Sep 072014

As any regular reader of Rex Stout's novels about Nero Wolfe can assure you, it takes a great deal to move the sedentary gourmand out of his brownstone house on West 35th Street in New York City. The prospect of a great meal, however, may do the trick. That is why, in Too Many Cooks, we are treated to the spectacle of Wolfe, assisted by Archie Goodwin, traveling by train - horrors! - to West Virginia, for a banquet prepared by some of the world's finest chefs, Les Quinze Maitres - the fifteen masters.

But Wolfe's dinner plans are interrupted when somebody sticks a knife into one of the chefs, right in the middle of a sort of taste-testing contest. The police believe the culprit is one of Wolfe's friends. So it is partly to clear his friend's name - and also from some ulterior motives of his own - that Wolfe and Goodwin must solve this murder.

First published in 1938, Too Many Cooks was the fifth book to feature Wolfe and Goodwin, and it is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast. You can listen to the entire review by clicking here. Nero Wolfe, taken outside his comfort zone (quite literally), is fascinating as he grumbles his way to a surprising solution. I think this is one of the best of the early Wolfe books, and I recommend it highly.

The Challenge

As part of my continuing commitment to the Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge under way at the My Reader's Block blog, I am submitting this to cover the Bingo square calling for one book that features food/cooks in some way. For details about the challenge, and what I'm doing for it, please click here.

Jan 282014

Perhaps it is merely a sign that the spring will be with us soon, with its promise of rejuvenescence, but I was reminded that today is the official publishing date for Robert Goldsborough's Murder in the Ball Park, his latest continuation of Rex Stout's series of mysteries starring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. I've written about it here and Jeff Pierce's excellent interview with Goldsborough is here.

By coincidence, I also received an email today from Mike Ripley, who writes the monthly "Getting Away with Murder" column for Britain's Shots eZine, telling me that we are about to get a new mystery featuring Albert Campion, the character originally created by Margery Allingham. Ripley has "completed" the book, called Mr. Campion's Farewell. Based on a conversation in the Golden Age of Detection group on Facebook, the new book is actually the completion of a book begun by Philip Youngman Carter, Allingham's husband, but never completed. (Carter did complete an earlier manuscript left unfinished by Allingham, Cargo of Eagles. Curtis Evans reminds us in his blog, The Passing Tramp, that Carter also wrote two Campion books of his own, Mr. Campion's Farthing and Mr. Campion's Falcon. (To confuse matters further, the latter may also appear as Mr. Campion's Quarry.) In any case, Severn House plans to release Mr. Campion's Farewell in the U.K. on March 27th, with an ebook and US edition due in June.

Not content with these revivals, Ripley's note also contains the curious line, "Other revived detectives are available." I have no idea what he means and will be very eager to find out.

Jan 272014

Someone has murdered the master - the master chess player, that is. Paul Jerin was playing a dozen games of chess blindfolded, against twelve different opponents simultaneously, when someone gave him a cup of hot chocolate quite liberally laced with poison. As far as the police were concerned, it was a simple case - the only person who could have done it was Matthew Blount, the man who gave Jerin the hot chocolate and who immediately washed out the cup afterwards. Blount's daughter wasn't buying it - and she came to Nero Wolfe to persuade him to find the evidence that would clear her father.

In a nutshell, that's what you'll find in Gambit, by Rex Stout. The 1962 mystery featuring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin is the subject of this week's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the entire review by clicking here.

The word "gambit" is a technical term in chess, referring to an opening move by a player in which a pawn or other chess piece is sacrificed to gain a strategic advantage. It becomes a central image in the book, as Nero Wolve and his right-hand assistant, Archie Goodwin, try to determine who killed Paul Jerin and why. They must, of course, come up with an answer that satisfies the police - and they quickly discover that they are working on a case in which they simply haven't a shred of evidence, even after they answer the questions of who and why.

