Monday, March 3, 2014

To Finish or Not to Finish?

If you don't like a book, don't finish it. Or skim through the rest to find out what happened for your own edification and then leave it behind forever.

It sounds easy, but not when you're devoted wholeheartedly to a character or a series, like I am to Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe, that seventh of a ton, orchid-loving, shut-in-by-choice gourmand. Oh, I like Archie Goodwin, Wolfe's legman, well enough, especially his love of milk, and all the stories are always from his perspective (I may be wrong about this, so be gentle if I am), but I love spending time in that Manhattan brownstone with its floors containing Nero Wolfe and Archie's office, Fritz Brenner's holiest-of-holy kitchen, with all the culinary masterpieces that emerge from it; Wolfe's and Archie's bedrooms, and, of course, the plant rooms where the orchids are, where, without fail, with some extreme exceptions (such as gunfire bursting through the plant rooms, decimating them), Wolfe is there from 9-11 a.m. and 4-6 p.m., all of it tended by his gardener, Theodore Horstmann.

I haven't yet read all of Rex Stout's journeys into one of my favorite worlds, nor have I read all of Robert Goldsborough's continuations, taken up 11 years after Stout died. I did read Goldsborough's first continuation, Murder in E Minor, but probably have to reread it again because I don't remember much about it. I do remember that it placed Wolfe and Archie in the 1970s, which was an interesting change. I loved his prequel to the series, Archie Meets Nero Wolfe, so I thought I'd have something to look forward to every time Goldsborough has a new Wolfe novel out, although Archie Meets Nero Wolfe was the first one since 1993.

His latest Wolfe novel is called Murder in the Ball Park, and it seems to place Wolfe and Archie quite a while after they first met, which, judging from Wolfe reading Eisenhower's Crusade in Europe, is 1948.

I'm on page 112. I've been on page 112 for the past day and a half, partly because I've been busy with freelance research work, but mostly because every page brings a new frustration. The mystery of who assassinated state senator Orson Milbank during a baseball game at the Polo Grounds does not move along. And by placing this story at a time that I'm sure Stout himself covered feels to me as if Goldsborough, by this act, wants to be considered in the same league as Stout. To me, he isn't. A different author can play with what a previous author has left behind, but with reservations, if that world has been so well-established, as this one was by Stout.

In this novel, Goldsborough plays too fast and loose with how Wolfe and Archie operate, even who they are. I could never imagine Wolfe saying "Egad" in reaction, as he does at the beginning of chapter 14. "Phooey" yes. I've read that and it works. Maybe Wolfe has said "Egad" during Stout's time writing him, but it most likely was smoother than it is here. Also, I love reading Wolfe's speeches to potential murder, or otherwise, suspects for that reason. Goldsborough had a fine handle on it in the prequel, so I don't understand why there's a sudden inability to do it here.

With Wolfe's eating habits, I can accept Georgia ham broiled, as he has for breakfast in bed one morning. but I wince at squash with sour cream and dill and avocado with watercress and black walnut kernels. That seems very un-Wolfe like and certainly un-Fritz like. And it does not at all speak to the enormous love Wolfe has for fine food and the opinions he holds forth on it. It's as if Goldsborough just drops them in to meet what's expected of a Wolfe story, without getting into why.

But once again, it's the snail's pace of the story that nearly kills my interest in this novel. Wolfe and Archie do investigate every angle in every novel and novella and short story, but it is never this slow. There have been novels in Stout's repertoire that have not been entirely up to snuff, but still move along swiftly enough. Here, we meet every possible suspect, each less interesting than the next, including a barely-written mob boss who would have been more fascinating in Wolfe's presence if he and Wolfe had been permitted to have a discussion about their different sides of life, their ways of living. Something like that. Not very long, but Wolfe is worldly, and there would have been a lot of potential in that.

I'm up to the part where the late state senator's lover and former press secretary has decided to run for his vacant seat, and still I crawl through one page and then another. It's not that I feel I'll be doing Wolfe a great disservice if I don't finish this. This is a different Wolfe, a Wolfe that was better in the prequel, and maybe he's just as good in Goldsborough's '70s-set versions. Plus, there's so much talk here between Archie and others, including New York Gazette man and Wolfe resource Lon Cohen, but it's not even entertaining or useful talk. It's just enough to push the story along without feeling, without what usually makes these stories a joy to read. There's not much joy in this one.

Throughout the rest of the day, I'll think about whether to push along, to see it through to the end, or skim. I'm such a fan of this series that in the now-rare times that we go to a buffet in Las Vegas or Henderson, I always order milk to drink, as a salute to Archie Goodwin. I know this is Goldsborough and not Stout here, but Wolfe is still Wolfe to me, despite the "Egad." It's hard to shake off devotion.