When Rex Stout took paper to pen to write the first Nero Wolfe story, the house hold at the old Brownstone was all ready mostly established. On the heels of the Maltese Falcon prequel Spade and Archer, Robert Goldsborough, author of seven Nero Wolfe books from the 1980s and 90s sets down the account of the first meeting between Wolfe and Goodwin guided by clues Stout left in his novels.
Goldsborough anchors the story in the 1920s which is a departure as Wolfe stories have always been set in the “present” but a story of a beginning requires a certain timeframe. The book begins when Archie arrives in New York, gets a night watchman’s job and has no choice but to shoot two thugs. Even though, his decision was appropriate, he was fired by upper management concerned about trigger-happy guards. However, Archie finds his ideal career when he snags a job at the Bascom detective agency.
Bascom is brought on a kidnapping case along with some other operatives including the ever-familiar Orrie Cather, Fred Durkin, and Saul Panzer. The initial goal is to merely ensure the safe return of the boy, who is the son of a wealthy New Yorker. But having done that, Wolfe is determined to catch the kidnappers. To facilitate this, Archie goes to undercover as the boy’s bodyguard in hopes of uncovering some information that Wolfe can use to solve the case.
The book’s strong point is its overall narrative that tells of the beginning of Archie Goodwin’s legendary career and his first encounters with some of his best known associates and foils include Cramer, Stebbins, and the the detectives who worked with Wolfe and Goodwin the most including the teers as well as the less used Bill Gore and Del Bascom. We get to see them a bit more than we would in a typical Wolfe yarn. While the mystery is not earth-shattering, it’s fair and the resolution is handled well in typical Wolfe fashion.
The weak point in the story is that Nero Wolfe doesn’t sound quite sound like himself and Archie sounds nothing like himself. Usually, Goldsborough’s portrayal of Wolfe was close enough usually but a few times sounded dissonant. Perhaps, the most jarring section was when Wolfe made the statement that prohibition laws were wrong because they were attempting to “legislate morality.” However, you feel about “legislating morality,” it’s become a modern cliche and Nero Wolfe certainly never spoke in cliches. In addition, one Amazon review points out that Wolfe used “infer” as a synonym for “imply,” something that Wolfe would never do.
It’s even worse with Archie Goodwin. It would be unreasonable to expect a 19 year old fresh out of Ohio to sound the veteran New York Private eye Rex Stout wrote about for 40 years. However, there wasn’t even a hint. This Archie Goodwin is a completely serious and respectful young man who helps to teach the father of the kidnapped the importance of spending time with this boy. To imagine this character developing into a wise cracking lady’s man seems almost beyond belief. Whatever can be said of the corrupting influence of a big city or a big city changing someone, the change necessary in Goodwin is too incredible.
Overall, the story lacked the fun of the Stout Wolfe books. However, it answers a lot of questions fans have had about the characters particularly the lesser known ones and provides some satisfaction and Nero Wolfe is still mostly himself. Overall, this could have been a great book if Goldsborough had done a better job of capturing the essence of Stout’s characters particularly young Archie Goodwin. As it was, it was only a fair-to-good one.
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