Robert Goldsborough, Archie Goes Home
Copyright © 2020 Robert Goldsborough
Open Road Integrated Media
I approached Archie Goes Home with a good deal of trepidation. While I am a major fan of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books (I’ve read them all multiple times, and am reading my way through the books again), I’ve never thought that Goldsborough has managed to emulate the voices of his characters—especially Archie Goodwin (out narrator) and Nero Wolfe. I have also generally found his plots to be less than captivating. But this may be a new low. And a major part of that is Goldsborough’s writing (although the plot is not all that great either).
The book opens with Archie receiving a phone call from his Aunt Edna, calling him from the small town in which he grew up. Edna wants his to know that the retired president and principal owner of the Farmer’s State Bank and Trust, Logan Mulgrew, has been found dead in his home.., apparently a suicide. Edna, however, and a reporter/columnist Verna Kay Padgett for the local newspaper (the Trumpet) are convinced it’s murder. Edna wants Archie to come and look into it.
And of course, he does. As it happens there are a number of people who might have been perfectly happy to see Mulgrew dead, and might have helped him along. There’s the man who started a competing bank (about which Mulgrew started a rumor that the new bank was undercapitalized and sure to fail), which did fail after he lost almost all his depositors. There’s the dairy farmer many of whose cattle died, and n whose loan Mulgrew foreclosed. (The reporter describes this to Archie as being deaths from “some sort of cow disease.) There’s the woman who served as a home health care worker for Mulgrew’s wife, who was widely suspected of having an affair with him, and who moved to Charleston, WV. And the father of one of the bank’s employees who, it is widely believed, was raped (referred to as sexual assault in the book), became pregnant, and left town to get an abortion (and is currently working in Cleveland.
But the scene of the crime is, or at least seems to be, completely compatible with suicide—Mulgrew was found lying on a sofa, with what is likely the weapon next to him, with a bullet hole in his forehead, and his fingerprints—and no others—on the gun. (No mention is made of the dermal residue test (a/k/s the GSR) to determine whether someone has fired a gun, although the test was in use as early as 1933 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gunshot_residue).
At this point, I took a break, because I had some things to consider; some of these are substantive, some deal with Goldsborough’s writing.
First, making telephone calls (which we used to call “long-distance”) between rural Ohio and NYC seems way too easy. Having checked, I discovered that the “area code” system of designating places when makes a long-distance call originated in 1947. So no problem? Well, no, problem. To make or receive a direct-dial l.d. call, the phone systems in both the originating location and the location being called needed the correct switching equipment. Which was expensive, so smaller cities and towns needed the intervention of an operator both to make and to receive a call. As late as 1969, when I was in college in the small town of Greencastle, Indiana, I could not make a call to my parents—in Indianapolis—without operator assistance. Indy had the equipment; G’castle did not.
Second, as noted above, it’s not clear whether a GSR was performed, so the evidence for Mulgrew having fired the fatal shot is perhaps weak. The police did test for fingerprints on the gun, and found only Mulgrew’s prints, so, there’s that at least.
Third, no reporter working on a small-town newspaper in the 1950s would have referred to the deaths of an entire herd of cows as “some sort of cow disease.” Knowing what that disease was would have been very important for other farmers, and, fortunately for them, one of the best veterinary science schools in the country—Ohio State University—was just up the road. Not identifying the disease would be a serious problem for other farmers, and a serious oversight for the local newspaper.
Fourth (and this is mostly a matter of Goldsborough’s style), we are treated with three discussions of possible murderers that are nearly identical. Here’s one example:
“…Mulgrew spread the word far and wide that the new bamk was undercapitalized and that anyone who put money in it was in danger of losing everything..” (p. 24)
“…starting rumors that it was undercapitalized, and that depositors were likely to lose every cent they deposited…”(p. 44)
“…rumormongering on the part of Logan Mulgrew…the new bank was undercapitalized…” (p. 144)
Fifth, while Goldsborough refers to actual cities in Ohio (and West Virginia—Charleston)—Columbus, Steubenville, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Toledo, Warrick—and at least one fictional town—Selkirk—he does mention the name of Archie’s home town. Late in the book we are able to infer that it’s Chillicothe. Related to this, Archie and Saul Panzer refer to the small towns as “burgs.” This might be plausible for Saul, a life-long New Yorker, it’s not for Archie. In my experience, people who describe towns as “burgs” mean it in a derogatory sense. And Archie, who grew up there, would almost certainly not use a derogatory term to describe it.
Each bit of that is trivial, but it adds up to one thing after another that took me out of the story and made me conscious of the writing instead.
And Archie’s investigation seems to be accomplishing nothing. Almost everyone he talks to agrees that Mulgrew was a nasty piece of work, but he really makes no progress. A lot of people may have motive. But he does not conclusively establish opportunity for anyone. I did, however, form a very definite opinion about one of the people with whom Archie speaks. About a third of the way through the book, the way Goldsborough writes about that character changed rather abruptly—from treating the character as a pleasant, likeable person to one who is abrupt and whiny.
The major twist in the story is that Wolfe shows up, having been driven to Ohio by Saul Panzer. He announces his intention to solve the murder, if it is a murder, and return (with Archie following) as quickly as possible. Archie reports to him in detain (and, while I was afraid Goldsborough was about to recapitulate Archie’s conversations with his suspects, we were spared that). And there is basically no additional investigation after that. There’s the ritual gathering of the suspects in Archie’s mother’s living room, and Wolfe announces his conclusion. Which is based on two people having attended the same university at the same time and having used the same expression in a conversation with Archie. Yep, that was it.
I have not been a fan of Goldsborough’s attempts at continuing the series. Some of the early books were adequate, some were not. But the more recent efforts have been lowering the bar, so to speak. And this one still fails to clear even the lowered bar.