I've heard about the stories in this volume for years, but have never tracked one down before -- and then a whole collection of them show up on NetGalley! How could I not request it? I'm so glad this book exists so that those of us who don't get the magazines, etc. that publish short mystery fiction can have them (and even those who do have access to those magazines, etc. can have them in one handy volume).
Anyway, here's the setup: Claudius Lyon is a huge fan of Nero Wolfe -- he reads every one of the reports that Archie Goodwin's literary agent Rex Stout publishes. He's such a fan that he wants to be Wolfe (like the guys dressing up in Batsuits in The Dark Knight Rises) -- he's fat, fairly clever, and wealthy enough not to need to work and still indulge himself. He renovates his townhouse to include a greenhouse, an elevator, and a first floor floorplan that pretty much matches Wolfe's. He hires a private chef -- a kosher chef of dubious quality (not that Lyon needs to eat kosher, it's just what Gus can cook), changes his name to something that approximates his hero's and hires a "man of action," Arnie Woodbine. Arnie's an ex-con, small-time crook who doesn't mind (too much) putting up with his looney boss for a steady paycheck and meals.
The number of ways that Lyon isn't Wolfe is pretty large and I won't spoil your fun in discovering them. Now, Lyon's unlicensed as a PI, so he can't take on paying clients -- but he occasionally gets people who will take him up on his free services. He's decent at solving puzzles and low-priority mysteries (not that he doesn't find his way into something bigger on occasion). Once he gets a client (non-paying, Arnie'd have me stress), he goes through whatever steps he needs to figure it out (including his own version of Wolfe's lip movement and sending Arnie on fact-finding missions), and goes to some lengths to assemble some sort of audience for his reveal. I can't help smiling as I think about it, really.
The whole thing is a tongue-in-cheek tribute to the Nero Wolfe/Rex Stout -- recognizing the brilliance of the Stout's work (how can you not?), while poking fun at it. Lyon's really a goofy character and Woodbine is great at pointing that out -- while begrudgingly admitting that he gets things right every now and then. There's a lot of fun to be had in the story telling -- the mysteries aren't all that much to get excited about, it's in watching Lyon stumble through his cases that the entertainment is found. Well, that and Woodbine's commentary.
Not unlike many of the Wolfe stories (particularly the short stories).
I wouldn't recommend reading more than two of these stories in a sitting, I think they work best as solo shots. It's a difficult call, because I typically wanted to go on for one more. Also, I'm not sure how enjoyable these'd be for non-Wolfe readers -- but then again, I think a lot of the humor would hold up and it might entice a reader to learn more about Lyon's idol. And anything that gets people to read Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe novels is a good thing.
But for readers of Stout's Wolfe novels? This is a must read. He's not trying and failing to recapture Stout's magic (see Goldsborough post-The Bloodied Ivy), he's intentionally missing and yet somehow getting a little of it. I really enjoyed this book and can easily see me re-reading it a handful of times.
Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Adams Media via NetGalley in exchange for this post -- thanks to both for this.