That's all I'll say about the plot - but I will also recommend this story because it has what I think is probably the finest opening scene of any of the Nero Wolfe novels. We are treated to the spectacle of Nero Wolfe, sitting in his office, tearing pages out of the then-new, third edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary, Unabridged. The book outraged Wolfe's sense of what he considered to be proper English usage, by, for instance, using "imply" and "infer" interchangeably, and his response is quite visceral. It's a marvelous scene. The book also ends with what Archie calls "one of the best charades Wolfe has ever staged," as he sets up a gambit of his own to catch the killer.

Gambit, unfortunately, appears to be out of print again, although the link above will take you to a version for the Kindle; I also see that Amazon's web of used book dealers seem to have a number of reasonably priced copies. It's worth going to the trouble to get it - it's a clever plot, and if you find yourself arriving, along with Wolfe and Archie, at the correct identity of the killer, you will still face...but why spoil it? I do think you'll enjoy it.

One more thing: Gambit will be my first entry this year in Bev Hankins's newest vintage mystery reading challenge over at the My Reader's Block blog - you can read all about it at the link, but it's a challenge involving matching books to categories. Players can choose "Golden" (pre-1960) or "Silver" (1960-1980) bingo cards. Gambit fits nicely on the Silver card as "a book with a detective team." It's going to be an interesting year.


UPDATED to fix broken link

Jan 222014

I have written here about the new mystery featuring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, written by Robert Goldsborough, called "Murder in the Ball Park," which will be published officially next week.

Over at The Rap Sheet blog, Jeff Pierce has published an interview which he conducted via email with Goldsborough, talking about the new book and also about some of Goldsborough's books which are not continuations of the Nero Wolfe series, featuring a Chicago police reporter named Snap Malek. It's an interesting interview, and I think you'll enjoy reading it. Among other points, Goldsborough says that his favorite among the original Nero Wolfe books is The League of Frightened Men, a book which is also among my favorites - I think it's one of the best of the very early books in the series.

By the way, The Rap Sheet ought to be on your regular checklist for staying up with news from the broader world of mystery fiction. 

Jan 222014
I was pleased recently to be able to conduct an e-mail interview with Robert Goldsborough. The 76-year-old former Chicago journalist is the author of nine novels (thus far) expanding Rex Stout’s already rather extensive series of whodunits about Manhattan armchair detective Nero Wolfe and his more energetic legman/secretary, Archie Goodwin. The first of Goldsborough’s Wolfe outings was Murder in E Minor (1986), which he followed up over the next seven years with half a dozen sequels. However, the author dropped that series back in 1994, and instead concocted an unrelated handful of historical mysteries featuring a Chicago police reporter, Steve “Snap” Malek. Not until last year did Goldsborough return to the fictional environs of Wolfe’s West 35th Street brownstone in order to deliver a spirited prequel to Stout’s series, Archie Meets Nero Wolfe.

Now he’s back with Murder in the Ball Park (Mysterious Press/Open Road), a yarn that finds Archie trying to convince his rotund boss to tackle the shooting death, at New York City’s renowned Polo Grounds baseball stadium, of a state senator--an assassination that was witnessed by both Archie and another of Wolfe’s regular operatives, Saul Panzer. Meanwhile, all of Goldsborough's previous Wolfe/Goodwin novels have been made available again in e-book format.

A good chunk of the interview I conducted with Goldsborough found its way into my latest column for Kirkus Reviews. But as so frequently happens, I had far more questions of the author than could be answered in the space of that column. So I’m installing the balance of our exchange below.

J. Kingston Pierce: Where do you live in Chicago?

Robert Goldsborough: My wife and I live in Wheaton, a western suburb, and we also have a small condo in the city. I was reared in Elmhurst, another western suburb, and have lived in the Chicago area all my life.

JKP: I’m not sure I buy the story that as a teenager, you told your mother you were bored, and her response was to give you a magazine serialization of one of the Nero Wolfe mysteries, thereby making you a Wolfe and Archie Goodwin fan for life. Is there not more to the tale than that? And how old were you at the time?

RG: The story is not more complicated; that is essentially what happened, and the publication was the long-gone American Magazine. I was about 13 at the time.

JKP: By the way, do you remember which serialized Nero Wolfe novel it was that first hooked you?

