Nero Wolfe encountered Paul Whipple in 1938’s Too Many Cooks as a black waiter in West Virginia studying anthropology. Wolfe obtained Whipple’s help in solving the murder of a famous chef.
Twenty-four years laters, Whipple calls in his marker to get a favor from Wolfe. Now an Assistant Professor of Anthropology, he shows up unannounced at the Brownstone and quotes Wolfe’s remarks on racial equality with Wolfe stating, “The ideal human agreement is one in which distinctions of race and color and religion are totally disregarded.”
The professor quotes this speech of Wolfe’s and then, with no sense of irony whatsoever, asks Wolfe to investigate his son’s fiancee’ to find out what’s wrong with her as she’s a white woman wanting to marry his son. Wolfe objects to the investigation, but at last agrees to do the job in order to repay the debt he owes to Whiple for helping him solve the case.
Archie meets the woman in question and finds her to be an eager and earnest civil rights campaigner who also believes strongly in the potential of Whipple’s son. She tells Lily Rohan that she thinks he’ll be the first black Mayor of New York. Convinced their wasting their time, Wolfe still sends Archie out to he young woman’s hometown in the Midwest for a thorough check. All Archie finds out is that a suitor took his own life on her doorstep. Archie’s about ready to give up the investigation when the decision before him when the young woman is found murdered.
However Archie and Wolfe aren’t out of it for long. When the younger Whipple is charged with the murder, Wolfe sets out to serve justice and repay his decades old dobt to the young man’s father.
There are many questions that are raised by A Right to Die. For practical plot purposes, I wonder whether every key witness in a Nero Wolfe case is entitled to one free case from Nero Wolfe. The book also gloss es over the agelessness of Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin as Nero and Archie haven’t aged a day while the young waiter is old enough to have an adult son working at a Civil Rights organization.
The book also serves us a large dodse of social commentary. Stout and Wolfe both supported the civil rights movement, but Stout raises several issues in the book including reverse racism, prejudice, and perils of race consciousness. The book actually presents an interesting contrast on the latter issue. Wolfe treats blacks in the story the same as white and is accused of racism. On the other hand, Wolfe doesn’t believe the younger Whipple is going to be charged due to flimsy evidence and motive. The Whipples are certain that he will be charged, but Wolfe reaffirms his belief by stating that while New York City isn’t perfect, “it’s not Dixie.” Wolfe is proven wrong when Whipple is charged.
Stout also decided to be even more avant garde and have Archie fall in love with a black woman. However, Archie never approaches the woman romantically and never says anything outside of his official capacity. And the woman barely says anything, and nothing noteworthy the entire book. While, I know that inter-racial dating was really not done as a rule in 1964, what Stout manages to do is to create the most shallow and one-sided of the many “romances” of Archie Goodwin.
The second murder was also a bit telegraphed. The victim called Archie and mentioned that he suspected about the murder and would give them a call back because he didn’t want to talk about it until he was sure. Next thing, we knew the victim was dead. I always wondered why, having experienced this same phenomena a few dozen times, Archie never says, “You know the last twelve people who had that idea were murdered before they got back to me. How about you come over and tell me about it and we can go ask together?”
Wolfe spends most of the book in a fog and only solves the case on a hunch. Clearly, A Right to Die is not among the better books in the series. However, the investigation while not particularly fruitful does produce some interesting moments including a couple of trips by Archie out of town. And Stout works in some very ironic moments that work quite well.
Overall, I ‘ll give the book:
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