Monday, December 17, 2012

A Right to Die, by Rex Stout


Twenty-six years ago, a young man named Paul Whipple got Nero Wolfe out of a jam. Now Whipple himself is in a jam, and he comes to Wolfe for help. His son Dunbar wants to marry a white girl, and Whipple is dead against it. He's convinced that the lady in question, the lovely (and wealthy) Susan Brooks, must be crazy to want to marry a poor black man, and Whipple wants Wolfe to dig up something that would convince Dunbar not to go through with the wedding. Wolfe reluctantly agrees to investigate Susan, but he's barely gotten started when circumstances intervene and Susan winds up dead--and the police think Dunbar killed her. Wolfe disagrees and, on surer footing in a murder investigation than in matrimonial prevention, he dives right in (metaphorically) to exonerate the accused (and bereaved) Dunbar. But in order to clear Dunbar, Wolfe must shift the blame to the real killer, and he's convinced that the guilty party is in some way affiliated with the Civil Rights organization where Susan and Dunbar both worked.

This book is proof positive that Wolfe and Archie remain untouched by the passage of time. They first encountered Paul Whipple in Too Many Cooks when Whipple was working at a resort in West Virginia. Enough time has passed for Whipple (then 21) to have fathered and raised his own son, now 23. Too Many Cooks was published in 1938, and A Right to Die in 1964. It is clear that Wolfe knows Whipple and remembers well their exchange years earlier. Yet, while Whipple has aged significantly, Wolfe and Archie are as they have always been--Wolfe is around 56 years of age (according to Stout) and Archie is in his early-to-mid thirties.

While many authors--particularly mystery writers--rely on ageless characters (see, e.g., Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, James Bond, etc.). However, it is less frequent for such ageless characters to have any sense of continuity, let alone to encounter an aged acquaintance from an earlier adventure. Not that continuity is necessarily Stout's strong point, but still--the Wolfe and Archie we know and love in 1973 (The Family Affair) are the same Wolfe and Archie who solved the murder of Peter Oliver Barstow in 1938 (Fer-De-Lance). They remember the cases they've worked over the years. They are not perpetual blank slates.

Similarly, the world around them is not divorced from current events. They are not Batman and Robin, set in a perpetually 'current' world devoid of identifiable time markers. Archie and Wolfe suffer through the Depression (Fer-De-Lance), support the war effort in the 1940s (Not Quite Dead Enough), suffer through the post-war meat shortages ("Before I Die", included in Trouble in Triplicate), enlist the assistance of the American Communist Party (The Second Confession), become embroiled in Tito's Yugoslavia (The Black Mountain), go head-to-head with J. Edgar Hoover's FBI (The Doorbell Rang), and are outraged at the Watergate scandal (A Family Affair). Time clearly passes, and it is experienced and remembered by our detectives--the radio in the old brownstone is replaced by a television, synthetic fabrics eventually dominate the fashion world, skirts become shorter, and Wolfe is increasingly willing to send Archie on long distance adventures (in this story, he travels to both Wisconsin and Indiana, and flies both times). This particular story is set against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement.

Yet through all this, Wolfe and Archie remain ... precisely the same. And with them, Fritz, Theodore, Saul, Fred, Orrie, Lon Cohen, Nathaniel Parker, and the rest of the gang. So it is rather surprising that Paul Whipple was not similarly protected by the cone-of-agelessness that surrounds Wolfe and his cronies.

I confess, I am not widely read enough to know if Wolfe and Archie are the only examples of such timeless-yet-within-time characters. I suppose there must be some, particularly in some of the longer-running series. But few series featuring 'contemporary' characters (that is, current as of the time of writing) span more than 40 years. Stout's creations, if not fully one-of-a-kind in this regard, certainly border on unique.

I suppose I should say something about the racial aspect of this book. It's ... awkward. Rex Stout never really comes across as a full-on racist, but he makes use of a lot of racial stereotypes in his work. And Archie is certainly not above using ethnic slurs, though he disparages all races equally and it is not clear that he means them to be insulting and indeed, many of them were fairly culturally acceptable at the time. And the few 'real' racists the detectives encounter (as in Too Many Cooks and here) are portrayed in an extremely negative light. But Stout still has a little trouble transitioning into the 1960s. Fortunately, Wolfe has always been color-blind--he is a borderline misanthrope, and has equal disdain for men of all colors (though his opinion of women is significantly lower). Of course, this also means he has nothing to apologize for and is disinclined to coddle the victims of prejudice.

A Right to Die has never been one of my favorite Wolfe books, partly because of the awkward racial issues. Still, for the Wolfe completist, it's worth reading--and it's an interesting take on the attitude of the times.

Prichard narrates the audiobook--if not brilliantly, at least competently.

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