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Tag Archive: Nero Wolfe


Review by C.J. Bunce

The downside to discovering an author that’s new to you but who passed away decades ago is that no more novels will be coming your way from that author.  But that’s not necessarily the case if that author is Erle Stanley Gardner, and you’re reading something newly published from Charles Ardai’s Hard Case Crime imprint.  Ardai continues to locate lost, never before published novels, and reprints some of the best forgotten works from decades of great pulp crime novels.  Hard Case Crime released the never-before published Gardner novel The Knife Slipped last year.  Back in 1940 The Knife Slipped was rejected by Gardner’s publisher because of his lead character, a brash and brilliant private investigator named Bertha Cool, who Gardner describes as “profane, massive, belligerent, and bulldog,” and in her first case her tendency to “talk tough, swear, smoke cigarettes, and try to gyp people” was enough to reject the story.  Gardner promptly replaced the novel with Turn on the Heat, the second in his Cool and Lam series, a series that would expand to 30 novels.  And if Gardner’s name is familiar it may be because he also created the popular mystery genre icon Perry Mason (Gardner would write 86 cases featuring his famous lawyer).  At his death in 1970, Gardner was the #1 bestselling author of all time, with hundreds of millions of books in print.  Turn on the Heat was published in 1940 under Gardner’s pseudonym, A.A. Fair.  A reader of both Gardner and Fair, master crime novelist Raymond Chandler once accused Fair of stealing a plot point from a Gardner novel.

Turn on the Heat plays out from the viewpoint of Cool’s employee, ex-lawyer and full-time private eye Donald Lam.  Lam tells his story in that sweeping, pull-us-all-along-for-the-ride manner that Archie Goodwin embraced in Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe series.  It helps that Lam is a fan of Cool, but his tolerance for her domineering style brings him to his limits more than once in the story.  But the feeling is purely mutual.  Lam seems to forget he’s an employee and spends too much from the expense account.  Like Stout’s Prisoner’s Base case where Goodwin lied to Wolfe to keep him out of trouble, Lam must lie to Cool to protect her, and as with Wolfe, Cool doesn’t like it one bit.  Cool has the business acumen and savvy, but Lam also knows the score and is able to stay ahead of all the players almost all the time, as he attempts to solve the case for the client, protect the agency, protect Cool, protect himself from a murder rap, protect a girl from a murder rap, keep the D.A. off his case, and somehow serve a little revenge to the thug who keeps roughing him up.

Cool has taken on a new client and sets Lam about tracking down the client’s estranged wife, missing for twenty years.  Lam is a feet-on-the-street detective, but his leads dry up quickly.  When the wife shows up at a local hotel, Lam finds the case leading in an unpredictable direction, and he soon becomes bent on thwarting efforts of the police, the D.A., and even his client to keep him from the truth.  Not convoluted or contrived as many other crime novels of the day (and today), Gardner’s mystery is well-paced and doesn’t employ any far-flung solution to wrap-up the whodunnit.  Gardner’s prose was far ahead of its day in many ways–three times I turned to the copyright page to verify this book was actually written in 1940 because of sentences and word-usage I would have wagered had not come into the American lexicon until decades later.

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Review by C.J. Bunce

Before I watched the brilliant A&E television series Nero Wolfe, as far as I knew that was the name of the author, as the big print NERO and WOLFE are the biggest words on the cover of all the Nero Wolfe novels.   It makes sense as author Rex Stout’s gruff lead character is physically a large fellow who rarely gets up, rarely leaves his house, and when he does either it is always with purpose.   But as superbly written a character that Nero Wolfe is, it is really hard to compare to our first person narrator, Archie Goodwin.

Goodwin is your tour guide through the murder mystery and the world of Nero Wolfe, the seventy-year old series of 33 crime/detective novels, and in the ninth Nero Wolfe novel Black Orchids, Goodwin particularly is in prime, zealous form.  He likens himself more of a Gary Cooper than a Clark Gable.  Those who don’t know him see him as slick, and chastise his ego, as someone who “thinks he can slide uphill.”  On an errand for Wolfe to inspect three rare black orchids, he happens upon a woman wading her legs in a pool and this image alone puts him in a mode to fantasize her as his fiancée, for nearly the entire story.  As fate would have it, the man she is with is found with a hole in his head of the revolver variety, and Police Inspector Cramer has his sights on Archie as the trigger man since Archie was first to discover it.  Ultimately everyone who appears in the cast of characters becomes a suspect, and like a game of Clue, you can’t really know how the facts come together until the last scene.