RG: No, but it would have been one published about 1950.

JKP: It sounds as if you had a close relationship with your mother. Can you tell me more about that? And were you equally tight with your father? Was he a Nero Wolfe fan as well?

RG: I was close to both my parents, but my mother was the one who loved mysteries, the Wolfe stories first and foremost, but closely followed by [Agatha] Christie’s Poirot stories. My father, who was an architect, wasn’t much of a mystery reader. His preference ran to non-fiction, mostly biographies and books on history.

JKP: After your initial introduction to Rex Stout’s many novels, how quickly did you read the Wolfe series? And have you read all of his non-Wolfe works as well?

RG: I probably was well into college before I had read all of the Wolfe novels and novellas. I’ve also read a number of Stout’s non-Nero Wolfe books. The ones that come to mind are How Like a God [1929], The President Vanishes [1934], and Red Threads [1939], an Inspector Cramer mystery.

JKP: So, name your five favorites among Stout’s Nero Wolfe books.

RG: My hands-down winner is The League of Frightened Men [1935]. The other four, in no particular order, are The Golden Spiders [1953], The Doorbell Rang [1965], Some Buried Caesar [1939], and A Family Affair [1975].

JKP: What do you think the Nero Wolfe tales can teach today’s crop of crime- and mystery-fiction writers?

RG: That a fast-paced, exciting, and well-constructed mystery can be crafted without resorting to gratuitous violence, obscenity-laden passages, and graphic sex.

JKP: Your initial set of new Wolfe novels was published between 1986 and 1994. But then you stopped writing them. Was that your choice, or was it the decision of your publisher, Bantam Books?

RG: Some of both. Bantam chose to go in other directions, and these books of mine had accomplished one of the goals of both the publisher and the Stout estate--namely, to revitalize the extensive backlist of Stout books. This was accomplished. Also, I had for some time wanted to write books with my own protagonist.

JKP: A decade later, Three Strikes You’re Dead was released, introducing a protagonist of your own devising, Chicago Tribune reporter Steve “Snap” Malek. What did that newsie and his world offer that Wolfe and his armchair detection did not?

RG: I’ve always been interested in Chicago history and Chicago newspaper lore, and this series gave me a chance to explore both areas.

JKP: Why did you choose the post-Second World War era as your backdrop for the Malek yarns?

RG: Actually, two of the Malek books take place before and during the war (1938 and 1942). I’ve always been interested in the Chicago of the ’30s and ‘40s, probably because I was beginning to come of age during those years, at least the ‘40s.

JKP: For those people who haven’t read the Malek series, could you just briefly describe its protagonist and his professional milieu?

RG: Malek is a late-30ish Chicago Tribune police reporter operating out of the press room at Police Headquarters, which in that era was located at 11th and State streets. He is brash and street smart, somewhat in the manner of one Archie Goodwin. He goes out in search of scoops and ends up becoming an amateur detective, sometimes at his peril.

JKP: How much of Malek’s experience as a Trib reporter reflects your own later experiences with the same newspaper?

RG: For several months in 1959, I was a City News Bureau cub reporter assigned to the Police Headquarters press room. This was in an era where there were four intensely competitive Chicago dailies, and much of what I put into the Malek books, particularly the press room scenes, is drawn from my own experiences and observations working with those colorful characters from the dailies.

JKP: You labored on behalf of the Chicago Tribune from 1960 to 1982. That wasn’t the high point of American newspapering, but it wasn’t far off. What do you remember best from being a newspaperman during the Kennedy, Vietnam, and Nixon years?

RG: The event that stands out most was when I was part of a Tribune team that put together, almost overnight, a 32-page section, I think it was, with the complete transcript of the Watergate tapes. It was devastating to the Nixon presidency. We worked around the clock to get that section out fast.

JKP: Did you have mentors who taught you the newspaper game?

