If you’re a diehard mystery reader, the odds are strong that you’ve read some, if not all, of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels and novelettes. If you haven’t, you owe it to yourself to correct the oversight. They’re classics of the genre, and Wolfe is one of the giants–literally and figuratively–among fictional private sleuths.
Because of his stature and enduring popularity, Wolfe inevitably became the subject of parodies, pastiches, and homages. After Rex Stout died, Robert Goldsborough received permission to continue the series and wrote seven new novels. Lawrence Block paid tribute to Stout in some of his Chip Harrison novels and short stories. What I didn’t know until just recently, after I had a look at The Wolfe Pack website, is how many others have written Wolfe-like stories and novels.
The most recent member of this club is Dave Zeltserman, whose 21st Century high-tech approach to Wolfean detection began with the novelette “Julius Katz,” which was published in the September/October 2009 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and subsequently won the Shamus Award from the Private Eye Writers of America and the Derringer Award for best novelette from the Short Mystery Fiction Society. He followed that with the short story “Archie’s Been Framed” in the September/October 2010 issue of EQMM. The story later took first place in the Ellery Queen’s Readers Choice Awards. And now Zeltserman has brought out the first full-length Julius Katz novel, the e-book Julius Katz and Archie.
Apart from each having the first name of a Roman emperor and an animalistic surname, apart from the fact that both are inherently lazy and only inclined to work when they need money to support lifestyles that include expensive passions, Nero Wolfe and Julius Katz have any number of other similarities. But they also have many striking differences. I considered enumerating both here, then rejected the idea on the grounds that readers familiar with Wolfe should have the pleasure of making the discoveries on their own. (I‘ll even refrain from giving in to the urge to shout “O pioneer, Zeltserman!” with regard to the naming of a particular character and leave readers of this review to figure out to whom and what I refer.) There is, however, one similarity it’s imperative to mention.
Nero Wolfe’s cases are narrated by his general factotum, the redoubtable Archie Goodwin, and Julius Katz has Archie Smith. Archie Goodwin is a licensed private detective in his own right, operates as Wolfe’s principal legman, and handles secretarial and accounting chores. Archie Smith is…well, that is, he’s…–Oh, hell! Archie Smith is as unique a narrator as any you’ll find in all of detective fiction, and possibly any other kind of fiction, and that’s all I’ll say on the matter lest I spoil the surprise.
Julius Katz and Archie opens with mystery writer Kenneth J. Kingston trying to hire Julius for ten thousand dollars “for no more than four hours work.” A former bestseller whose sales have been declining over his last several releases, he has a list of six people who, he claims, want to kill him. He also has a new book coming out, which he explains is being treated with extreme secrecy until it‘s actually released. When Julius accuses Kingston of wanting to engage him strictly for the sake of publicity, Kingston replies: “Bingo! That’s why you’re the world-class genius detective. So all I want from you is to spend an hour, two hours at the most, interrogating them as a group. Make it look real. They’ll all think it is. I’ll have a TV crew present. Then in two weeks, after the buzz and media attention has been building, bring everyone back for another round of questioning. This time when you’re done, act as if you’re stumped, and I’ll jump in and name the guilty party. It will be a brilliant piece of publicity that will get the public hot for my book.”
Julius initially turns down Kingston’s offer, which the writer then raises to twenty-five-thousand dollars. When Kingston subsequently shows up on his doorstep with a bottle of a ’78 Montrachet and the reluctant willingness to pay him the money, too, Julius the wine connoisseur can’t refuse.
Thus, the following afternoon, the six people on Kingston’s list are invited to, and show up at, the office in Julius’s Boston townhouse. They are Kingston’s wife, his agent, his editor, his former writing partner, a book critic, and a private detective on whom Kingston’s fictional hero is based. Kingston is supposed to arrive half an hour after the others do, but he doesn’t. It’s subsequently discovered that he was shot to death in his home hours earlier.
Despite Archie’s prodding and pestering, Julius wants no part of the murder investigation. But after a poker game where he outmaneuvers a card cheat hired by shadowy arch-enemy Desmond Grushnier, and then tangles with the cheat and a couple of other thugs, someone takes several shots at him outside his townhouse. Angry, and certain that the shooter is one of the six people Kingston suspected, Julius promises an irate homicide detective that he will expose the murderer by midnight. Experienced mystery readers will probably have no difficulty in identifying the culprit, but that doesn’t matter because the fun is in the ride.
I have but a minor nit to pick with Julius Katz and Archie, and that is Archie’s tendency to harp repetitively and at length on certain aspects of Julius’s behavior. Fortunately, Dave Zeltserman’s easy, breezy prose style compensates so it doesn’t become too tedious. Otherwise, this is a nicely-paced, fairly-clued whodunit from a skilled writer best known to date for some very hardboiled and noir novels and short stories who is clearly having fun with, and versatile enough to pull off, the formal detective story.
At the beginning of this review I suggested that readers unfamiliar with Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels should read some to appreciate what Zeltserman has done with his own creation. I stand by that, but I hasten to assure readers that they needn’t know the Wolfe corpus to enjoy the Julius Katz stories. Julius Katz and Archie can stand on its own as an entertaining and very contemporary detective novel.
© 2011 Barry Ergang
A Derringer Award-winner, Barry Ergang’s fiction, poetry and non-fiction has appeared in numerous publications, print and electronic. Some of his work is available at Smashwords and Amazon. His website is http://www.writetrack.yolasite.com/.