a long-time fan of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, so much so that when I acquired a black Persian cat with yellow eyes, I named him Nero. Nero was a sweet, gentle cat which confused people who thought he was named for the Roman Emperor. So in my mind, at least, there is a cat connection, however slim.
When Robert Goldsborough produced his first Nero Wolfe book, I was very favorably impressed. Murder in E Minor seemed to capture the flavor of Stout’s books. The second book, Death on Deadline, seemed to stray farther and I don’t even think I finished the third.
Flash forward nearly thirty years, and I decided to give the series another try. Archie Meets Nero Wolfe is, as the title implies, the story of how one Archie Goodwin came to work for the great detective. Because this was earlier than Stout had covered, I found I enjoyed it. I continued to read from there and I find them to be good treadmill books.
Now, I do not find them to reflect my internal view of the characters, especially not Nero Wolfe. I can’t exactly explain why, except to say that he seems less imposing than in the Stout novels—almost more approachable. I have the same problem with film versions of Wolfe; I haven’t seen any that I’ve liked. I had thought that William Conrad could have managed the role and so he could—except that the writers apparently saw fit to soften the character to make him more of a stereotypical hard on the outside, mush on the inside sort. When I picture Wolfe, he is more Orson Wells or Raymond Burr.
But others obviously have different views. To enjoy the Goldsborough books, I treat them as fan fiction: someone else’s views of beloved characters. Goldsborough does a pretty good job of researching the era (most of the ones I’ve read seem to be set in the early 1960s) and providing atmosphere.
Murder, Stage Left is the most recent title and—inexplicably—I liked it. I say inexplicably because there were several things that bothered me in the book, any one of which might have caused me to stop reading and yet on I went. Wolfe is approached by a Broadway producer who is concerned about some ill feeling among his cast and crew, so Archie goes undercover as a journalist for a Canadian theatre magazine to ask some questions. Unfortunately, before his investigation is finished, a murder occurs. The rest of the book is classic interrogation by Wolfe of all the people involved.
One of the annoyances was that I realized during the questioning was that most of the interviewees were not using contractions. That’s a speech pattern Wolfe uses, but I certainly wouldn’t expect it of actors and actresses of varying backgrounds. It made it more difficult for a unique voice for each character to emerge.
Another was when an actress was described as believing she was the reincarnation of Gertrude Lawrence or Helen Hayes. Although the specific time isn’t given, the feel of the book is the 1960s—Wolfe is reading Vance Packard’s The Status Seekers, which came out in 1959—and Helen Hayes was very much alive and active on stage then. (She didn’t pass away until 1992.)
One more, and I’ll leave it at that: the victim was found slumped as if from a heart attack. The actual cause was arsenic poisoning which, all the best books and TV shows assure me, is characterized by cramping, vomiting, diarrhea, and other symptoms that last quite some time, not the span of a theatre performance. (It may be that it was such a massive dose that the victim succumbed too quickly for all of that, but good little Agatha Christie reader that I am, I expected the air to be sniffed for bitter almonds.) As I said, my knowledge of poisons is limited so it may well be that someone could just drop dead from arsenic poisoning.
And yet, with all that against it, I kept reading and treadmill plodding along. I think it was just that this was a traditional mystery, wherein I could match my limited wits against the sleuth’s to see if I could figure it out from the answers given at the interrogation. From that view, it was a satisfying book. The view from my Fitbit was also pleasing.
If you’re a hardcore Wolfe fan, Goldsborough may not be to your liking. If, however, you can accept someone else’s version of the characters, then these can be a bit of period fun.