RG: The greatest influence on me in the newspaper business was Clayton Kirkpatrick, who was managing editor and then editor of the Tribune during my years there, and I had the privilege of serving as his administrative assistant for a stretch. Kirk, as he was called, was as principled as anyone I ever met in almost 50 years in the business. He steered the once-reactionary and resolutely Republican paper into a more centrist position as far as its editorials were concerned, and after he read the Watergate tapes, Kirkpatrick wrote the editorial titled “Nixon Must Go.” It has been claimed that when the president read that editorial, he said something to the effect that “when the Tribune turned against me, I knew I was through.”

JKP: Do you feel at all sorry for today’s young journalists, missing the bigger-than-life members of the press and robust energy of the newspapers you witnessed?

RG: I feel sorry for them more because of the straits newspapers find themselves in today. It is true that the business was more colorful generations ago, but also in some cases more irresponsible. Today’s journalists are as a whole smarter, more dedicated, and better educated than in earlier times. Unfortunately, there are fewer papers today than at any time in the last 150 or 200 years, and if the trend continues, the ranks of dailies will shrink further.

JKP: Why did you move from the Tribune to become the editor of Advertising Age in the early 1980s? And was that a vastly different work environment from your time at the Trib?

RG: I had been at the Trib for 21 years and felt the need for a change. I wanted to try my hand at business journalism, and Advertising Age was--and is--a fine example of a business publication. One major difference, of course, is that I went from a daily to a weekly. To make a correction, I was never the editor of Ad Age, but one of its senior editors. I greatly enjoyed my 23 years there. I never was much of a job-hopper, with two employers in 44 years.

JKP: So back to Snap Malek. Once more, you penned only a handful of those yarns--five in all--and then you suddenly gave up the enterprise. Why stop? Did you just have no more ideas for Mr. Malek?

RG: You’re right that I was out of ideas after my fifth Malek story, Terror at the Fair [2011]. But I never say never. I enjoyed writing those books, and it’s very possible that at some point, I will do more.

JKP: I was a bit surprised to find, in your new Wolfe novel, Murder in the Ball Park, a couple of historical anomalies in the text, especially your use of the honorific “Ms.,” which wouldn’t have been familiar in the 1950s. What are your feelings about getting everything historically accurate in a period novel?

RG: Ouch! Did I use Ms. in Murder in the Ball Park? Shame on me. When I am unsure as to when a word came into general usage, I usually consult The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, which gives a five-year window as to when a word entered the lexicon. In my (feeble) defense, I now have consulted that same dictionary, which says “Ms. came into usage in the 1950s as a title before a woman’s surname when her marital status was unknown or irrelevant.” Your point remains well taken, however, as I question how widespread the use of Ms. was in the early ’50s.*

JKP: Thinking back, I remember that there were some readers who were disappointed in how you originally handled Nero Wolfe, Rex Stout, and their familiar cohorts. This second time around, are you feeling more reader love for your Stout-ish tales?

RG: Going into the project the first time, I knew it was inevitable that some readers would be dissatisfied. However, I was pleasantly surprised that I got about a 95-percent approval rating from readers who wrote me--this being a time before the rise of e-mail. And given the relatively early returns on Archie Meets Nero Wolfe, I would say the positive rating is still around 95 percent, based on e-mails and Amazon comments.

JKP: And what do you think you bring to Nero Wolfe’s world that Rex Stout didn’t--or, perhaps, wouldn’t--deliver?

RG: I have tried to be as true to the spirit and the flavor of Rex Stout’s work as I could. About the only substantive change I made was to give Archie Goodwin a personal computer with which to enter the orchid germination records.

* A representative of Open Road Media, Goldsborough’s publisher, tells me that “we are planning on fixing the ‘Ms.’ in the next printing” of Murder in the Ball Park.

READ MORE: Rick Kogan on Robert Goldsborough’s Second Calling” (Chicago Tribune); “Featured Writer: Robert Goldsborough,” by Jerry Patterson.
Jan 172014

Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin tackle the murder of a New York state senator who was shot while attending a ball game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds in Manhattan.

If that sentence doesn't make sense to you, let's start with a bit of semi-ancient history (which I, fortunately or not, am old enough to remember) - a time when there were only 16 major league baseball teams, three of which - the Dodgers, Giants and Yankees - all played in New York. I am told by reliable sources that the Dodgers and Giants continue to play baseball somewhere out west, but I cannot prove it.

