The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Nero Wolfe continuation novels by Robert Goldsborough

12435871_10206617807136697_1571551562_nA group of bloggers who work in the general area of Golden Age Mysteries has decided to collaborate and each publish a blog post every Tuesday as the Tuesday Night Bloggers. We began in the spirit of celebrating Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday anniversary. We’ve now going to continue with a different Golden Age mystery writer every month; Tuesdays in January will be devoted to Rex Stout.

Nero Wolfe continuation novels by Robert Goldsborough

51ATl2tNWtL._SX346_BO1,204,203,200_In the last few months, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the continuation novel. Perhaps it was prompted by the reading I had been doing, around the time I was preparing a large post on Ellery Queen, one of the widest-ranging brands in the history of detective fiction, including quite a bit on how continuation novels work. (You can look at it here if you’re interested.)

I do remember, though, that the publication of Robert Goldsborough’s
51Yixsdn1EL._AC_UL320_SR208,320_first continuation novel featuring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, 1986’s Murder in E Minor, was the first time I’d ever really noticed the phenomenon. I’d seen it before, of course, particularly in the science-fiction field. But there was a bit of hubbub in the publishing world about this particular bit of continuation work because, as I understood it from a distance, a rather sizeable contingent of (New York-based) Wolfe fans objected to the idea that Nero Wolfe should be continued at all. It was the first time anyone had ever expressed
41YqtpApQWL._AC_UL320_SR222,320_an opinion that wasn’t in favour of continuation novels, as far as I’d ever heard, and it was a nine days’ wonder in bookselling circles.

Robert Goldsborough, now in his late 70s, had been a writer all his professional life, first as a reporter and then later on the editorial staff of Advertising Age magazine.  The story is that he wrote Murder in E Minor to amuse his invalid mother, never intending that it should see publication; one thing led to another
Coincidence2_fsand the Stout estate licensed that particular novel, and then a bunch more by this author.

The moral and ethical ramifications of continuation novels are not very interesting to me because, unlike the administrators of Rex Stout’s estate, I am not in a position to do anything about my opinions and so they are merely idle speculation. In general, though, people who think that fictional characters should be allowed to die with their creators are not usually the ones who own valuable copyrights and/or administer literary estates;
77118they can license the work and nobody can stop them. Apparently other contentious fans felt that no one could ever possibly live up to the high standard set by Rex Stout in his writing. Frankly, I agree. I didn’t see that a continuation author necessarily had to be stupid and uncaring, though, and I maintained an open mind before I got hold of a copy of Murder in E Minor.

This novel (1986) had an interesting central tiny clue that revealed the solution to Nero Wolfe and then to us;
1024767I won’t say what it is, but if you have read the entire corpus of Wolfe novels, you will recognize it from another novel, albeit in a different form. In other words, Goldsborough took the central clue from another Stout novel and fiddled with it in order to produce the central clue of his novel. I thought this was clever, and showed that there was a sincere attempt to capture the flavour of Stout’s plotting. If you have read the entire corpus, this novel at least is certainly worth your time, although I cannot say whether it will annoy you or amuse you.

783122dc791e766877fcf1ecb9ddda08-w204@1xSix more novels followed in quick succession; these attained wide distribution through being issued in “cheap editions” through a large American book club and, based on the numbers that passed through my hands in this edition and in paperback, seemed to be moderately popular. These novels occasionally dipped into the waters of politics and current events, and I hasten to note that this also is something that Rex Stout did himself, in novels like A Right To Die and The Doorbell Rang.

1650x2550srSome people disagreed with the idea of Archie and Wolfe changing with the times, and preferred that they remain frozen in some 1950s limbo. Well, that wasn’t Stout’s view either (the events of the final Stout novel, A Family Affair, certainly show that Stout was prepared to alter the ongoing cast of characters). Others complained that Goldsborough was “making Archie and Wolfe do things they would never do.” What that appears to mean is that these fictional characters have some kind of internal consistency and that Goldsborough had somehow violated
51Tn598qj3L._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_it. Again, I disagree; I think Goldsborough ably walked the fine line between “We can’t do anything that hasn’t already been done” and “We have to introduce new situations or else the characters stagnate.” Goldsborough didn’t innovate anything wildly contrarian, such as marrying off any of the characters or having Fritz cook hamburgers or Nero Wolfe take up racquetball. Neither did he slavishly repeat the themes and solutions of Stout. Instead, he wrote mysteries that had as their background things like date rape, right-wing
51O3m3Ubo1L._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_university professors, televangelists, and media moguls; perhaps not exactly what Stout would have done, but he would have been taking on similarly difficult and up-to-the-minute topics.

At the time, though, I felt that the second through sixth novels were lacking … something. There was some kind of vital spark that had invested Stout’s writing about Wolfe, and while Goldsborough was doing a very competent job at recreating the brownstone and its inhabitants and the
51-wB9iNQ1L._AC_UL320_SR208,320_kinds of things that would occupy them, there was no great drive to … how shall I put this?  … to have these books exist. It’s as though they were contractual obligations, but that Goldsborough had somehow lost the impetus that had brought the first book into being. There, it was clear that Goldsborough really loved Nero Wolfe. Five books later, his ardour had cooled.

