Book Review: The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe
The surest proof that something has become a genuine part of the popular culture is when it can be parodied. How many fictional characters of the twenty-first century (strictly from books, not from television or movies) are sufficiently recognizable to the average person that a good-natured riff on those characters or their fictional worlds could be sure that most of the potential audience would get the jokes?
Rex Stout’s detectives Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are two characters that are sufficiently larger than life to be burlesqued, yet beloved enough that the parodists’ fondness for their fictional world comes shining through, making it clear that the lampooning is either a tribute or all in good fun. The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe: Parodies and Pastiches Featuring the Great Detective of West 35th Street is a collection of short stories and sketches that are takeoffs of Rex Stout’s beloved characters and universe.
A couple of these pieces were written for this anthology, but most of them were written much earlier. Some were published while the original tales were still being published. One, Thomas Narcejac’s “The Red Orchid,” is the earliest, published in 1947. After introductions by Otto Penzler, Rebecca Stout Bradbury, and Josh Pachter, the book is divided into three parts: Pastiches, which are set in the actual Wolfe universe and feature the actual characters; Parodies, which contain characters who are very similar to the originals, or are clearly inspired by the legendary sleuths; and Potpourri, a collection of writings that are otherwise connected to Stout’s mysteries. Some of the stories straddle the categories, and could fit in more than one section.
There’s a bit of a bell curve with the stories. Some of them are great, most are pretty good, and there are a couple of clunkers. Many authors do a pretty fine job of mimicking Archie’s voice, while others never quite capture Stout’s wit and magic. In Pastiches, a chapter from Marion Mainwaring’s classic, Murder in Pastiche, which provides good-natured riffs on the most famous fictional sleuths of the early twentieth century, depicts an investigation led by Trajan Beare. Another clever tale, Jon L. Breen’s “The Archie Hunters,” features Mack Himmler, a brutal parody of Mike Hammer who decides that he should take Archie Goodwin’s place as Nero Wolfe’s assistant. Robert Goldsborough has taken over the mantle of writing Wolfe novels, and his first chapter of his first effort, Murder in E Minor, depicts what happened to the residents of the brownstone a couple of years after the shocking ending of Stout’s last novel, A Family Affair, as the aftershocks left Wolfe unwilling to investigate any more cases. While Goldsborough has been writing new Wolfe novels, Marvin Kaye has been writing short stories featuring the great detective, and “The Purloined Platypus” is one such example.
In the Parodies, we see Mack Reynolds’ dystopian tale from the 1970’s, “The Case of the Disposable Jalopy,” which sees the now-elderly characters in a society where good food is scarce, inflation is ridiculous, and eyebrow-raising inventions are at the heart of a twisty mystery. Interestingly, “Disposable Jalopy” had to be heavily edited down to fit into the book. Another has children named for detectives trying to live up to their namesakes. Loren D. Estleman has Claudius Lyon investigate a publishing mystery in “Who’s Afraid of Nero Wolfe?” Dave Zeltserman’s “Julius Katz and the Case of Exploding Wine” features a kung-fu fighting detective, whose narrator and assistant Archie is actually a piece of artificial intelligence, and riffs on In the Best Families and A Family Affair, among others. Notably, many of the Parodies show that the authors knew the world of Wolfe really well, and had a deep affection for it.
In Potpourri, there’s a chapter from John Lescroart’s novel Rasputin’s Revenge, which imagines that Wolfe was the son of Sherlock Holmes, and shows a glimmer of a relationship between them. Joseph Goodrich has dramatized some of Stout’s novels, and the opening scene from his stage version of Might as Well Be Dead is included, featuring Archie addressing the audience, and a gender-swap for the client. One particularly amiable tale is from William Brittain’s “The Man Who Read” series, a collection of stories inspired by the great mystery writers. “The Woman Who Read Rex Stout” features a crime at a carnival sideshow.
Though many stories in the Wolfean Canon are referenced, the last, A Family Affair, has its solution spoiled more than once, though sometimes in an oblique manner. Readers should be forewarned.
This is an anthology written by fans, for fans. The more you know and love the original Wolfe and Goodwin, the more you’ll enjoy this collection of stories, full of wit, good humor, and tons of Easter eggs for devotees.
The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe: Parodies and Pastiches Featuring the Great Detective of West 35th Street
Edited by Josh Pachter
$17.99 Digital List Price