4 stars out of 5
What fun! And to think that until I had my Gestalt "Aha" moment, I was totally clueless. Let me explain: When I had the opportunity to request an advance copy of this book at NetGalley in exchange for a review, the description intrigued me; and somewhere in the vast reaches of my aging brain, the name "Nero Wolfe" rang a bell - but so faintly that I ignored it.
That was until I started to read it and looked up the book at Amazon to check page length and other necessities for my review. And then it smacked me in the teeth: Nero Wolfe is a private investigator made famous by none other than the late, great author Rex Stout. This book, in fact, is the 59th in the series - and the latest of a dozen or so written by this author, who was approved by Stout's estate to carry on the series. Aha indeed!
I'm pretty sure, though, that I never read any of Stout's books. I was a bit wary of starting this late in the game, but the description of this one says they can be read in any order, and I found that to be true of this one (although I do think I'd have enjoyed it more had I read a few of its predecessors). That also means I must judge this book totally on its own because I'm unable to compare it with others in the series. That said, I enjoyed it well enough that it certainly won't be my last.
There's no doubt Wolfe is the leader of the pack, but here, at least, he relies heavily on his assistant, Archie Goodwin (a far less pretentious and contentious individual, I might add). Wolfe rarely leaves his home, tended to by a staff that includes a nervously attentive personal chef who totes ice-cold beers to his master at the ring of a bell and himself tending to his vast collection of more than 10,000 prized orchids. In between, he solves complex cases no one else can (in a style a bit reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes or the Douglas Preston/Lincoln Child-created agent Aloysious Xingu L. Pendergast). Physically, he seems to be imposing; if I recall correctly, Wolfe is described as weighing a quarter of a ton and 5 feet 11 inches tall, so it's no wonder he doesn't get around much.
The language he uses is what I'd call downright pompous and stuffy - I read words I havent seen in ages, like "Miasma," "perspicacity" and "foibles." The time setting isn't clear, but since Wolfe, an avid reader, picked up copies of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and Vance Packard's Status Seekers, I'm guessing it's somewhere in the early to mid-1960s.
Okay, down to the nitty gritty: This time, Wolfe is hired to investigate a "feeling" of the director of a new Broadway play, "Death at Cresthaven," that something terrible is about to happen. A bit skeptical but willing to take on the case in exchange for three extremely rare orchids for his collection, Wolfe sends Archie to the theater to pose as a theater critic from Toronto who wants to see the play and interview cast members to be better able to write a glowing review that will bring Canadians to Manhattan. In the process, of course, he hopes to glean insight as to what might be going on behind the scenes.
Truth is, Archie's efforts aren't all that successful; and then - on Archie's last day at the theater - the unthinkable happens: The director is found dead in the not-so-secret soundproof booth he uses to watch rehearsals and performances - all the while slurping down his ever-present cola drinks. To complicate matters, not long after that one of the actors is found unconscious; apparently, he attempted suicide using the same poison that killed the director.
Although it is widely believed that the aging actor killed himself in remorse for murdering the director, cast members tend to favor that writer from Toronto who has disappeared - none other than Wolfe's assistant, Archie. Of course Wolfe and readers know it can't be him - but if not him or the old actor, who? Therein lies the challenge.
Whether Wolfe manages to rise to the occasion, and how, I can't say without giving away too much. I will say, though, that if it's lots of shoot-'em-up, nip-and-tuck, do-or-die action you're looking for, you won't find it here. Everything hinges on interviews, character assessments, interactions with cops who aren't fans of Wolfe's techniques but admire his capability to solve crimes and such. Quite honestly, that was more than enough to hold my attention and keep me turning pages on my Kindle!
Murder, Stage Left by Robert Goldsborough (MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Digital Original edition, March 2017); 250 pp.