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4Oct/140

Book Review: Death on a Deadline

Robert Goldsborough's 2nd Nero Wolfe novel began poorly but improved to mediocrity by the end.

Wolfe is concerned that a Scottish newspaper baron with a reputation for sensationalism will purchase the Gazette, Wolfe's long time ally and source of information. Wolfe sets out to prevent it. However, when one of the principals in the Gazette is killed and everyone else thinks its suicide, Wolfe concludes that it's actually murder and sets out to prove it.

The first third to half of the book is carnival of flummery. To start with, Goldsborough brings partisanship into the book. Notice, I send partisanship, not politics. In finding out about the misdeeds of the news tycoon, Wolfe learns from Lon Cohen that McLaren's papers have consistently endorsed Republicans and Wolfe  expresses his disapproval of endorsing Republicans and includes this as a talking point in his full page New York Times ad. (more on that in a bit.)

Politics is nothing new to Wolfe's world. Wolfe books include anti-Communism, anti-McCarthyism, concern about civil liberties, and civil rights. Even individual political figures such as J Edgar Hoover, Joe McCarthy, and Richard Nixon. However, in each of those cases, he was upset about their specific action. Wolfe never expressed loathing of an entire political party in Stout's work.

Of course, a progressive could argue that the Republican Party of Stout's age was more diverse and the modern version was more uniformly wrong by Wolfe's standards. However, this case is never made. Rather, Wolfe is presented as a partisan with unexplained animus against an entire political party. And this animus was never actually raised again and had no relevance to the plot. Indeed, had Goldsborough merely had Wolfe object to shotty journalism, the story would have lost nothing and he wouldn't have violated the Wolfe character.

Beyond partisanship, Wolfe's scheme of putting a full page ad in the New York Times was dumb. Doubtless, Goldsborough remembered the countless times Wolfe placed display ads in the paper, but never a full page ad for something that really didn't need it. The point of the full page ad was to get public attention so Wolfe could meet with people involved with the Gazette and the attempt to sell it to prevent the sale to McLaren. However, Wolfe could have run a smaller ad, or given his notoriety sent in an op-ed and saved the money. In addition, we get to read the ad and it's dull and sounds nothing like anything Stout's Wolfe would have said.

Archie is even more vapid when he bets Wolfe $10 that the Times won't publish the ad. Given that Archie has read The Times for years, this was just a stupid bet and it's unbelievable Archie would have proposed it. Like most attempts to reconstruct the Wolfe-Archie magic in this book, this one fails.

Goldsborough also has mixed success at updating Archie and Wolfe to the 1980s. On one hand, it's reasonable to imagine that Archie would want a personal computer and Wolfe not wanting to do it. Stout's Wolfe objected to buying newer cars and buying Archie a new typewriter. However, in one lazily written scene where Wolfe shows respect to a woman, Archie wished he had a VCR so he could record the moment. However, as he was not watching this on TV, he really meant he wished he had a video camera.

The mystery itself was decent but forgettable. There was no suspect, client, or interview in this story that was memorable. Wolfe performs no stunning act of showmanship. There was no big surprise twist in the investigation. It was bland and the solution we were presented strained credulity.

The best thing about this novel for the person who has read Stout's Wolfe is that it truly makes you appreciate all the little touches Stout put in that make reading his Nero Wolfe stories so memorable. One thing this book made me notice was the way that Stout chose dinner conversations. Stout's Wolfe talked about a wide variety of topics from agriculture to histories of the ancient world, to obscure scientific questions, and anthropology. I never knew what exactly Wolfe was talking about, but I felt like this was the type of thing a well-read genius would discuss. Unfortunately, Mr. Goldsborough's line of conversation for Wolfe seems far more limited with him mostly talking politics, political books, American history, and sports. Yes, Nero Wolfe discusses whether College athletes should be paid at the dinner table in this book.

While dinner conversation is prosaic, I do give Goldsborough credit for one thing: Compared to the last book, Goldsborough's Wolfe reads in a more Wolfian manner based on the titles of the books of Wolfe mentioned.

Still, I admit being eager to see Wolfe hold a confab and name a murderer when I got to that part of the book. Goldsborough's book allows you a chance to see Wolfe and Archie in action. If you can get past all the flummery and just think about better Nero Wolfe stories, you may enjoy this book more than I did.

Rating: PFui!

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6Sep/140

Book Review: Murder in E Minor

After the death of Nero Wolfe creator Rex Stout, Robert Goldsborough took up the task of continuing on the Nero Wolfe series with the blessing of Stout's estate.

It's two years after the cataclysmic events of A Family Affair and Nero Wolfe, the world's greatest private detective is no longer practicing. However, when the niece of a man who once saved his life in Montenegro turns to Wolfe because her uncle is being threatened, Wolfe goes into action, but too late as quickly the uncle is killed.

The book is most enjoyable if read for its own merits rather than hoping it to continue the Stout legacy. Goldsborough tries a number of things that are ultimately unsuccessful which were hallmarks of the Stout books. First, is Wolfe himself who is re-reading Jane Eyre in an early chapter and discusses why third parties don't succeed in Presidential elections at the dinner table. Wolfe's interests both literary and conversational were far more erudite with Stout writing. The third party thing is kind of dumb and obvious. There's a visit from Kramer where he has a sincere heart-to-heart with Archie pleading for him and Wolfe to get off the case. That the Police would try and pressure Wolfe off at this point was incredible, and the heart-to-heart thing had been tried in the last Wolfe book by Stout. Perhaps the most egregious thing to happen was when Archie went to get a taxi, pick up a cashier's check, and arrange a simple visit from some suspects and got a "very satisfactory" from Wolfe. First of all, Archie made a big deal of it when this was merely his job and he should be ashamed for making a big dea of it. Secondly, Wolfe only handed out "very satisfactories" when Archie did something truly remarkable, not just doing something any low level employee could manage.

However, Goldsborough did a fair number of things right. The book's plot offers a few teases of Wolfe's past in Montenegro and that itself is sure to tantalize fans. And the appearance of a mysterious woman from the past who Wolfe was glad to see also added to it. When the solution became obvious, Goldsborough worked out the denoument pretty well and it felt almost Stoutian except for Wolfe explaining everyone's motives which seemed more Poirotish.

And of course, the mystery was clever, as clever if not more so. than the average Wolfe story under Stout, and Goldsborough does a great job with characters like Lily Rowan. Overall, this is a solid first novel. Of course, having a first time novelist take over this series was a dubious call at best and what can make it a frustrating read is the author does seem unsure of himself, leading to some scenes that are awkward.

Still overall, I'll rate it "Satisfactory."

 

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14Jun/140

Book Review: Family Affair

This is the very last Wolfe novel written by Rex Stout. The book begins with a literal bang as a favorite waiter of Wolfe's comes seeking Wolfe's advice in the middle of the night. Archie puts him up in the South Room for safety, only for the man to be blown up by a bomb that rocks Archie and Wolfe's world.

This case is personal for Wolfe who is determined to catch the killer himself. It's an unprecedented case where we get a whiff of Watergate, Wolfe turns down a one hundred thousand dollar fee, and ends up going to jail all leading up to a conclusion that was shocking at the time and still is if you don't search the Internet too much before reading.

Written while Stout was 85, the book was clearly intended to bring the series to an end. I lost count of the number of times Archie said something happened for the first time. In one scene, Archie gives one person a thousand to one odds on something and he ends up being wrong. Cramer shows a softer side even while Wolfe abandons all pretense of anything but perfunctory cooperation with the police.

This is a book that you should ideally read at the end of the other Stout books, or at least after reading a couple dozen. You can't appreciate how deeply ingrained the rules that get broken in this book are unless you understand the world these characters inhabit.

Family Affair doesn't give us new insights into Wolfe's past but it does tell us a lot about what matters most to him and his closest associates: honor. There is an honor in being the greatest detective in the world and someone people can turn to, and there's honor in working for him and woe to the person who puts that at risk.

The book is a perfect finale and it leaves me a little bit hesitant to pick up Robert Goldsborough's Wolfe novels, because I can't imagine anything doing a good enough job to follow up this story.

Rating: Very Satisfactory

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You can find all the Nero Wolfe books in Kindle, Audiobook, and book form on our Nero Wolfe page.

10May/140

Book Review: The Mother Hunt

A wealthy young widow has a baby left on her doorstep with the claim that the Baby was her late husband's child born out of wedlock. She hires Wolfe to find out who the mother is.

The task is impossible but as usual, Wolfe comes up with a plan thanks to the unusual buttons on the baby's outfit. However, when the buttons traced to its source, a nurse who'd cared for the baby-the nurse is murdered.

Wolfe and Archie find themselves in a tight spot with the cops as they try to find the mother, but are invariably forced to find the killer as well.

This was a well-done story with great characters and a twisting and turning plot that drives Wolfe from the Brownstone under the tightest spot of his career as far as the police are concerned.