And then came book seven, 1994’s The Missing Chapter. This gets a little complex, so bear with me.  The story is about Wolfe’s investigation of the murder of a writer who does continuation novels about a famous detective whose original author has died.  Yes, really. The continuer has angered a number of people (among them his agent, his editor, and his chief critic) in both his professional and personal life and shows up dead. Goldsborough really gets into this one, as perhaps the best qualified writer to talk about crabby fans who call the continuation author out on minutiae, publishers and editors who micro-manage his writing and exploit him personally, and other authors who look down their noses at him for doing continuation novels. There is also a respectful and charming portrait of a couple of prominent members of the Wolfe Pack, one of the classiest groups in the entire fannish world.

I really enjoyed The Missing Chapter and hoped for more of the same, but didn’t realize for a while that publicly making fun of publishers, agents, and fans is not perhaps the best way to ensure your long-term survival in the continuation business. For whatever reason, and I hasten to add that I have zero in the way of first-hand knowledge or fact, Goldsborough stopped writing Wolfe novels.

That is, for 18 years. I think I and everyone else had abandoned the idea that we were going to see another Goldsborough continuation until, all of a sudden, in 2012, we got Archie Meets Nero Wolfe, which is based on a really clever idea. In the first Nero Wolfe novel and dotted in bits throughout the corpus was the story of how Wolfe and Archie came to meet. Goldsborough took those minutiae, thus delighting some of his critics, and wove them into the story of the case where Wolfe and Archie decide to form a long-term association. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and was happy to see Goldsborough back. It had rather felt like this was a story that he had wanted to tell. He had written four books in a different mystery series (entirely his own) between 2005 and 2009 but … well, perhaps the money is better with Wolfe.

There are three further sequels in the pipeline, one as yet unpublished (it’s due March, 2016, and called Stop the Presses!). Murder in the Ball Park was an undistinguished story that took advantage of Goldsborough’s personal interest in baseball; I haven’t yet read 2015’s Archie in the Crosshairs.

I don’t think anyone could seriously say that I am uncritical about mysteries; I have a popular series of reviews I call “100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read” that’s quite acidulous about books I can find reasons to strongly dislike, including the continuation novel of Perry Mason that is the subject of the link. But continuation novels, merely by the fact of their being continuation novels?  I’d prefer to judge for myself. I think the Goldsborough continuations are charming, smart, and well-written and I think if you enjoy Nero Wolfe, you will likely enjoy them.

8 thoughts on “The Tuesday Night Bloggers: Nero Wolfe continuation novels by Robert Goldsborough

  1. tracybham says:

    Noah, I am very glad you took on this topic. I enjoyed getting your opinion on these books. I have read all of the earlier Goldsborough continuation novels and I liked them fine. They are not as good as the originals of course, but still fun to revisit Wolfe and Archie.

    I am not sure which ones I really liked and which ones were less enjoyable; it has been a long time since I read them. But I do still have my copies and I should try them again. I also liked Archie Meets Nero Wolfe, but haven’t tried any of the later ones.

    I have put up my Rex Stout post for the week, on The Black Orchids.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      Well, I liked SOME of them. Some of them seemed to be just going through the motions. I just got a copy of Archie in the Crosshairs this morning, I felt I kind of had to, and it has some points of interest. (However, something that stuck out like a sore thumb for me is that Rex Stout would have known precisely what “momentarily” means, and apparently Goldsborough does not. In common with a lot of other people, he has Archie use it to mean “in a moment” when it actually means “for a moment”. Not something that would bother me much in another work, but this is Nero Wolfe FCOL.)

  2. Fascinating. And the Missing Chapter sounds very clever, and meta. I’ve got a long way to go with the real ones before I start on the continuations. But I do agree with you: judge them on their merits, don’t condemn out of hand.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      I should have said somewhere in here — I don’t recommend that you start reading these until you read the full series written by Stout, and as close to chronological order as possible. Don’t read Goldsborough until you’ve read A Family Affair!!

  3. […] Noah Stewart, Noah’s Archives: Nero Wolfe continuation novels by Robert Goldsborough […]

  4. lesblatt says:

    Interesting take on the continuations, Noah. I felt that – for the few I read – the tone was just a bit off; one of the regulars (often Archie) would say something that just grated, like nails on a chalkboard. The only one where that didn’t bother me was Archie Meets Nero Wolfe. Maybe it’s because the premise of the book sets you up to expect some jarring notes. I feel that way about the first real Nero Wolfe Book – Fer-de-Lance as well; Archie is a lot cruder there than he is in later books. So if Archie doesn’t sound quite right in AMNW, that wrongness is right, if you follow me. I haven’t tried any of the newer ones.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      Yes, exactly. Like the Archie of the 70s wouldn’t have used the word “blackbird”, etc. There’s a great deal of wrongness in the word choice, not the least of which is using the word “Archie” in the titles. And my comment here about the real meaning of “momentarily”. Rex Stout WOULD have known that and despite great writing experience, Goldsborough didn’t. He has a tin ear for matching Stout’s gift with word choice.

  5. BRADSTREET says:

    One of the reasons that people read continuation novels is that they want to see more of their favourite characters. Another reason is that they want to hear more of the authors voice. The latter is the hardest to do, as even the best follow-on book is never going to sound more that the work of a talented mimic. I read a few of the Goldsborough books, but made sure that they were not consumed too close to any genuine Stout. In the case of the recent P G Wodehouse continuation by Sebastian Faulks I found that the tin-eared attempt to approximate PGW’s prose left me feeling like a vampire offered a holy water spritzer. The only case in which this sort of thing really works is in the case of Mike Ripley’s Campion novels, as he is continuing/finishing novels that were not by the original author but her husband, allowing him a little more leeway in putting his own voice into the books.

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