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Nero Wolfe’s Legacy Continues in Death of an Art Collector

Death, art, and orchids? Detective Nero Wolfe returns in the latest series installment.

With classic detectives like Lord Peter Wimsey and Hercule Poirot, the pages of our favorite mystery novels have been graced with admirable sleuths for many years. Edgar Allan Poe presented the first fictional detective through his character C. Auguste Dupin in 1841, and later Sir Arthur Conan Doyle transformed the archetype of the character into the widely recognizable Sherlock Holmes—who continues to be one of the most famous fictional private detectives. 

Amateur sleuths, private investigators, and professional policemen gained worldwide popularity during the “Golden Age of Detective Fiction,” which took place during the 1920s and 1930s, but these characters don’t show any signs of slowing down in popularity. Nostalgia is a powerful sentiment that continuously proves its hold on audiences through numerous new installments featuring old favorites. Mystery author Robert Goldsborough has made his own contribution through his continuation of the Nero Wolfe detective stories. 

Related: 8 Essential Rex Stout Mystery Books 

The eccentric detective Nero Wolfe was created by author Rex Stout and introduced in 1934. The brilliant, corpulent detective was known for his loath of leaving his luxurious New York City brownstone due to business; instead, he preferred reading, eating, or tending his orchids. Between 1934 and 1975, Wolfe was featured in over 33 novels and 41 novellas and short stories. Like other famous detectives, Wolfe also enjoyed celebrity status when the stories were adapted for film, radio, and television. After Stout’s death in 1975, many fans believed it would be the end of their beloved Nero Wolfe, but Robert Goldsborough had other plans. 

In 1986, Goldsborough, with the approval from Stout’s estate, published his first Wolfe mystery: Murder in E Minor. Goldsborough was previously known for his career as a journalist, which spanned for 45 years, with the Chicago Tribune and Advertising Age, but gained distinction as an author after continuing Rex Stout’s legacy. Goldsborough’s extension of Nero Wolfe’s adventures was received with acclaim and praise—Murder in E Minor won a Nero Award—and with good reason. The essence of Nero is ever-present as he tackles new cases—even as he schedules his daily four hours for his orchids. 

Read on for an excerpt from the latest Nero Wolfe mystery, Death of an Art Collector, and then pre-order the book, which will be released on May 14, 2019.

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Death of an Art Collector

By Robert Goldsborough

Death of an Art Collector

By Robert Goldsborough

Over the years, I have attended cocktail parties, dinners, dances, and myriad charitable events with Lily Rowan, some of them held in her duplex penthouse apartment on East Sixty-Third Street between Madison and Park Avenues. A few words about Lily: She is beautiful, rich, and—to use her own word—lazy. I take issue with the lazy part, however, because she has invariably used her inherited wealth to support good works, from orphanages and soup kitchens to shelters for the homeless and for unwed mothers.

I met Lily in a pasture in Upstate New York eons ago when a bull named Caesar charged at me, and to escape from his horns and his hooves I dove over a fence and sprawled at the feet of a lovely blonde wearing a yellow shirt and slacks, who clapped and said, “Beautiful, Escamillo! Do it again!”

I later learned that Escamillo is a toreador in the opera Carmen, and Lily has called me that ever since. She and I have a relationship that is nobody’s business but ours. Her wealth comes from her late father, an immigrant from Ireland who made millions by building much of the New York City sewer system.

Related: Nero Wolfe Takes On a Corrupt Organization and High-Profile Murder Case 

Just so that you understand, whenever Lily and I go out, whether to a dinner, dancing at the Churchill, a Broadway play, the opera, or a hockey game at Madison Square Garden, I pay.

On this balmy spring night in Manhattan, the kind the chamber of commerce extols, I accompanied Lily to a dinner in the ballroom at the Waldorf Astoria. This fest was held to give patrons of the new Guggenheim Museum—Lily being among them—a sneak preview of sorts, with photographs and architectural drawings, showing what to expect from this highly publicized and unconventional addition to New York’s museum scene, which was still in its construction stages.

