Reading Please Pass the Guilt right after The Silent Speaker provided quite an interesting contrast. Both cases involve Archie and Wolfe drumming up business, but the times have changed in 25 years.
In the first place, technoligically things are quite different. In, The Silent Speaker, recording cylinders were a cumbersome yet important part of the case that Wolfe and Archie didn’t really understand. By the time of Please Pass the Guilt, Wolfe and Archie are recording nearly every conversation to occur in the office. (Them and Richard Nixon both.)
Perhaps, more striking is the cultural change. Archie has to compete with a television when trying to pitch the widow of a murder victim on hiring Wolfe. Wolfe for his part remains the same iconoclastic figures as always. When asked if he watches television, Wolfe responds curtly, “I turn on the television rarely, only to confirm my opinion of it.”
Stout was clear that Nero and Archie had not changed in their basic temperment and behavior in the past thirty-eight years of the series while the world around them has transformed and that tension manifests itself. Stout even brushes with the more modern times and approaches (but back away from) edgier profanity when a women’s libber obsessed with the supposed sexism of language asked. “What is one of men’s favorite four-letter colloquial words that begins with f?” Archie demurred, claiming not to know what she was getting at. Acceptance of the use of that language may have been growing in the late 1960s and early 1970s but not in Rex Stout novels.
In a key moment, Archie expressed exasperation when unable to convince a female suspect go on a date as is his usual practice. Archie declared, “I’m done. Washed up. I’ve lost my touch, I’m a has-been. You knew me when.”
Fritz provides a rare moment of sagacity. “Then she is washed up, not you. You are looking at the wrong side. Just turn it over, that’s all you ever have to do, just turn it over” Perhaps, this served as a metaphor for the book and for Nero Wolfe and Archie’s place in a rapidly changing world. If 1970s American readers reached the point where they could no longer appreciate these characters, then readers were washed up, not them.
As one reviewer pointed out on Amazon, this is as much a period piece as the Wolfe stories from the 1940s. For most of Wolfe’s long-time fans, it’s just not a period they like as well. The case begins when Doc Volmer asks Wolfe to do a favor for a friend of his. A young man has shown up at a local psychological clinic and states he has blood on his hands, but he won’t even give his right name. He suggests Wolfe apply his skills to the problem to help unearth the truth. When the young man shows up, the most Wolfe is able to do is to connive to find out his real name. Wolfe discovers he’s one of the figures in the murder of an executive who went into another executive’s room and opened a drawer he kept whiskey in.
With the bank balance low and Wolfe having worked even less than usual the first five months of 1969, Archie goes on his own initiative to the widow of the executive to lobby her to hire Wolfe. She does so and answers a key question: What was her husband doing in another executive’s private office? Simple, he was spiking his whiskey with LSD so his would blow his interview with the board to become the next president of the company. Welcome to the 1960s, man.
From there, Wolfe embarks on an investigation to find the truth. Along the way, he runs into a steady stream of lies: from employees of the firm, complete strangers who respond to an ad for information, and even from his client. Wolfe has never treated a client with such contempt as he does in Please Pass the Guilt. However, the contempt was well-earned. What’s perhaps most astounding is that a truth embedded in one of the lies Wolfe’s told leads him to the true solution of the case.
So, while it’s not vintage 1940s Wolfe, Please Pass the Guilt shows the timeless power of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.
Rating: Very Satisfactory
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