Rex Stout’s beer-drinking, reclusive, genius detective, Nero Wolfe, was introduced to the world in 1934 to immediate and overwhelming acclaim. During the next 41 years, Mr. Stout wrote 33 Nero Wolfe books and 39 novellas. The stories, which might properly be classified as soft-boiled detective fiction, are narrated by Mr. Wolfe’s assistant detective, the dapper man of action, Archie Goodwin. They are by turns witty, thought-provoking, erudite, intriguing, and a love story to New York.
When Mr. Stout died in 1975, devoted fans from around the globe mourned the loss of the enduringly popular stories. One of those mourners was Robert Goldborough’s mother, and he did what any loving son would do—he spent the next year writing a Nero Wolfe story for her. I asked Goldsborough to discuss his path from loyal fan to official continuator.
Jane K. Cleland: How did you become Rex Stout’s official continuator?
Robert Goldsborough: I became the Wolfe continuator via a circuitous route. My mother had introduced me to the Wolfe books when I was a teenager, and I got addicted to them, reading them all the way through my college and post-college years. When Mr. Stout died, my mother saw his obit and said, “Now there won’t be any more Nero Wolfe stories,” and I thought, “Maybe there could be ONE more.” I spent the next year writing a Wolfe story titled Murder in E Minor just for her. Years later, I showed it to a friend at Bantam Books, who in turn showed it to the Stout Estate, and I became the approved continuator, which I’m happy to say is still the case.
JKC: Your Nero Wolfe books have been very well reviewed. What do you think you do especially well?
RG: I seem blessed with a good ear for dialogue, and I feel one of the strongest parts of my books is the conversational byplay between Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, which I love to write.
JKC: What’s the hardest part of writing Nero Wolfe stories?
RG: The hardest part, for me, is the plotting, particularly making each of the five or six suspects seem to be equally plausible as the murderer.
JKC: What kind of research do you do to write a Nero Wolfe book?
RG: I research Mr. Stout’s books for details about all of the principals (there are more than a dozen recurring characters) and also detail about the brownstone (i.e., the office), the types of orchids, Fritz’s gourmet meals. Also, as a non-New Yorker—although I’ve spent time there over the years—I use the Web and other sources (including my memory) to make sure I have the city’s geography and neighborhoods down pat.
[Note from Jane: Mr. Wolfe owns a brownstone on West 35th Street. His office is on the first floor. Fritz is his chef. Mr. Wolfe grows orchids—thousands of them—in a conservatory on the roof.]
JKC: How do you capture Mr. Stout’s voice?
RG: I do not try, consciously, to mimic Mr. Stout’s voice, but I do try to have all of the characters behave the way I feel he would have had them behave.
JKC: Has being Mr. Stout’s continuator had an impact on your non-Wolfean writing?
RG: I have written a series of five “Snap Malek” Chicago historical mysteries (set in the 1930s and ‘40s) with a Chicago Tribune police reporter as the protagonist. I have given Malek some of Archie’s characteristics, including a smart-alecky brashness and street smarts. Also, the chief of detectives in these books is not dissimilar to Inspector Cramer.
JKC: Mr. Stout’s Nero Wolfe stories remain popular more than forty years after Mr. Stout’s death. Given the fast-paced, graphically vibrant, interactive media most of today’s readers consider the norm, why do you think his books endure?
RG: Mr. Stout was a master storyteller, and I believe his novels remain popular because they deal with universal human frailties like envy, greed, passion, and deception. He did not have to resort to graphic sex or gratuitous violence or profanity to tell a compelling story.
JKC: Which Nero Wolfe books do you like best, the ones where he’s at home or the one’s where he’s forced to leave his house?
RG: In general, I prefer the stories where Nero Wolfe stays home, although The Black Mountain certainly stands out in the corpus. I strongly recommend it.
JKC: Which one of Mr. Stout’s Nero Wolfe stories is your favorite? Why?
RG: My favorite is The League of Frightened Men for several reasons. First, the story’s central figure, the quirky and depraved novelist, Paul Chapin, supplies Wolfe with his most complex adversary—a far more intriguing character than the megalomaniacal murderer Arnold Zeck. Second, Wolfe’s “client” is a committee, the members of which Wolfe assesses varying rates, depending on their finances. Third, Wolfe is “kidnapped” from the brownstone in a car driven by...a woman! Fourth, Wolfe claims he was once married. Fifth, in no other volume do we find such a rich variety of Wolfe aphorisms, including: “I love to make a mistake, it is the only assurance that I cannot reasonably be expected to assume the burden of omniscience.”
JKC: What are you working on now?
RG: I am working on a Wolfe story set against the backdrop of a Broadway production.
JKC: What else would you like readers to know about your work or Mr. Stout or the Nero Wolfe opus?
RG: Rex Stout once said to his biographer something to the effect that, “If I don’t have fun writing these stories, readers won’t have fun reading them.” Well, I am having great fun doing my Wolfe stories, and I sincerely hope readers have fun reading them.
[Note from Jane: Mr. Stout’s official biographer was John J. McAleer.]
To many of us fans, picking up one of Mr. Stout’s Nero Wolfe stories is akin to putting on a comfortable old sweater. With Robert Goldsborough’s excellent versions, we get to visit with those familiar and much-loved people and spend time in that evocative and admired place.
More information about the Nero Wolfe stories is available at www.nerowolfe.org, the official website of the Wolfe Pack—the literary society that celebrates all things Nero Wolfe. The Wolfe Pack sponsors the Nero Award, one of the premier awards in crime fiction, and co-sponsors the Black Orchid Novella Award (BONA) with Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.
Rex Stout (1886-1975) enlisted in the Navy and spent two years as warrant officer on board President Theodore Roosevelt’s yacht. After his stint in the military he developed and implemented a successful school banking system. During World War II, Rex Stout waged a personal campaign against Nazism, serving as chairman of the War Writers Board. After the war, he resumed writing Nero Wolfe novels. In 1959 he won the Mystery Writers of America’s Grand Master Award. A month before his death, he published his final Nero Wolfe book, A Family Affair. www.nerowolfe.org
Robert Goldsborough is an American author best known for continuing Rex Stout’s famous Nero Wolfe series. Born in Chicago, he attended Northwestern University, and upon graduation went to work for the Associated Press, beginning a lifelong career in journalism that would include long periods at the Chicago Tribune and Advertising Age. Goldsborough’s first novel starring Wolfe, Murder in E Minor, was met with acclaim from both critics and devoted fans, winning a Nero Award from the Wolfe Pack. Ten more Nero Wolfe novels followed, including Archie Meets Nero Wolfe, Murder in the Ball Park, and Archie in the Crosshairs. Goldsborough is also the author of five Chicago historical murder mysteries from Echelon Press set in the 1930s and ‘40s featuring Chicago Tribune police reporter Steve “Snap” Malek. http://www.robertgoldsborough.com/
Jane K. Cleland is the author of the multiple award-winning Josie Prescott Antiques Mysteries (St. Martin’s Minotaur and Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine) and Mastering Suspense, Structure, & Plot (Writer’s Digest Books). She is the chair of the Black Orchid Novella Award. She’s also a member of the fulltime faculty at Lehman College, part of the City University of New York. www.janecleland.com