We were seated at a table with six other people whom I had never seen with one exception. Lily seemed to have met them all, hardly a surprise given her crowded social calendar and wide circle of acquaintances. On my right was the most attractive woman in the group, other than Lily, of course. She introduced herself as Nadia Wordell, a slender redhead who I guessed to be in her mid to late twenties. Her dimpled smile more than made up for a nose that was a shade too small, and I liked her modest demeanor, which made her even more appealing.

bNext to Nadia sat her father, Arthur Wordell, short and thin to the point of being gaunt, who possessed an impressive mane of white hair and looked as if he should be her grandfather, since he appeared to be about seventy-five. I soon learned through the chatter around me that he was expected to donate some or all of his large and highly valued collection of art to the new museum.

Wordell struck me from the first as a stuffed shirt. He acted as if he would rather be someplace else, although when any of the others at the table asked about his art, he puffed out his chest and fixed ice-blue eyes on his questioner.

“I know great art when I see it,” he said, running a hand through that white hair. “I come by this instinctively. Not to share with the public in some way what I have amassed would be a sin—yes, indeed, a sin.”

A narrow-faced, long-nosed woman named Faith Richmond, a biographer of nineteenth- and twentieth-century artists, peered through tortoiseshell glasses that grotesquely magnified her eyes. She told Wordell, “This is a wonderful thing you are doing, Arthur. Just wonderful. Your impressionist and postimpressionist works in particular will be an incredible asset to the Guggenheim if you choose to favor the new museum with your collection.”

Related: In His Own Words: How Robert Goldsborough Became Nero Wolfe 

He threw a curt nod in her direction as a tuxedoed man whose center-parted black hair looked like it had been buffed with shoe polish stepped to the lectern, cleared his throat, and paused, letting the chatter die down. “Thank you all so very much for coming here this evening,” he said in a radio-announcer voice that oozed sincerity. “I need not tell you these are exciting times indeed as we eagerly await the completion of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, an institution to which all of you here have shown your unwavering loyalty.

“We had been hoping tonight to have the legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright with us, but, unfortunately, Mr. Wright is unable to be in attendance because of a prior engagement.

“But despite the lack of his presence, we will have on the screen behind me depictions of the architect’s genius, exterior examples that many of you have already seen as you have passed the intersection of East Eighty-Ninth Street and Fifth Avenue.”

With that, our host put a black-and-white photograph of the museum’s exterior on the giant screen to the accompaniment of “oohs” and “aahs.” I had passed the structure myself on several occasions, and while I am by no means an expert on architectural styles or on the highly praised Mr. Wright, I found the building to resemble nothing more than a round layer-cake that was larger at the top than at the bottom. But then, what do I know about genius, other than that of the man who signs my checks? And even with my boss, Nero Wolfe, I make no claim to be able to keep up with his thought processes, which invariably leave me trailing in his wake.

Our speaker continued to show photographic slides of the unfinished interior of the museum and also some of the architect’s conceptions of how the display areas would appear.

“One incredible feature of the Guggenheim,” the emcee intoned, “is this ramp gallery that spirals downward from the top of the building. It is Mr. Wright’s brilliant idea that visitors can ride an elevator up and then walk down the ramp, leisurely observing the wonderful art arrayed before them.

“That art originates, of course, from the glorious collection assembled by the late Mr. Guggenheim and will be added to by many other generous donors, including one who I am happy to report is present with us tonight … Arthur Wordell. Mr. Wordell, please stand and take a justly earned bow!”

But the man of the moment was by no means happy. He remained seated, scowled, and raised one arm briefly to the applause. After the clapping subsided, he muttered, to no one in particular, “I certainly did not expect or need that,” and set his face in a frown that deepened his facial wrinkles.

guggenheim
  • Photo Credit: Alexandra Nicolae / Unsplash

“But, Arthur, the people were just showing their appreciation,” said the lean and well-dressed Emory Sterling. I had learned through Lily and the table conversation that he was publisher of the New York–based magazine Art & Artists. “Those here tonight have a great admiration for you,” Sterling went on. “Surely you cannot deny them the pleasure of giving you a form of thanks.”

“I most certainly can deny them,” Wordell shot back, stiffening, “especially as I have not yet committed to giving my works to this museum. I should get up and walk out of here right now, dammit!”

“Daddy—please, stay, please,” Nadia said, putting a hand on his arm. “No one meant any harm.”

He snorted and folded his arms across his chest and pouted like a petulant child. “I simply cannot believe the presumption of these people,” he said. “If this is a feeble attempt to stampede me into making a decision, I can assure everyone that it will not succeed.”

