Sunday, July 23, 2017

Review of "Stop the Presses! - A Nero Wolfe Mystery" by Robert Goldsborough

Rex Stout's "Nero Wolfe" books - set in the middle years of the 20th century - are among my favorite light mysteries. Wolfe is an eccentric, obese private detective who lives in a brownstone in New York City; almost never leaves his house; spends four hours a day tending his orchids; has a chef who prepares delicious gourmet meals; loves beer; and employs Archie Goodwin as his assistant, legman, and gadfly.

Stout's last Nero Wolfe book was published over 40 years ago, so - when I saw this 2016 pastiche by Robert Goldsborough available as an audiobook on Hoopla - I decided to give it a try.

The plot: It's the 1970s and Cameron Clay - who writes the "Stop the Presses" gossip column for the New York Gazette - has been getting death threats. This isn't surprising since Clay makes it his mission to insult and embarrass New York's better known citizens - and to expose what he thinks are illegal and immoral acts.

"Stop the Presses" is the most popular feature in The Gazette, so Lon Cohen - the paper's editor - asks Nero Wolfe if he would speak to Clay, assess the level of danger, and make appropriate suggestions. Wolfe gets Saul Panzer - the best free-lance operative in New York - to provide an in-depth profile of Clay, after which Wolfe agrees to see the journalist.

When Clay shows up at Wolfe's house - looking and sounding ill - he explains that he's been getting menacing phone calls, but can't identify the speaker from the muffled voice. The columnist does, however, provide a list of five 'suspects' who wish him dead:

- Mike Tobin - a cop who lost his job and went to prison after Clay tagged him for beating up suspects.

- Kerwin Andrews - a builder and developer who lost a big project after Clay revealed his shoddy construction methods.

- Millard Beardsley - A Harlem city counselman whom Clay has accused of taking bribes and putting the 'financial squeeze' on his constituents.

- Roswell Stokes - a shifty lawyer who's been pilloried repeatedly in Clay's column.

- Serena Sanchez - an opera singer who was married to Clay. She's publicly declared that she'd like to kill her ex-husband.

Wolfe tells Clay he can't help him, and suggests the columnist get private security or contact the police - but Clay refuses to do either. Cut to the chase, and Clay is found shot dead in his apartment. The cops quickly rule it a suicide, but the publishers of The Gazette think Clay was murdered, and hire Wolfe to expose the killer.

The story slows down at this point as Archie schemes to get each of the five 'suspects' to Wolfe's house for an interview - one at a time, over a series of evenings. Wolfe has a rule about hospitality under his roof, so there's a lot of blather about Archie taking hats and coats, making everyone drinks, seeing people in and out, etc. Of course every 'suspect' complains about Clay doing them wrong, and each one proclaims their innocence (naturally). Wolfe's 'frenemy' in the police department, Inspector Cramer, also shows up - to warn Wolfe not to embarrass the cops.

In between Wolfe's interviews, Archie attends a weekend soirée at the country estate of his wealthy girlfriend, Lily Rowan. The party includes playing cards, dining, and dancing, and Serena Sanchez - who's a guest - does some serious flirting with Archie.

After Wolfe speaks to all the persons of interest he mulls things over.....and eventually resolves the case. Now Archie has to, once again, persuade all the relevant people to come to Wolfe's house for the big reveal. Thus, there's more politeness and drink-making and so on. All this cajoling and cordiality serves to pad a rather thin plot and minimal mystery.

This book isn't a great addtion to the Nero Wolfe collection, but it's fun to visit with some favorite characters. For that reason, I'd recommend the book to fans of the series.

I don't think you have to start with book one to enjoy these stories. You can just jump in anywhere, and the author will catch you up very quickly.

I do have one HUGE problem with the book. All the Nero Wolfe books are narrated in the first person by Archie Goodwin - a midwestern boy whose accent would be 'neutral.' However, "Stop the Presses!" is read by Peter Berkrot, a New Englander who has a refined, rather poncy accent (he almost sounds British). This is absolutely inauthentic (I'd say terrible) for Archie, and kept pulling me right out of the story. I think a different narrator should be found for future Nero Wolfe audiobooks.

Rating: 3 stars

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