At any rate, readers of the Nero Wolfe mysteries will want to know that there is a new book coming out at the end of January, written by Robert Goldsborough, called Murder in the Ball Park. It is a continuation of the series written by Rex Stout featuring the irascible, largely immobile Nero Wolfe, and his assistant, Archie Goodwin, and it appears with the blessing of the Stout estate.

The story deals with the shooting of state senator Orson Milbank in the middle of a ball game, where Archie Goodwin is in attendance. The senator's widow tries to persuade Archie to investigate the murder, and Archie, in turn, must persuade Wolfe to get involved - no easy task.

As readers of this blog probably know, I am an enormous fan of the original series of books and novellas to feature Wolfe, Goodwin and the rest of the 35th Street crew. So how is this continuation?

I must say I have mixed feelings.

I'm not a huge fan of continuations, especially of books featuring characters I know as well as I know Wolfe and Goodwin. I do think Goldsborough's last book, Archie Meets Nero Wolfe, worked very well. It dealt with the meeting of Wolfe and Goodwin; as a result, I was more willing to suspend my disbelief in any details that might seem jarring to a regular reader of the series - the inevitable passages where a reader might say, "That doesn't sound like the Nero Wolfe (or Archie) that I know." It worked because it was set at the time when the two first met so the characters really hadn't formed their familiar speech and behavior patterns.

Murder in the Ball Park, on the other hand, doesn't have that grace. And, yes, I did find myself frowning occasionally and saying "That doesn't sound..." or "Wolfe (or Goodwin) would never do/say that."

But if I were a new reader? If I didn't come with my own preconceptions of the characters? Well, in that case, I'd probably enjoy Murder in the Ball Park a lot more - perhaps enough to want to go back and read some of the Rex Stout originals. And I think that's a good thing. The story is clever and Goldsborough certainly makes it clear that he respects the characters and Stout's legacy. With that in mind, I'd say, yes, you're likely to enjoy Murder in the Ball Park

Dec 082013

Two prestigious awards were presented Friday evening at the 36th Annual Black Orchid Banquet of the Wolfe Pack in New York.

The Black Orchid Novella Award, BONA for short, went to Susan Thibadeau for "The Discarded Spouse." The award, presented in conjunction with Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, is given to the author of a novella, the intermediate-length form employed so effectively so often by Rex Stout for his Nero Wolfe stories. The award includes a $1000 prize, with the award-winning novella to be published next summer in AHMM.

The Nero Wolfe Award for the best American mystery of 2012 goes to Chris Knopf for Dead Anyway. Knopf's next novel will be published in the spring.

The awards were the highlight of a day-long celebration of Rex Stout's life and work, held annually on the first weekend in December. Banquet-goers were also treated to a keynote address by Robert Goldsborough, who has been writing additional Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin novels, with the blessing of the Stout family and estate.

Congratulations to the winners!

Dec 072013

The annual Black Orchid Weekend of the Wolfe Pack in New York City is well under way. It began last night with a book discussion of the novella "Murder is Corny" from the collection Three Witnesses, accompanied by a first rate dinner at Playwright's Tavern. We also viewed the A&E production adapted from "Murder is Corny," starring Maury Chaikin as Nero Wolfe and Tim Hutton as Archie Goodwin - a production which, we all pretty much agreed, was superior to the original novella. That excellent TV series is sorely missed today.

Tonight (Saturday night) will be the 36th annual Black Orchid Banquet, preceded this afternoon by "The Assembly," a gathering where Wolfeian scholars and members of Rex Stout's family gather to discuss various Wolfe-related subjects. At tonight's dinner, the featured speaker will be Robert Goldsborough, the author of several "continuations" of Nero Wolfe novels, including the very good prequel to the series, called Archie Meets Nero Wolfe. These events are usually great fun, and a fine excuse to break out the formal evening wear.