“Arthur, I agree with Emory and your lovely daughter,” said Henry Banks, who I learned was the curator of several large private collections, and who, like Faith Richmond and Emory Sterling, was a member of an advisory board Wordell had cobbled together, presumably to help him decide about the future of his collection.

“I do not believe that anyone is trying to stampede you into anything, Arthur,” Banks went on in a soothing tone. “If I were you, I would simply chalk it up to the naive exuberance of tonight’s master of ceremonies. He of course has heard and read about the possibility of your bequeathing the collection to the Guggenheim—heaven knows that there has been enough speculation about it in print and around town in general. And he just made the irrational jump from rumor to reality. I would not take his words too seriously.”

Wordell glowered at Banks but said nothing. The atmosphere at the table had become strained, but another of our number, the tweedy Boyd Tatum, a professor of fine arts at New York University, tried to lighten the mood by telling Wordell that, “You have truly become a man of mystery, Arthur, and after all, the world of the arts likes nothing more than a good mystery, which is why I want to write your story. The cognoscenti surely have been asking one another: Will he give his collection to the Guggenheim? Or perhaps to some another American museum? Or maybe to the Louvre or the Hermitage or to one of London’s grand galleries? I suspect that you like to keep people guessing. Am I right about that?”

“Well … I like to take my time when making major decisions,” Wordell muttered, glaring at Tatum and clearing his throat. “I have never been one to rush into anything. Just ask my daughter,” he said, gesturing toward Nadia.

“He is absolutely right,” she replied with a smile. “He once took months to decide to buy a Manet that had been offered to him. I thought the poor man who owned the oil was going to die of frustration before Daddy finally made up his mind.”

That brought a good laugh from our tablemates, although Wordell refused to enter into the jollity. However, I could detect a slight sense of relief permeating the assemblage. The only other person at the table who rivaled Wordell in grumpiness was Roger Mason, a hollow-cheeked specimen whose thinning and once-black hair was tinged with white and who, Lily had informed me, was the curator of the Wordell collection.

Mason had sat expressionless and without speaking a word the entire evening. Lily also had told me that he was unhappy because Wordell had appointed that advisory group she had told me about, the one consisting of Banks, Sterling, and Faith Richmond. “My sources tell me that he is mad as hell and feels that he has been undercut by Wordell.”

“You always seem to have very good sources,” I told her. “Mark me down as impressed.”

As our conversation continued in subdued tones, the master of ceremonies went on gushing and showing photos and architectural renderings of other features in the new museum.

“The art world has never seen anything like this and likely never will again,” he said in somber tones as if narrating a newsreel. “Now it is not my purpose tonight to directly ask for contributions from you fine folks for this one-of-a-kind structure—I am confident most of you already have given generously—but I hope everyone here will continue to support the Guggenheim Museum with your time, your talent, and your treasures. It is indeed a worthy enterprise.”

“The man has a way with words, doesn’t he?” Lily whispered to me.

“Yeah, ‘Charm us, Orator, till the Lion look no larger than the Cat.’ ”

“That’s very good, Escamillo!” she said, clapping her hands. “Did you make that one up yourself?”

“Hardly,” I laughed. “It’s from a Tennyson poem titled ‘Locksley Hall Sixty Years After.’ And lest you accuse me of being highfalutin, I picked up the line from Wolfe. He used it when a pompous guy was spouting off in his office, and as you know, once I hear something, I never forget it.”

“Maybe that is part of why I find you so fascinating.”

“I can only hope.”

“Well, I for one agree with Mr. Wordell that our master of ceremonies was shockingly presumptuous.” That sentence came from the most unusual-looking individual in our group, an artist with the unlikely—and surely fabricated—name of Zondra Zagreb. She was the one individual in this artistic gathering I had met previously. Some months back, Lily had hauled me along to a showing of Miss Zagreb’s work at a gallery up on Madison Avenue near the Metropolitan Museum. At the time, she had told me that “Zondra is one of America’s great abstract expressionists, far more talented than Jackson Pollock could ever dream of being.” Whoever he was.

Lily might be well right, but all I could make out at the time was what looked like someone had splattered paints of all colors on the canvases in no apparent pattern. I politely nodded and stroked my chin while gazing at these works, but I kept my opinions to myself lest I show my ignorance and I sipped the very good white wine being served by perky young women who weaved through the gallery wearing tuxedos, red bow ties, and smiles.

