Friday, March 10, 2017

Robert Goldsborough, Murder, Stage Left


Robert Goldsborough, Murder, Stage Left
The Mysterious Press/Open Road © 2017
eISBN 978-1-5040-4110-2

This is Goldsborough’s 12th excursion into the world of Nero Wolfe; like most of the others, it is a valiant effort, but it fails on at least four counts.

To set the stage…Nero Wolfe is hired by a major producer and director of Broadway plays, Roy Breckenridge, who fears that there is some hidden issue—some simmering problem among the cast—of his most recent hit play (Death At Cresthaven).  Wolfe accepts the job (although it is unclear to me why), and his assistant, Archie Goodwin goes undercover, masquerading as a writer for a Toronto-based theater magazine.  He has brief (and not particularly useful) interviews with all the cast members (it is, fortunately, a small cast) and the stage manager.  (There are apparently no costume or make-up people associated with the play, and any backstage crew or front-of-the-house people are excluded, although why they would be excluded is, again unclear.  These interviews occur before a matinee performance and continue in the interval before the evening performance.  And, during the evening performance, Breckenridge is murdered—arsenic in his Coca Cola.

The bulk of the book is spent on individual interviews with the case and the stage manager, during which one of them says something—or, as Wolfe points out at the end doesn’t say something--that reveals to him whodunit.  (During these interviews, Archie is not actually present—his role as a journalist is being concealed from the cast, and Saul Panzer fills in for him.  Also present is Lewis Hewitt, upper-class orchid fancier, whose intervention induced Wolfe to take the case to begin with.)

So what are the failures?  First, as has generally been the case, Goldsborough does not manage to capture wither the voices of the major characters.  When a new author is carrying on a lengthy series, one which most of his readers are likely to be familiar with, this is an issue.  The primary failure is with Archie.  He is at too flippant for one thing, not only with Wolfe but also with the other series characters, and his role as burr under the saddle to Wolfe’s inherent laziness does not really show up. 

Second, the initial justification for an investigation disappears with Breckenridge’s death.  Granted that the murder probably reduces the importance of that, but I, as a reader, was expecting the solution would somehow circle back to Breckenridge’s concerns.  In Archie’s interviews with the cast and crew, no hint of anything really emerges, and I, at any rate, was left with the feeling that Goldsborough just forgot about it.

Third, in his interviews with the people involved in the play, there is never any sense that Wolfe has made any progress.  If anything, at the end of those interviews, we seem to be further from a solution than closer.  The interviews themselves are not well handled; Wolfe does not ask any particularly penetrating questions, and, in fact, leaves any number of issued unexplored.  (I will note that Goldsborough has fallen into a habit of having Wolfe interview those involved individually, whereas one of the strengths of the original books, by Rex Stout, was Stout’s exceptional construction of scenes involving a large number of participants.

But, finally, the solution seems implausible, and almost forced.  As noted, it depends on what one of the people associated with the play does not say, and the inference that Wolfe draws from that seems altogether forced.  Fortunately, that person immediately confesses (which I thought was out of character, as well). 

For me, Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books are among the most satisfying in American PI fiction, largely because of Archie Goodwin’s narrative voice.  I could forgive that, to some extent, if Goldsborough managed his plots better.  (And, I’ll confess, I’ll almost certainly go on reading them, but without much in the way of expectations.)

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