Sounds like every episode of Murder She Wrote or Columbo?  Not really, although those series follow the Nero Wolfe model of storytelling.

Archie is so fast talking and quick-witted and drops laughs so effortlessly that the reader feels he must hold onto something for the ride.  Check out this tirade of inner reactions, keeping in mind Archie does not even know this woman:

“I was keeping tabs on Anne, knowing that the best time to get the lowdown on a woman is when she’s under stress.  I thought she was doing fine.  After four straight days in a glaring spotlight as the star attraction of a flower show, with such by-products as having her picture taken with Billy Rose and dining out with Lewis Hewitt, here she was kerplunk in the mire with murder-mud ready to splatter all over her, and so far she had nothing to forfeit my respect, even when I had explained how you could pull a trigger with your toes.  But at this juncture she wasn’t so hot.  She might have spoken up with something suitable about being armored in her virtue and not needing to be looked after by any sourpuss employer or millionaire orchid fancier, but all she did was deadpan W.G. Dill without opening her trap.  I began to suspect she either had depths I hadn’t plumbed or was a bit limited in the mental area–but don’t get me wrong, I was still faithful.  Even as a deadpan, the sight of her face–for the mental side of life you can go to the library.”

And much later when the exhausted Anne is asked by Wolfe to stay the night because he wants to speak with her before she must meet the New York City district attorney early the next morning, Wolfe offers her Archie’s bedroom.  Archie narrates:

“That meant my room and my bed.  Anne started to protest, but not with much spirit, and I went and got Fritz and took him upstairs with me to help change sheets and towels.  As I selected a pajama suit for her from the drawer, tan with brown stripes, and put it on the turned down sheet, I reflected that things were moving pretty fast, considering that it was less than ten hours since she had first spoken to me and we never had actually been introduced.”

   

And what you learn having read one of Rex Stout’s novels is how incredibly well the TV series was produced.  Archie was played by current Leverage star Timothy Hutton and Nero was played by the late, great Maury Chaykin (no relation to artist and writer Howard Chaykin, who once told me he and comics writer Archie Goodwin were also fans of the Rex Stout novels, and Howard Chaykin loved the TV series).  In fact, like any time you read the book after watching the series or movie, it is darned near impossible to construct the characters any other way.  But it doesn’t matter, as each character has his place, and they are as well constructed as you’d expect with such a celebrated series:  Nero, the food and plant connousieur, Archie the senior of a small band of Wolfe’s personal assistants and sleuther on the spot, Fritz the cook and butler, Inspector Cramer the Chicago-sounding angst-bitten griper who in any other brownstone but Wolfe’s would be the smartest guy in the room.

In Black Orchids, you get a taste of these classic characters in a typical Stout atypical crime and a puzzling web of lies set in a backdrop of 1940s stylishness.  You also can get an education in Wolfe’s hobbies, here, flowers and plant diseases.  Wolfe and Goodwin play off each other beautifully and the plot twists are seemless, a credit to this great writer.

   

Review By Elizabeth C. Bunce

Two of my favorite TV shows made their season premieres this week:  TNT’s Leverage began its fourth season, with USA’s Burn Notice moving easily into its fifth.  Anyone who’s seen at least a couple episodes of both series can’t fail to recognize that they’re pretty much the same show.  They’re both basically an update of The A-Team: a crew of lovable outcasts who use their unconventional skills to help desperate people fight back against the corrupt and powerful.  I remember The A-Team as being rather campy, so I hope that Leverage and Burn Notice are a little more sophisticated than the ’80s cult favorite I recall from my childhood, although Hardison’s van, Lucille, does look a little familiar.

