Archie Meets Nero Wolfe

From the time I began reading Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries some 60 years ago as a teenager, I was fascinated by how Wolfe and his irrepressible sidekick and chronicler, Archie Goodwin, happened to join forces. We don’t know the answer in Mr. Stout’s compelling mysteries because when Wolfe and Goodwin appear in their first novel, “Fer-de-Lance” (1934), there is no back story and little detail about their previous lives.

This fascination with the beginnings of the partnership continued when I became privileged to be the family-approved continuator of the Wolfe series after Mr. Stout’s death in 1975. During the 1980s and ’90s, I was author of seven Nero Wolfe mysteries for Bantam Books but never delved into the origins of the team. Still, I remained intrigued by the possibility of some day writing about how Archie came to meet Nero.

I became further enthused about the idea in 2009 with the publication of longtime mystery novelist Joe Gores’ “Spade & Archer,” a prequel to Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon.” Mr. Gores, who died in 2011, had captured the essence of Hammett’s characters and the noir flavor of his writing and his settings.

That sealed the deal for me, and I began to form what was to become “Archie Meets Nero Wolfe.” In developing the story, I made use of what few clues Mr. Stout had sprinkled around in his tales, including a brief reference to the kidnapping of a wealthy hotelier’s son. That kidnapping became a central focus of my book, along with young Archie Goodwin’s coming of age as a detective in the Manhattan of 1930.

Approved by Mr. Stout’s estate, “Archie Meets Nero Wolfe” will be released this fall, both in print and as an e-book, by Mysterious Press and its longtime head, Otto Penzler. Mysterious Press also will be re-releasing my seven earlier Wolfe novels as e-books. For me, working with Mr. Penzler seems fitting, because it was at his Mysterious Bookshop in New York that I had the launch of my first Nero Wolfe novel, “Murder in E Minor,” 28 years ago.

 

 

 

Helen Hayes: Will Live Forever

I was delighted to learn that Helen Hayes, arguably the finest American actress of the Twentieth Century, recently got honored by being pictured on the latest “anytime”U.S. postage stamp, now on sale nationwide for 44 cents and usable for first-class postage at any future rate from now on. Miss Hayes, dubbed “The First Lady of the American Theater,” died in 1993 at 92. She was the only performer to win the show business “grand slam” of Oscar, Tony, Emmy, and Grammy. 

She became the first stage actress to win an Oscar, for her role in “The Sin of Madelon Claudet” in 1932. She won her second Oscar 38 years later for her supporting role in the 1970 film “Airport.” 

What particularly pleases me about this recent honor is that Helen Hayes appeared in my first “Snap Malek” Chicago historical mystery novel, “Three Strikes You’re Dead,” from Echelon Press. I set that story in 1938 and found in my research that Miss Hayes happened to be in Chicago that year in the long-running stage drama “Victoria Regina,” in which she portrayed QueenVictoria over a half-century span. Every evening, the actress aged fifty years over the duration of the performance. 

In my book, I had Malek, a Chicago Tribune police reporter, introduce himself to Miss Hayes in a restaurant, and the two of them ended up talking about the newspaper business, a natural topic since the actress was married to journalist Charles MacArthur, who with Ben Hecht co-wrote the famous newspaper stage play “The Front Page.” 

That fictional meeting between Malek and Helen Hayes remains my favorite scene in the book. And the great actress will be in my thoughts once more later this month, when I attend a revival performance of “The Front Page” at a theater inChicago.

A Sherlockian Mystery, Russian-Style!

“Where was Sherlock Holmes when we needed him?” A St. Petersburg, Russia, police officer spoke these unlikely words recently after a bizarre crime with eerie echoes of a 120-year-old Holmes short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Here’s what police surmise happened, according to London’s Daily Mail newspaper: Thieves paid a 74-year-old St. Petersburg woman to stay out of her flat for an extended period. While she was gone, they broke through her walls to get into the jewelry store next door. Although a burglar alarm went off twice after the break-in, security guards treated it as a false alarm because the doors remained locked and the windows untouched.

St. Petersburg police believe the thieves tricked the Russian woman in exactly the same way as a shopkeeper whose store adjoined a jewelry store in Conan Doyle’s story “The Red-Headed League,” which first appeared in the August 1891 issue of Strand Magazine and was one of 12 stories comprising “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,” published the next year. In that story, Holmes apprehended the thieves.

The Russian burglars, apparently conversant with the Holmes canon, made off with hundreds of gold and silver valuables. They remain at large.

A Dramatically Short Career

When I talk about my Snap Malek Chicago historical mysteries to book clubs, schools, and service groups (e.g. Rotary), the real-life character in these novels I get asked most often about is Al Capone. I find this interesting, given that Capone’s rule of the Chicago crime syndicate was so brief.

Indeed, Capone’s fame is far out of proportion to his tenure as the Windy City’s mafia kingpin. He reigned over its underworld for barely six years before being sent to prison for tax evasion in 1931 at the age of 32. He never again was a major factor in organized crime.

In all, Capone spent more time behind bars then he did as the head of the Chicago syndicate. And his successor, Frank Nitti, although primarily a front man for Tony Accardo and Paul Ricca, led the local mob longer than Scarface Al did.

So what drew attention to Capone? He was flamboyant, colorful, and quotable. The newspapers ate up his act. He outlandishly suggested he was a modern-day “Robin Hood,” taking from the rich and giving to the poor. He wore bright colored dress shirts and was a highly visible figure around town, patronizing the best restaurants and getting the best seats to big-league baseball games. And Hollywood loved the Capone persona. More than a dozen actors portrayed him on film, including Rod Steiger, Jason Robards, Ben Gazzara, and Robert DeNiro.

The man’s fast and loose living caught up with him, even in prison. Suffering from syphilis and with his mind deteriorating, Al Capone was paroled from the federal penitentiary at Alcatraz in 1939. He spent his last years in Florida, little more than a vegetable, and died in Miami Beach on Jan. 24, 1949, a week after his forty-eighth birthday.

A Call from Rockford Best Seller!

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Augie the Bookman

Few things have delighted me more of late than to learn that my favorite bookstore, Centuries & Sleuths, has won a 2011 Raven Award from the Mystery Writers of America. The Raven is given annually for outstanding achievement in the mystery field outside the realm of creative writing, and C&S is joined in this year’s award by Once Upon a Crime in Minneapolis.

Centuries & Sleuths, specializing in mystery, history and biography, is located on a lively and eclectic retail stretch of Madison Street in Chicago’s near-western suburb of Forest Park and is run by August Paul Aleksy, known widely as just Augie. The store, which Augie founded 20 years ago, is a gathering place for mystery and history writers and aficionados. (Full disclosure: The store has sold more than 1,200 copies, collectively, of my four “Snap” Malek Chicago mystery novels.)

Battling as all indies do against the national bookstore chains as well as e-books, big box discount retailers, and Amazon.com, Augie more than holds his own by providing personal service and a cozy, welcoming and stimulating retreat both for authors and readers.

For instance, every month the 1,200-sq. ft. store hosts meetings of the local chapters of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and the G.K. Chesterton Society, as well as mystery and history discussion groups. Also, the store is the scene of an annual “Meeting of the Minds” panel discussion, in which professional and amateur actors portray historical figures.

Then there are the author signings—more than 30 annually. Among those who have discussed their work and inked their books at Augie’s including celebrities Peter Ustinov and Steve Allen, as well as a Who’s Who of mystery writers, historians, and biographers of the last two decades.

Join me in raising a glass to Augie Aleksy and Centuries & Sleuths!

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