Sunday, December 07, 2008

A Flux of Form

If you aren't a Nero Wolfe fan, stop reading now. The rest of this post will bore you.

To continue...

You may preserve the life in a flux of form, or preserve the form amid an ebb of life. But you cannot permanently enclose the same life in the same mould.

- Alfred North Whitehead

Last Monday morning, as I sat waiting to be admitted to my local hospital, I started reading Dave Duncan's The Alchemist's Code. On Friday, five days later, I finished it.

For me, this is speed reading. Of course, being in the hospital and then home-bound gave me a lot of time to read, but on the other hand I'm a notoriously slow reader, and in this case I went even slower because after I got home I spent a lot of time checking maps as I read (if you don't understand, you will in a minute). So for me to read this book in five days was the equivalent of anyone else "not being able to put it down."

Obviously, I thought this was a pretty terrific book. And I had previously read the other book in the series, The Alchemist's Apprentice, and I loved that, too, though I don't think it was as nail-biting as this one.

So, you ask, do I recommend that you run out and read Duncan's Apprentice books?

Well... maybe. Or maybe not.

The question is this: Are you a big Nero Wolfe fan? If not, you might not care for these stories. They're mysteries, but set in Venice, Italy, in the late 1500's. And honestly, they aren't especially good mysteries. But they have one big thing going for them: Their detective heroes:

Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.

Yes, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Of course, they don't have the same names. They are the Maestro Filippo Nostradamus, clairvoyant, astrologer, alchemist, and genius extraordinaire; and his apprentice, Luca Alfeo Zeno (who goes by "Alfeo"), swordsman, man of action, and, um, ladies man.

What? I hear your exclaim. Nero Wolfe isn't an astrologer or alchemist!

No, he isn't. What's more, there are other differences in the details between the great men: Nostradamus dislikes eating, while Wolfe is a gourmand. And while neither likes to leave his comfortably appointed home in the heart of a magnificent and vibrant city, Nostradamus dislikes motion because he is terribly handicapped, while Wolfe's handicap is mental.

But these differences aren't jarring. On the contrary, they make perfect sense. Because the spirit of Nero Wolfe dropped into Sixteenth Century Venice wouldn't be the same as Nero Wolfe in Twentieth Century Manhattan. Instead, as you read these stories, you will know, beyond any doubt, that the spirit of Nero Wolfe poured into Sixteenth Century Venice would be, well, this Filippo Nostradamus. (Not the famous Nostradamus, by the way, but his nephew.)

I call your attention to the words of Alfred North Whitehead, quoted above. He's talking about whether, when one writer uses the characters of another, the new writer can preserve both the life (i.e., the personality, the essence) and the form (the physical apparition and environment) of the original writer's character, and concludes that he cannot: When the new writer preserves the form, the life ebbs, and this is what happens when others write Nero Wolfe pastiches. They preserve the form -- Wolfe, Archie, Fritz, the orchids, the brownstone -- but the characters have no life.

Duncan does not make this mistake: If Whitehead's words, he "preserve(s) the life in a flux of form." Although Nostradamus and Alfeo are in many superficial ways different from Wolfe and Archie, if you know Wolfe and Archie you recognize their "life" instantly. Nostradamus: Commanding, a consummate actor and performance artist, but can be petty and even petulant when he is upstaged, and thoroughly dependent on his man of action, his Alfeo. Alfeo: Competent, resourceful, handsome, the eyes and ears and hands of his master, performer of seemingly impossible assignments, and a wit who can be both sarcastic and wry.

It's more than just the personalities: It's many small interactions between the two, or gestures on the part of one of the other, where you suddenly say, "Yes, that's Wolfe (or Archie, or both of them)!", and the two pairs of spirits spark over the centuries and the continents. If you know Wolfe and Archie, you're always seeing them peek out from behind the faces of Nostradamus and Alfeo. And the stories contain other sly references that Wolfe fans will recognize as well, as when a Venetian official asks Alfeo (as Wolfe often does Archie or Saul), "How long would it take to get from [this address] to [that address]," and Alfeo, the man who knows his town, answers, "If he could quickly flag a gondola, ten minutes. Walking, ten to twenty."

There are no equivalents to the 'teers in the Alchemist stories, and the roles of Stebbins, Cramer, and New York's finest are murkier in the extraordinarily convoluted Venetian governmental system. Nostradamus does posses, however, a gourmet cook, and there's a love interest for Alfeo: A wealthy and independent woman named Violetta ("little violet" -- do we know any other love interests of dashing detectives who are named for flowers?). I am happy to say, though, the Violetta is much, much more deeply developed and much more central to these stories than the underused Lily was in Archie's stories. (Violetta's relationship with Alfeo is also somewhat more explicit that Lily's with Archie, so be forewarned.)

Speaking of the convoluted Venetian government (I was), that brings up the other wonderful thing about these stories:


Venice is, in my opinion, the most wondrous city on Earth, and Duncan does a wonderful job of immersing you not only in the physical city, but in the complex politics and social relationships of the times. (And yes, it was my tourist maps of Venice that I was constantly referring to as I was reading.)

If you love Wolfe and Archie, I think you will enjoy these stories. If you happen to love Venice as well, you just might adore these stories.

Oh, I should mention that these stories are set in a slightly alternative/fantasy universe, where "magic" works, and demons are real, and clairvoyance and Tarot and astrology can work, but these don't play a central role in the stories, and if you can shift your perspective on reality just a little then perhaps you won't mind. I didn't.

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