Sunday, December 04, 2011

The Electronic Detective

I love this cover's simple elegance!
I’m an admirer of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe tales, which are some of the most fun I’ve ever had reading mysteries. I particularly love the narrative voice of Archie Goodwin, Wolfe’s assistant. The two are complete opposites: Archie’s a tough man of action and Wolfe is a lazy armchair detective—he quite literally refuses to budge anywhere.

It’s interesting to see what author Dave Zeltserman has written in the way of an homage to Wolfe. His detective, Julius Katz, is unlike Wolfe in many ways. He goes through rigorous exercises and martial arts training, for one thing. However, like Wolfe, he absolutely refuses to work unless he has to, and he also happens to be a gourmet (particularly when it comes to fine wines).

Both Zeltserman and Stout have one thing in common: Archie. But Zeltserman has come up with an absolutely brilliant, innovative variation on Archie Goodwin— Julius Katz’s Archie is not real. By that I mean Archie is not a person, but a supercomputer: a marvel of technology that Julius wears as a tie clip. Archie is designed to simulate human intelligence, and by observing his boss he hopes to one day solve a murder before he does.

Archie works with probabilities and logic, but that doesn’t stop him from nagging his boss Julius, in an eagerness to refine his neuron networks as often as possible. The e-book Julius Katz Mysteries is available for free, and all mystery lovers should take advantage of this offer. It collects two stories that were published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine—the first is more of a novella, while the second is more conventional short story length. Both, however, are great fun.

Julius Katz
This story introduces the titular character and his universe, and when we find out just what Archie is, it’s quite the surprise! It doesn’t seem like the premise would ever work, but as the story progresses, Archie’s narration gets progressively more comfortable. Before long, Archie’s narration is the sarcasm-laced attitude of a man of action, and it’s high sailing from that point on!

A Miss Norma Brewer wants Julius Katz’s help. She can no longer provide the kind of care that her elderly mother, suffering from Alzheimer’s, needs. She wants to send her to a healthcare facility in Vermont. Her brother, however, is proving to be an awkward obstacle, insisting that mom’s just happy where she is. Norma suspects he is more interested in their mother’s money and property, which would have to be sold to finance the move and thus “deprive” him of part of the inheritance. Before long, the situation becomes a matter for the police when someone is murdered.

Frankly speaking, the mystery plot is nothing particularly special. Julius Katz solves the case through conjecture that could have swung either way if you wanted it to. The “process of elimination” works great with this case because there’s very few suspects. The fun, however, lies in the characters. Although Archie’s narration starts off awkwardly, it gets more confident as time goes along. Plus, his unique situation as a piece of technology provides several interesting moments that would never have been possible with Archie Goodwin.

In case you’re in any doubt whether this is meant to be a tribute to Nero Wolfe, you get plenty of indications throughout the text. Archie Goodwin, Nero Wolfe and Rex Stout are often referred to. Archie’s narrative voice shines through. Julius develops a relationship with a woman named Lily Rostan. Both Julius Katz and Nero Wolfe have similar names: the name of a Roman emperor and then an animal-like name. And for good measure, there’s even a detective named (you guessed it!) Cramer!

This serves as an introduction to the world of Katz's Boston, and so I can be lenient for its shortcomings as a mystery. But my goodness, is it ever fun— and the introductions are worth it as the next story shows.

Archie’s Been Framed
Archie may be nothing but a piece of technology, but that doesn’t stop him from being a ladies’ man! In fact, he even has a date for eleven o’clock this morning with a pretty young lass named Denise Penny. Here’s the problem: an article flashes through that Denise Penny has been murdered at about 11:20. Archie hacks into a few places and sees that a warrant has been placed for his arrest— somebody claims to have seen him leave Denise’s apartment just after the murder took place!

Naturally it is impossible for Archie to have committed the crime physically, and he is programmed so that he doesn’t do anything criminal, even if he had the inclination. It’s a tricky spot for Julius Katz: Detective Cramer is bearing down on him, demanding to know where Archie Smith is. Not only that, Archie can’t take any calls, which means that Julius — horror of horrors! — must work without having a client!

The story is a small masterpiece in its own right. I was expecting another ending where the author rolls a die with the suspects’ names on it to come up with the killer. I was pleasantly surprised— although the suspects are introduced a mere pages before the murderer is revealed, you are given all the clues to solve the case and they are very clever ones at that! Plus the situation Archie finds himself in is entirely unique, providing for several great Archie/Julius moments.

***

So that’s Julius Katz Mysteries. It holds up excellently— and it’s available for free! What a bargain! (The formatting and proofreading of the e-book is likewise excellent.) The author shows great skill with his characters and Archie’s voice resonates with fans of Archie Goodwin. There are a few niggles— at times, Archie becomes slightly repetitive when he dissects objectionable behaviour from Julius. However, none of this distracts from an entertaining read. Dave Zeltserman has gone on to write a full-length novel with these characters, Julius Katz and Archie. It’s an e-book exclusive, and I’ve already bought my copy. I look forward to reading it.

4 comments:

  1. This one is on my TBR stack, but I've been holding out until I pick up an ebook reader. Sounds like it will be worth the wait.

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  2. Wish someone would just offer it in epub format somewhere. I have a Nook.

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  3. I've just started reading Ellery Queen, so this sounds right up my alley. Thanks for the great review Patrick, and also thanks for stopping by my blog.

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  4. Hi Patrick - I must admit, from the premise I could already hear the theme tune to kNIGHT RIDER in my heads - and that is not a good thing! But you say such good things about it that i am prepared to ignore the spectre of the Hoff - as soon as I get an e-Reader (seem to saying that a lot these days ...)

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