The relationship between Archie and the widow is played very well and honestly I could have seen it going places. I think there's a good case to be made that this story was where the Corpus should have ended maybe with wedding bells and respectability for Archie at last.

If not, the book marks the end of the greatest era of Wolfe stories. From 1946-63, Stout produced his best work. With A Right to Die, the tone of the rest of the books would change dramatically.

Overall, this was a wonderful Nero Wolfe novel and earns a:

Rating: Very Satisfactory

You can find all the Nero Wolfe books in Kindle, Audiobook, and book form on our Nero Wolfe page.

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29Mar/140

Book Review: Death of a Doxy

In Death of a Doxy (1966), Archie agrees to a favor for Orrie Cather and reclaim an item from the house of a young woman. Instead, Archie finds the woman dead and smells a set up. Archie extricates himself, but Orrie, a long time associate of Wolfe’s, is charged with murder.

In a conclave with Wolfe, based on the strong conviction of Saul Panzer, the private detective decide Orrie is innocent and set out to prove it. The murdered woman was having an affair with a powerful man and the first but not last task is to find this man.

Death of a Doxy is a solidly written story. The character of Julie Jaquette, a successful nightclub singer who does an impromptu song and dance for Wolfe, which is, without a doubt the greatest moment of the book. Jacquet showed that Stout’s ability to write memorable characters was still very much intact.

The book is a bit darker and cynical than many early Wolfe mysteries of the 1950s particularly with how the killer was disposed of.

The book also introduces Avery Ballou, a character who’d play a minor role in several of the later Wolfe novels, as well as provide some foreshadowing of events that would occur in the final Wolfe novel.

Overall, I rate the book: Satisfactory

You can find all the Nero Wolfe books in Kindle, Audiobook, and book form on our Nero Wolfe page.

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25Jan/140

Book Review: Too Many Clients

In Too Many Clients, Archie is asked by a man named Thomas Yeager to find out if anyone is following him and gives him an address in a poor part of town. However, the man turns out to be Yeager and the real Yeager’s body is found near the address, Archie visits it and is shocked to find a very elaborately designed love nest.

Archie and Wolfe have a mystery on their hands and the “client” who hired them set them up to discover the body and they have to get to the bottom of who hired them and who committed the murder and pick up multiple several offered clients, many of whom want to suppress the existence of a very embarrassing room.

Overall, this was a very well-crafted later Wolfe mystery with a wide range of suspects, a great premise, and some solid scenes in the Brownstone. It doesn't quite deliver those little human touches that the very best Wolfe’s do, but I still highly recommend it.

Rating: Satisfactory

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21Dec/130

Book Review: The Doorbell Rang

In The Doorbell Rang, Nero Wolfe is hired by a wealthy woman to get the FBI to stop annoying her. She apparently gained the attention of the FBI after purchasing and distributing 10,000 copies of Fred Cook’s expose of the FBI called, “The FBI Nobody Knows.”

Wolfe is reluctant to take on the case, and Archie is too. But Wolfe’s pride won’t allow him to refuse to take on a case for fear of the FBI. Wolfe’s decision leads to them coming under surveillance, and Archie learns from their nemesis Inspector Cramer that the FBI is trying to get their licenses lifted. However, Cramer resents the attempt and actually saves their licenses and tips Archie off to a murder where the FBI may be covering up.

Archie and Wolfe seek to solve convuluted murder and find how the FBI is involved.

The book is pretty solid and includes one of Wolfe’s greatest schemes and one of the most memorable moments when Wolfe refuses to speak to the unnamed but implied visitor at the door at the end of the book.

The Doorbell Rang  does drag a bit in the middle, with all of Wolfe and Archie’s efforts to dodge potential FBI surveillance of the house by not speaking or speaking in certain ways despite. The problem is that while I could understand how the FBI could tap their phones, I have no clue how they could get in the Brownstone to actually bug anything. For me, their paranoia goes quickly from being slightly humorous to somewhat tedious.

This does further the book’s propaganda ends with a clear message: Our (mostly) law abiding pals Wolfe and Archie shouldn’t have to live like they’re in a police state and neither should any other American as many did thanks to the FBI. It works as far as it goes, but I think the degree to which Stout played this hurt the narrative a bit.

Still, I give this a:

Rating: Satisfactory

You can find all the Nero Wolfe books in Kindle, Audiobook, and book form on our Nero Wolfe page.

