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.

 

 

 

My Best of British Mysteries

I have been a fan of British TV mysteries for decades and eagerly look forward to new series (most recent example, “Zen”) as well as fresh episodes of old favorites. Lately, I have mulled over which of these series are my favorites and, at the risk of wading into treacherous waters, here is my “top 10” list:

1. Foyle’s War (starring Michael Kitchen). This tops the list in part because of the intriguing premise: District Chief Inspector Christopher Foyle (Kitchen) toils in a small Channel city (Hastings) during World War II and constantly finds himself at odds with the British military, which frequently feels secrecy trumps the quest for justice. Sometimes Foyle prevails, sometimes not. Superb Kitchen is ably supported by cast members Honeysuckle Weeks and Anthony Howell.

2. Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Jeremy Brett). Brett made the role his own in more than 40 episodes, all drawn from Conan Doyle stories, and he became the consummate Holmes. It will be interesting to see how the new, contemporary Holmes series starring Benedict Cumberbatch fares with audiences. It’s off to a good start.

3. Poirot (David Suchet) Like Brett, Suchet has co-opted the role of the protagonist, making it difficult to see anyone else playing the part. I favored the earlier episodes co-starring Hastings (Hugh Fraser) and Inspector Japp (Philip Jackson) over the more recent and somewhat darker versions.

4. Inspector Lewis (Kevin Whately) Although a spinoff of the “Inspector Morse” series (see below), I prefer this iteration in large part because of better synergy between Whately and his assistant, Sergeant Hathaway (Laurence Fox of the great acting family).

5. Miss Marple (Joan Hickson) Hickson was wonderful and unflappable as Agatha Christie’s busybody small-town spinster, who always was one step ahead of the police. She nailed the role as no one has before or since (see below).

6. Inspector Morse (John Thaw) Thaw and Kevin Whately (Lewis) made a good team in their Oxford series based on Colin Dexter stories, but Thaw too often put down and derided the intrepid Lewis. Thaw’s constant sneering at his partner wore thin in an otherwise well-done series, which had top-notch guest stars including Sir John Gielgud.

7. Midsomer Murders (John Nettles) The granddaddy of British mystery series in terms of number of episodes (81 to date), this is set in fictitious semi-rural Midsomer County. Nettles is top-drawer as Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby, but many of the episodes feel they must pile on multiple murders to keep the plot moving. Nettles is leaving the series to be replaced by Neil Dudgeon, who will play his cousin, John.

8. Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie) The current Marple, McKenzie is a solid choice, better than Geraldine McEwan, who played the part after Joan Hickson’s death. McKenzie seems to thrive in the role.

9. Maigret (Michael Gambon) My regret is that too few episodes of this series (14) were made. Gambon brought novelist Georges Simenon’s Chief Inspector Jules Maigret to life in these stories, well produced with exteriors in a Budapest made up to be Paris. Jack Galloway as Janvier and Geoffrey Hutchings as Lucas were well cast as Maigret’s police sidekicks.

10. Adam Dalgleish Roy Marsden ably played P. D. James’s Commander Adam Dalgleish in several haunting mini-series drawn from her books. Marsden’s screen presence as a steady, thoughtful police detective was the glue that nicely held these stories together.

No doubt many of you have your own choices, such as Prime Suspect, Jericho, Inspector Lynley, and the two Lord Peter Wimsey series, among others. I’d be interested in your rankings.

“Best Historical Novel” – Lovey Award Winner

Robert Goldsborough author of "Terror at the Fair" 2012 Lovey "Best Historical Novel"As the publisher of the Snap Malek series, I am thrilled and honored to announce that at the Love is Murder 2012 Conference, Robert Goldsborough accepted the Lovey Award for “Best Historical Novel” for book five in the Malek series, Terror at the Fair.

As a long-time fan of Robert Goldsborough’s wonderful additions to the Nero Wolfe series created by Rex Stout, it was more than a thrill to put Bob’s original historical mystery series into print, and each one in the series since. Snap Malek quickly became one of my favorite characters in the historical mystery genre, earning a place next to Nero Wolfe on the podium in my mind.