Now on to Miss Z’s appearance this night at the Waldorf: Her crew cut had been dyed a shade of what I would term lilac, and she wore a muumuu that had at least as many colors as her artwork. She was clad in high-heeled gold sandals that showed off her toenails, each one painted in a different hue of the rainbow. She actually wasn’t a bad-looking fortyish woman if you ignored the hair and the small gold ring in her nose, but she did stand out in this crowd like a belly dancer at an actuarial convention. Surely, shock was her intent.

“Come on, Arthur, honestly now, don’tcha think my work belongs in the new Guggie?” Zondra asked Wordell with a twinkle in her heavily made-up eyes. Despite her exotic name, she had no perceptible accent I could identify. The art collector frowned but then couldn’t help himself and broke into a smile. “Why … yes, yes, Zondra, I guess it does,” he replied, coloring slightly and actually chuckling. Her sassiness clearly worked on him, which was amusing to see.

“But of course, your work should hang in the new building, Zondra, there is no question about it,” Faith Richmond put in. “If anyone were to ask my opinion, I would reply with a rousing yes!”

“Thank you, Faith,” the crew-cut artist replied with a smirk. “I do so need more friends like you.”

“We all are your friends here,” Tatum told the flamboyant artist. “After all, you have justly received many fine reviews. I heartily agree with Faith that there must by all means be a place for your work in this Guggenheim edifice of Mr. Wright’s.”

“From your lips to God’s ears, Boyd,” she said with a toothy smile. “Maybe we should start a petition.” That suggestion, whether or not serious, was met with raised brows, shrugs, and eye rolls. “You may not appreciate her art, Escamillo,” Lily whispered to me, “but you have got to give the woman her due as a self-promoter.”

“I will concede the point without an argument,” I whispered back as our master of ceremonies droned on about the greatness of the new museum. His act was wearing thin, however, and the crowd showed signs of restlessness. Finally, sensing he might well be losing his audience, he showed one more photograph of the museum’s exterior and thanked everyone for coming. I wasn’t sure if the applause that followed was in appreciation for the program or in thanks because it was over.

“This is a watershed moment for both the arts community and for our great city as a whole,” our emcee said. “I for one am proud to be witness to such a moment in New York’s artistic history. I look forward to seeing all of you at the grand opening of the Guggenheim Museum.” He closed with outstretched arms as if conferring a blessing upon the assemblage. The only word missing was an amen!

“Let us get ourselves out of here and into one of the watering holes in this fine hostelry for a nightcap,” I told Lily, ever the social butterfly, who was busy saying her good-byes to our tablemates as they rose to leave. I was all but ignored, except by Zondra Zagreb, who took my hand in hers and, looking me square in the eye, said, “I am so happy to have seen you again, Mr. Goodwin. May I call you Archie?”

I told her she could and she said, “Please call me Zondra, and remember, that is with a ‘Z.’ I recall when you came to my showing at that gallery with Lily, who speaks so highly of you—and with good reason. I do so hope that we shall meet again.”

I told her I hoped for the same thing and then left the ballroom with a smug-looking Lily on my arm. As we walked down a corridor toward the lobby, she leaned over and whispered in my ear, “Women just can’t stay away from you, can they?”

“What can I say? I just try to be friendly to everyone.”

Want to keep reading? Download Death of an Art Collector today.

Death of an Art Collector

By Robert Goldsborough

In the latest installment in the classic series, Nero Wolfe finds himself in perhaps the hardest case he’s seen in his career. Arthur Wordell considers himself an “art hog”—owning his own extensive collection of art. Despite his place in the art world, Arthur is reluctant to lend his collection to the new Guggenheim Museum. Then, the night of the celebration of the new museum, Arthur takes a 20-story plunge from his office window. Now it’s up to private investigator Nero Wolfe and his assistant, Archie Goodwin, to get to the bottom of it. Arthur was far from suicidal, so the duo begin to look for a beneficiary. However, they run into a problem when they realize that Arthur didn’t leave a will, which means that no one was set to benefit from his death. Further, no one in Arthur’s circle shows any signs of guilt. Wolfe is known for solving in the most unsolvable cases of murder so surely he can solve this one…right?  

Featured illustration of Nero Wolfe: Alchetron  

Published on 19 Apr 2019

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