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2Nov/130

Book Review: The Golden Spiders

The Golden Spiders finds Wolfe and Archie in ill-temper. Archie decides to admit a neighborhood boy who comes to Wolfe because of Wolfe’s antipathy to police and the fact that he saw a woman in a car apparently in trouble. Wolfe handles the boy well and agrees to help by tracing the plate of the car.

However, the boy is murdered the next day and the case goes to another level. The boy’s mother asks Wolfe to find out why he was killed and offers her son’s savings which amounts to $4.30 to find the killer. They begin the process by placing an ad, and get a response that’s followed by another murder.

This sets Archie and the teers on an investigation that leads them to the high and low end of society and on to the trail of an extortion ring that’s the key to the whole plot.

This is really a mixed bag in terms of quality. It has more action than any other Wolfe story, including a torture scene that’s somewhat uncomfortable. To be fair about that, the bad guys started it by torturing Orrie Cather before Archie and friends turned the tables on them.

There’s also a very strong scene with Inspector Cramer that’s probably his best scene as a detective in any of the books he’s featured in. There are some good bits between Wolfe and Archie, and a pretty good final denouement.

The book’s weak point comes with Wolfe proposing a ruse for Archie that’s so transparent, it doesn’t fool anyone. It’s really pathetic and beneath the standard of fun ruses that characterize the Wolfe books.

The Golden Spiders was the basis of the pilot movie for A Nero Wolfe Mystery, and I have to say this is one case where the movie beat the book. And the biggest difference was emotional impact. The book deals with the death of a child, but it doesn't seem to impact the characters correctly. Stout could do this and often did with tragic adult deaths which Archie or Wolfe inadvertently played a role in books like in Prisoner’s Base, but just doesn't seem to deliver here. It’s worth noting that Pete Drossos is the only child to play a major role in any of the Wolfe stories, so writing children may not have been Stout’s forte.

There’s enough good stuff to keep this interesting, but overall I can only give the book a:

Rating: Satisfactory

You can find all the Nero Wolfe books in Kindle, Audiobook, and book form on our Nero Wolfe page.

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5Oct/130

Book Review: Champagne for One

In Champagne for One, while attending a dinner party held for unwed mother at the home of a prominent socialite, Archie witnesses the death of one of the mother's attending the party, one who had been known to be carrying vile of poison. Archie had been made aware of this and was watching the girl and swore she didn't put anything in her glass, making it a murder.

Wolfe ends up hired by one of the attendees to protect him from exposure as the father of the dead woman's child by exposing the murderer first. The mystery itself actually quite satisfied. There are plenty of secrets to be uncovered and a lot of layers to make this mystery.

Socially, it's interesting because it was written on the cusp of the sexual revolution. Archie is at one point scandalized by a woman who has had two children out of wedlock and at another things a 31-year old man who expects to marry a virgin an old fogey before his time.

Overall, this a good solid story, not one of my favorites but still easily merits a rating of:

Satisfactory

You can find all the Nero Wolfe books in Kindle, Audiobook, and book form on our Nero Wolfe page.

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7Sep/130

Book Review: Prisoner’s Base

In Prisoner's Base, a missing heiress shows up at Wolfe's house asking for help while giving no details including her name. She wants Wolfe to hide her, but Wolfe isn't in to taking boarders except for an extravagant $10,000 a month fee. He has Archie throw the woman out and gives her a head start before Wolfe accepts a commission from her attorney to locate her. The heiress leaves and the next day, news of her murder hits.

Archie leaves the Brownstone takes a leave of absence and sets out to solve the case himself as he feels responsible for the woman's death. He quickly finds himself in hot water with the police. While initially remains disinterested, when Lt. Rowcliff hamhandedly drags Wolfe down to headquarters, Wolfe delivers one of his most blistering speeches and declares that he's working for Archie. With no fee in sight and plenty of suspects, Wolfe and Archie have a job on their hands.

If Over My Dead Body represents Wolfe at his most human than certainly Prisoner's Base does the same for Archie. Archie has some great moments in the story as he has to navigate a world of corporate jealousies in order to uncover the truth and bring the killer to justice. Archie deals with the death of not only the heiress, but another woman who died because he followed his advice. The story also gives keen insight into the Archie-Wolfe relationship with Wolfe at his most paternal and wise.

Add in a decent mystery plot and Prisoner's Base is a true classic and one of the best of the Wolfe series.

Rating: Very Satisfactory

You can find all the Nero Wolfe books in Kindle, Audiobook, and book form on our Nero Wolfe page.

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