If Chicago-area writer Robert Goldsborough has anyone to blame—or credit—for turning him into a diehard Nero Wolfe addict, it’s his mother, Wilma. The story goes that Goldsborough, when he was about 13 years of age, voiced an all-too-familiar teenage complaint: He was bored. In response, his mother handed him a copy of The American Magazine, inside of which was serialized a Rex Stout novel featuring that author’s familiarly corpulent and quirky, yet brilliant Manhattan armchair detective. “She loved the Nero Wolfe mysteries,” Goldsborough explained years later, “because there was no overt violence or sex in them and almost no swearing. Those were the same reasons she liked Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot stories.”
That introduction to Wolfe and his younger, smart-mouthed legman/secretary, Archie Goodwin, led Goldsborough to track down the remainder of Stout’s oeuvre. He tells me it took him well into his college years before he’d read through the almost three dozen Wolfe novels (beginning with 1934’s Fer-de-Lance and concluding with A Family Affair, published in 1975, the same year Stout died). Little did he know then how valuable it was for him to have absorbed the particulars of that invented sleuth’s life—from Wolfe’s obsession with orchids and his prodigious thirst for beer to his discomfort around women and his penchant for yellow silk pajamas.
Not until Goldsborough, who spent most of his professional career at the Chicago Tribune before moving to Advertising Age, sat down in the mid-1970s to devise a Wolfe whodunit of his own did he realize how thoroughly he understood the character’s world. That initial novel, Murder in E Minor (1986), was followed by six additional Wolfe “revival” works. But following 1993’s The Missing Chapter, he ceased writing about the habitués of Wolfe’s West 35th Street brownstone. Instead, he went on to concoct five puzzlers starring mid-20th-century Chicago Tribune police reporter Steve “Snap” Malek, a protagonist rooted in his own experiences with that newspaper.
Then last year, Goldsborough suddenly returned with Archie Meets Nero Wolfe, a prequel to Stout’s series set during the waning days of Prohibition. The now 76-year-old author follows that up this month with Murder in the Ball Park, an imperfect but certainly snappy-paced and humorous outing in which Archie and another of Wolfe’s on-call operatives, Saul Panzer, witness and then investigate the slaying of a state senator at New York City’s fabled Polo Grounds baseball stadium.
How did you come to pen your first Wolfe/Goodwin novel, Murder in E Minor?
My mother read Rex Stout’s obituary in the Chicago Tribune and said something like, “Oh, now there aren’t going to be any more Nero Wolfe stories.” I thought, “Maybe there could be one more,” and I began writing E Minor as a book for one person, my mother. I gave it to her for Christmas in 1978 as a bound typescript, and that is how it remained until its eventual publication by Bantam Books eight or so years later.
Rex Stout passed away in October 1975. You took up the job of continuing his Wolfe series beyond E Minor only a decade later. Were you intimidated by the task?
Not intimidated, but certainly to a degree apprehensive. Here I was, taking on the writing about icons whom thousands of readers cherished. I knew I had better get the characterizations and the details right, or I would hear about it. Overall, I got positive marks, although a few readers spotted some inconsistencies. I acknowledged these and did some mea culpas.
Which of your original crop of seven Wolfe books do you like the best?
You mean, which of your children is your favorite? I suppose of those seven, my favorite by a slim margin would be Death on Deadline . I came out of a newspaper background, and it was particularly enjoyable to write about the business and model some of the characters on real people, such as [media magnate] Rupert Murdoch.
Your initial set of new Wolfe novels were published between 1986 and 1994. But then you stopped writing them. Was that your choice, or the decision of your publisher, Bantam Books?
Some of both. Bantam chose to go in other directions, and these books of mine had accomplished one of the goals of both the publisher and the Stout estate—namely, to revitalize the extensive backlist of Stout books. This was accomplished. Also, I had for some time wanted to write books with my own protagonist.
So, ending a hiatus of almost two decades, what were you hoping to accomplish with the penning of Archie Meets Nero Wolfe? Had you long harbored your own questions about how these two gents encountered one another, and was filling in the gaps rewarding?
You’ve pretty well nailed it. Years ago, when I was writing the Wolfe books the first time around, I wondered how Nero and Archie came to join forces. Rex Stout provided very little back-story, only a few brief mentions. Even back then, I had the idea to someday write about how they met. And yes, filling in those blanks was most satisfying for me.
Archie Meets Nero Wolfe was set toward the close of America’s Prohibition era, when Goodwin was only 19 years old and new to New York City. However, Murder in the Ball Park takes place somewhere in the mid-20th century. I was a bit surprised by that leap in time. I assumed you had set the clock back in the first book, and then intended to move slowly forward from there. Will you be skipping back and forth through history with subsequent books in this series?
As many of Rex Stout’s books are time neutral, so may be future ones I write. I have no plans to set any further books in a specific time period.
Am I wrong in my memory, or did Rex Stout make use of sporting backgrounds in one or more of his original Wolfe tales?
You are not wrong. In the first Nero Wolfe book, Fer-de-Lance, golf plays a major role in a murder. And the 1954 novella This Won’t Kill You, from the trilogy Three Men Out, is set against a backdrop of a murder during a World Series at New York’s Polo Grounds, also the scene of the crime in Murder in the Ball Park. Rex Stout was an avid baseball fan, and as a follower of the New York Giants, frequently went to games at the Polo Grounds.
You write in the new book like someone who has his own fond memories of watching baseball games in New York. Is that true?
I am a baseball fan but have never seen a game in New York. For my sins, I’m a longtime follower of the Chicago Cubs, and have over the years watched countless games at Wrigley Field.
What have you learned about writing since you first gave up concocting Wolfe stories that you now bring to this second round of such yarns?
Good question, tough question. I believe I’ve learned to be a more patient writer over the years. I used to become irritated with myself when I couldn’t quickly move the story ahead. Now I am much more content to wait for ideas to come, which may well be a function of age.
And how long might you be able to continue writing about Wolfe and Goodwin this time around? Are you already working on a third installment of this new series, with more to come?
I try not to get too far ahead of myself. I’m currently working on another Wolfe story, although I won’t predict when it will be completed. Beyond that, I really don’t have a specific plan.