At the banquet, the annual Nero Award for the best American mystery fiction will be presented, along with the Black Orchid Novella Award, given in conjunction with Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. I hope to see at least some of you there.

The weekend concludes on Sunday with a brunch - just another chance for the group to sit around and talk with each other. If you didn't make this year's events...start planning for 2014 - the first full weekend of December.

Sep 172013

Hattie Annis, Nero Wolfe's client in "Counterfeit for Murder," one of the novellas in Homicide Trinity, is a fascinating character. As I mentioned in my review of that book, Hattie Annis narrowly escapes with her life when somebody tries to run her down with a stolen car.

She's lucky. In the original version of the story, Rex Stout actually had allowed Hattie Annis to die under the wheels of that hit-and-run car; by the seventh page of the story, she was out of it. According to John J. McAleer, Stout's biographer, while it was very unusual for Rex Stout to rewrite at all, that first version of the story really was inferior to the final version - largely because of the fascinating character of Hattie Annis. That first version was published after Stout's death as "Assault on a Brownstone," which appeared in the collection Death Times Three, along with McAleer's introduction.

All of which leaves open the question of why Rex Stout chose to rewrite this story. McAleer says he asked the author, but Stout replied, "There must be a reason, but I have forgotten what it was." Most of us who have read both versions are just grateful that he did change it.

Sep 162013

Long-time readers of Rex Stout's books about Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin will understand that there are some things one simply does not do in Wolfe's New York City brownstone. One does not, for example, use the words "imply" and "infer" interchangeably, nor should you use "contact" as a verb. Add to that list: murder. It is definitely not a good idea to walk into Wolfe's office and murder someone, especially not by strangling them with a tie Wolfe himself had worn and left on his desk. That is likely to upset Mr. Wolfe. And he is very likely to soothe his outraged ego by hunting you down.

And that is what happens in "Eeny Meeny Murder Mo," the first of three nicely polished gems in Homicide Trinity, a trio of Stout novellas originally published in 1963, and the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, which you may listen to by clicking here. "Nicely polished" indeed. Nero Wolfe, having spilled some sauce from his lunch on his tie, removes it and leaves it on his desk. While he is upstairs for his afternoon session with his orchids, Archie Goodwin admits a young woman to the office; she wants to see Wolfe and won't take "no" for an answer. So Archie goes up to the orchid room to consult with Wolfe (who echoes that "no," by the way). But when Archie comes downstairs he finds the visitor lying on the floor of the office, with Wolfe's tie knotted far too tightly around her throat.

The great man is not pleased. And I don't need to tell regular visitors to the series what Inspector Cramer will have to say about it. The only remedy for that bruised ego is for Wolfe to solve the murder himself. The problem is there are four equally-good suspects. How to find the guilty party? Hence that title, "Eeny Meeny Murder Mo."

There are two other stories here as well. In "Death of a Demon," a woman comes to Wolfe's office carrying a gun which she want to leave with him. She says it's the gun she will NOT use to murder her really awful husband. The only problem, of course, is that the husband is already dead. Shot to death. And here, once again, is Wolfe, drawn into a murder case despite his will, and forced to tread a very fine line between protecting his cient's interests and obstruction of justice.

In the third story, ""Counterfeit for Murder," we meet someone who may be one of the most engaging clients in Wolfe's career: a boarding-house keeper named Hattie Annis. She shows up at Wolfe's door with a bundle of counterfeit currency, apparently belonging to one of her boarders. When somebody tries to run her down with a stolen car, it becomes apparent that she is in considerable danger. But she's not a happy client - she hates the police, and wants Wolfe to solve the case without involving the police or (as quickly becomes apparent) the secret service.

Hattie Annis is also something of a law to herself, when it comes to dealing with the brownstone crew. Not only does she call Archie "Buster," but she astounds Wolfe by asking him to feed her lamb kidneys bourguignionne. I can think of very few characters in ANY of the Wolfe books, male or female, who has successfully astounded Wolfe. You will like Hattie Annis.

There we are. Three very good little Rex Stout novellas, in a tidy little package. Homicide Trinity is worth your time - particularly for Hattie Annis.