When we first published Three Strikes You’re Dead, nothing could have pleased us more than being there when Bob won the Lovey Award that year at Love is Murder for “Best Historical Novel.” What this tells me is that  Robert Goldsborough has definitely got what it takes to tell entertaining stories and to create unforgettable characters. It would appear that mystery readers agree with me on that.

Congratulations to Robert for this latest honor, and I, for one, look forward to many more outstanding novels written by this acclaimed author.

With great pride and respect,

Karen L. Syed, President
Echelon Press LLC

In Praise of John Nettles

Actor John Nettles

Actor John Nettles

If, after reading the headline, your reaction is “Who Is John Nettles?” you cannot call yourself a fan of television detectives, particularly the British version. In terms of longevity, Nettles is the reigning champion of TV detectives by a wide margin. For 13 seasons, he has portrayed Chief Detective Inspector Tom Barnaby in the series “Midsomer Murders,” episodes of which are regularly telecast on Public Broadcasting stations throughout the U.S.

Midsomer Murders

Midsomer Murders

The series, adapted from the books of Caroline Graham (born 1931), is set in England’s fictitious Midsomer County, with most of the filming done in picturesque rural and small-town Buckinghamshire. Nettles portrays a calm, clear-eyed and happily married detective who remains unrattled as the deaths pile up all around him in the unlikely bucolic settings.

In his Barnaby role, Nettles appeared in 81 “Midsomer” episodes, far surpassing the late, great Jeremy Brett’s 41 episodes as Sherlock Holmes from 1984 to 1994. Nettles, 67, made his final Barnaby episodes earlier this year. During his long tenure as Barnaby, he had three different sergeants as his sidekicks. Jane Wymark played Barnaby’s wife, Joyce, in all 81 episodes, stoically putting up with him upsetting the family schedule by dashing off to a case in mid-meal or during a stage play in which their daughter is performing.

Although Nettles is departing, “Midsomer Murders” will continue. New episodes, filming this year, feature Neil Dudgeon as Detective John Barnaby, Tom’s cousin. It will be interesting to see how he is received by viewers.

The Good, the Bad, the Sequel

The recent announcement that the late Robert B. Parker’sSpenser” and “Jesse Stone” mysteries will live on under new authors is just the latest in a long line of series continuations. Mystery writer Ace Atkins is writing a Spenser novel for Spring 2012 publication, while Hollywood producer Michael Brandman will bring Jesse Stone back in a novel this September.

Series continuations under later authors have been both lauded and damned. As the one who extended the life of Rex’s Stout’s famed private eye Nero Wolfe with seven novels in the 1980s and ’90s, I got both praise and derision–praise from readers who were glad to have more tales of Wolfe and his loyal right-hand, Archie Goodwin, and derision from those who either lamented that “you haven’t got it right” or who felt fictional characters should be allowed to die with their creators.

Otto Penzler, longtime mystery publisher and bookstore owner, falls into that latter camp. Quoted in an April Wall Street Journal article about the Spenser continuations, Penzler said he has “a philosophical opposition to people picking up other writers’ series.”

In many instances, the estate of the creator approves a continuator. Such was the case with the new Spenser stories, which were approved by Parker’s widow, Joan. The estate of Margaret Mitchell has okayed multiple sequels to her iconic “Gone with the Wind.” Several writers including my friend Raymond Benson got the green-light from the estate of Ian Fleming to do more James Bond stories. And I received the blessing of the Rex Stout estate in my continuations. Interestingly, Parker himself also was a continuator, completing the unfinished Raymond Chandler manuscript of “Poodle Springs,” a Philip Marlowe story. He also wrote “Perchance to Dream,” a sequel to Chandler’s “The Big Sleep.”

In another recent development, novelist Jamie Freveletti has been invited by the estate of the late Robert Ludlum to continue Ludlum’s “Covert One” series. So the beat goes on, and it is a good bet we have not seen the last of continuators rising up to carry on the adventures of fictional characters that have engendered and strong and fiercely loyal followings.

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.