   

That said, clearly it’s a formula that works as well in the 2010s as it did thirty years ago, or we would not have two such successful parallels airing simultaneously on competing cable networks.  Even in cable, it takes a lot to make it to a fourth and fifth season–not the least important being loyal viewers.  And speaking as one of those loyal viewers, I’m excited to have both shows back.

Burn NoticeCompany Man joins out-in-the-cold-of-Miami hero Michael Westen working with the CIA team trying to track down the mysterious people responsible for framing him for the dastardly crimes of madman Simon Escher.  It was nice to see Michael back inside for an episode, and nicer still to see the burn notice plotline take center stage for once (instead of being the ongoing series subplot to the “Desperate Client of the Week” main storylines).  Typically, when longterm plotlines are “resolved” in TV series, they’re done kind of ham-handedly, leaving viewers dissatisfied with the writers’ efforts to round off the throughlines that have built tension and momentum for the series. Not so with Company Man.  I was impressed by both the handling of Michael working for the CIA (not as an agent, but as a civilian asset, something I, at least, found totally convincing), as well as the way in which they left Michael’s storyline unresolved.  We feel we got what we wanted from last year’s setup, without sacrificing the core of the show we love so much.  Michael, Fiona, Sam, and Mrs. Westen will continue to look out for the exploited citizens of Miami, and Michael still has questions left to answer from his past.  Last season’s rookie member, Jesse Porter,  played by Coby Bell, returned for the briefest of brief appearances, and although he didn’t have a role in this episode’s story, the writers made it clear he’ll stay part of the team.  I wasn’t altogether thrilled by Sam and Fiona’s roles in the episode; the wounded friend routine felt juvenile and out of place.  These people are professional soldiers; pouting over being left out of a mission is something I’d expect from Buffy’s adolescent Scooby Gang, not an ex-Navy Seal and IRA gunrunner. Overall, it was an excellent conclusion to last year’s cliffhanger, and a smooth transition into Season Five.

As for Leverage, the criminal gang is back for more of the same.  In The Long Way Down Job, the crew “steals a mountain. Again…” foiling a crooked investor (and probable murderer) in a mountain climbing adventure that would do the old A-Team proud!   I’ve been a big Leverage fan since the beginning –can’t resist a great heist– but as much as I love the gang and the schtick, I confess I’m often left vaguely disappointed in the episodes and series as a whole.  Though there have been some terrific episodes (last season’s Rashomon Job was the show at its best), and it’s fun to see familiar faces in guest appearances (from Saul Rubinek of Warehouse 13, to Star Trek’s Q, John deLancie, and last night’s Eric Stoltz) I hardly ever feel that it lives up to its full potential, and I’m not entirely sure why that is.  The cast is great, with Beth Riesgraf, Christian Kane, and Aldis Hodge being the clear standouts.  And maybe that’s my problem.  “Mastermind” Timothy Hutton should be the standout star; he has the talent and he has the chops and he’s clearly billed as the leader, and yet… sigh.  Maybe it’s unfair of me, but every time I watch an episode, I find myself wishing it was Nero Wolfe.  Hutton’s turn as Archie Goodwin…

…may be one of my alltime favorite TV performances (and from a life spent watching as much TV as I do, that’s saying something!).  He sparkled in that role and took a wonderful show to something sublime.  For whatever reason, Nathan Ford just doesn’t do it for me.  

All of that aside, I do respect the Leverage team’s efforts to raise the stakes with the series–Season Three’s ongoing series plotline about international criminal Damien Moreau was ambitious, and certainly led the crew to some interesting locales and episodes, and yet it, too, didn’t really work for me.  Typically, raising the stakes for your characters and your plot is one of the most important components of better, more compelling storytelling.  So it should work, but I felt like the Moreau storyline was forced and inauthentic–trying to make Leverage something it’s not.  I’m not entirely sure what it is, and it doesn’t always achieve whatever it’s trying to do… but I’m still a fan, and I’m still going to keep watching.  Because whatever silly, convoluted plot they have up their sleeves, I want to see Eliot and Hardison sparring.  I want to watch Parker fumble her way through being a normal person.  And, against my will, I even want to see Nate Ford grow as a character.

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