A while ago word got out that I hadn’t read any of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries. It didn’t take long for a certain thoughtful someone to make sure I had a good selection to choose from — and now I have read 1.5 of them! Why the .5,you ask? Because I started (dutiful as always) with the first one, Fer de Lance, and couldn’t finish it. I liked Nero and Archie just fine, but the mystery itself was too far the wrong side of absurd, and to top it off, the style seemed stilted. Also, in general I have difficulty making new detective friends: there are so many, after all, and I’ve been in my relationships with some of them for so long. It takes a lot to make me want to persist, especially if my first impressions are not great.
But I suspected I wasn’t done with these fellows (so many other smart readers can hardly be wrong!) so I kept the stack nearby, and recently I picked up A Right to Die more or less at random as I was heading to an appointment and needed a small book to stash in my purse for the waiting room. (We all know never to go anywhere without a book, right?) It turns out to be quite a leap forward from Fer de Lance — literally, as it’s both written and set 30 years later (though, as the Wikipedia page for A Right to Die points out, Wolfe and Goodwin haven’t aged a bit). I wouldn’t say it’s light years beyond the earlier book in other ways, but it certainly seemed more smoothly written and constructed, not to mention more grounded in reality. In fact, its specificity was its most striking feature: it is very deliberately about current events, and keeps reminding us just how current they are by having Archie regularly forget and then remind himself that Idlewild Airport has recently been renamed in honor of JFK.
The case involves two members of a civil rights organization, a black man and his white fiancée, Susan Brooke, who is the (first) victim. It seems pretty likely at first that race is a key factor in her death: I think it’s not giving away too much to say that this assumption is itself a symptom of the racial tensions the novel depicts, while the resolution of the mystery seems designed, not necessarily to move us past race, but to remind us that there are plenty of other sources of homicidal hatred that a preoccupation with race ought not to blind us to. The plot is set up by a visit from Paul Whipple, who was inspired to give Wolfe some crucial information in a long-ago case after Wolfe made an impassioned speech against shielding a murderer “because he is your color.” Whipple shows up and quotes the speech verbatim, including this bit:
You are helping to perpetuate and aggravate the very exclusions which you justly resent. The ideal human agreement is one in which distinctions of race and color and religion are totally disregarded; anyone helping to preserve those distinctions is postponing that ideal; and you are certainly helping to preserve them.
Racist assumptions get Paul’s son Dunbar accused of Susan’s murder: “Because she and I — we were friends. Because she was white and I’m black.” Wolfe, on the other hand, doesn’t assume anything. While his investigation (or, Archie’s investigation, really, since he does 90% of the actual work) does turn up plenty of nasty prejudice, the puzzle’s solution eventually turns on a diphthong and the culprit’s motives … well, that would be telling!
In a way, I think Stout’s choice of plot depoliticizes the novel (though you could also argue that Wolfe’s stated ideal of making race irrelevant is itself a political position, a particular vision that emphasizes ignoring or erasing, rather than understanding or celebrating, difference). By comparison, the crime story in Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress is very much about race and identity, and the novel as a whole emphasizes systemic injustices that make solving one crime seem like not much. It’s not that Stout ignores such systemic problems, but by not tying his murder to them he reduces them to context or setting, rather than developing them as a theme, and as a result A Right to Die ends up being less interesting, just as a novel, than it might have been. It’s still got some pretty powerful moments arising from that context, though, including the impassioned explanation from the accused about why he hesitated to call the police after finding the body. “About motive, with a Negro they take motive for granted,” he tells Wolfe. “He’s a shine, he’s a mistake, he was born with motives white men don’t have. It may be nonsense, but it’s the way it is.” “With the scum, yes,” agrees Wolfe. “With dolts and idiots.” “With everybody,” Dunbar replies:
Lots of them don’t know it. Most of them up here wouldn’t say that word, nigger, but they’ve got that word in them. Everybody. It’s in them buried somewhere, but it’s not dead. Some of them don’t know they’ve got it and they wouldn’t believe it, but it’s there. That’s what I knew I’d have to face when I sat there on the bed last night and tried to decide what to do.
I was initially tempted to label A Right to Die a “period piece,” but like Mosley’s “historical” Los Angeles, there’s a strong enough resemblance to our own period, to our present, that it would be much too easy to set it aside and say “case closed.”