Written by Loren D Estleman — This veteran Michigan-based writer has already proved himself adapt in the art of the homage with The Perils of Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock Holmes vs Dracula and Dr Jekyll and Mr Holmes. The short stories demonstrate Loren D Estleman’s commendable familiarity with the prose style of Arthur Conan Doyle, Bram Stoker and Robert Louis Stevenson.
Nearly Nero: The Adventures of Claudius Lyon, the Man Who Would Be Wolfe collects all of the author’s short fiction tributes to the Grandmaster Award winning author Rex Stout and his creation Nero Wolfe. All 10 stories that were originally published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine between 2008 to 2016 are included, plus another which is original to this collection. There is also a preface by the author, which serves as a kind of how-to for anybody interested in writing short, cosy crime fiction and an exploration of the character’s enduring appeal.
Nero Wolfe is an eccentric, reclusive armchair detective with a strictly regimented lifestyle who solves mysteries without ever leaving his Manhattan brownstone townhouse. He employs Archie Goodwin as his eyes and ears, and in true cosy style, he gathers the characters involved together in his front room to deliver his solution. Part of the pleasure of the stories in Nearly Nero is that they aren’t simply pastiches that use the same characters, but rather detail the attempts of a rich Wolfe fanatic to emulate his hero, and crucially, how he can’t quite get it right.
The man, who calls himself Claudius Lyon, has all the time in the world to indulge his passion. His father’s widget legacy ensures he never has to work and guarantees him the means to build a life for himself that is as close to his hero’s as possible. He lives in a Brooklyn townhouse, tends his tomatoes (just as Wolfe tends his orchids), drinks cream soda to stimulate his deductive process (he can’t tolerate Wolfe’s beloved beer), and has a live-in executive chef (his is Gus, the best kosher chef in the five boroughs, whereas Wolfe’s is Fritz, a master of haute cuisine).
The original Wolfe stories were narrated by his live-in assistant Archie Goodwin, and part of their appeal Estleman identifies was due to their sometimes acerbic relationship and Goodwin’s sly sense of humour. Lyon has chosen his assistant solely on the basis of his name – Arnie Woodbine – and seems unconcerned about his history of petty crime and his on-going attempts to chisel away at his master’s fortune.
The stories are uniform in style. Each title is a headline-style pun such as Who’s Afraid of Nero Wolfe or The Boy Who Cried Wolfe, and each is short and snappy. Most can be consumed in 20 minutes or so. They are gently humorous, and the mysteries are cosy in nature – no sex, violence or foul language. When read serially, the similarity in structure of the tales can begin to grate. The book works best when dipped in and out of – perfect light relief if you have read too much Scandinavian crime fiction or serial killer thrillers recently. Personally, I enjoy switching between short and long fiction, and there is a place on my bookshelf for Nearly Nero. I must confess to never having read Rex Stout, but this book has made me want to pick up Fer-de-Lance and make my acquaintance with Nero and the gang.
If you fancy a modern cosy novel, check out our review of A Quiet Life in the Country.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars