Sunday, November 7, 2010

A Family Affair

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of A Family Affair (Viking, 1975).

This was Rex Stout's final adventure of Nero Wolfe, and I think it was obvious to him upon writing it that he was getting pretty old and the saga would need concluding, and that, honestly, he was no longer at the height of his powers. I didn't mention the previous two books. Well, I didn't mention lots of books as I've done these quasi-articles, but I specifically declined writing anything about Death of a Dude and Please Pass the Guilt because those were the first, and only, books in the series that really disappointed me. Well, Too Many Cooks had disappointed me for having the audacity to be written back in a period of disagreeable views about race in America. Just because one can't legitimately fault a book for being a product of its time doesn't make the experience of reading the dated thing necessarily any more pleasurable.

But 1969's Death of a Dude and 1973's Please Pass the Guilt felt tired and rote to me. Perhaps that's because I rampaged through the last ten or so books in the series rather than breaking the flow with other novels, but not even changing the setting of one to rural Wyoming or someplace didn't spark any new electricity in the format.

One thing I did note was that as the sixties wore on, Stout's apparent contempt for the police seemed to escalate into downright ugliness on the page. Inspector Cramer had always maintained a friction with Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, but surely seventy-odd examples of Wolfe being fair and mostly honest with the character of Cramer should have resulted in more patience between the two. By Please Pass the Guilt, this friction, previously amusing and witty, had erupted into outright hostility and their conflict stopped being funny. It simply wasn't pleasurable watching the police abuse their authority in these books, particularly when corruption and incompetence among their ranks comes to light under Cramer's nose. It's as though all the series' previous platitudes about Cramer being a good cop were nothing more than lip service. These seeds were certainly sown in the FBI-baiting The Doorbell Rang in 1965, but I never dreamed it would get that unpleasant.

I wonder whether Stout recognized this? When you also consider the identically obnoxious rural cops in Death of a Dude and the uncharacteristic four-year gap between it and Please Pass the Guilt, it looks like Stout was, apart from simply and understandably slowing down, reevaluating a lot about society and how his fictional characters related to it. At any rate, both a little bored and disappointed with the trends and tropes over the last couple of books, I was completely unprepared for how violent and wild and downright eye-popping the final book was.

A Family Affair begins with Wolfe's favorite waiter from Rusterman's knocking on the brownstone door late at night. He tells Archie that somebody is trying to kill him, and Archie lets him take the guest room so that he may speak to Wolfe in the morning. He doesn't make it that long; someone has secreted a small bomb into his pocket.

I haven't read his biography, but I feel that Stout must have known that he was finishing up the series, because the waiter's not the only thing that gets blown up in this story. It's tough and it's mean and it dives right into the paranoid heart of Richard Nixon's corrupt administration, making absolutely clear that distrust of both the presidency and the police was, in the early seventies, understandable and essential. Whatever remained of Wolfe and Cramer's relationship in the wake of Please Pass the Guilt is completely gone by the end of it, and other relationships are similarly wrecked. (On that note, although Wikipedia's editors did not totally spoil the plot, they left enough obnoxious clues in the writeup there that anybody who reads the article there will have far too clear an idea where this book is going. So don't look up this book on Wikipedia. I'm serious.)

There is one last collection of Rex Stout's stories, published posthumously, available which I'll come back to later in the month. I'm absolutely convinced that readers should read that before A Family Affair. I'm just about to start Robert Goldsborough's continuation novels after a short break from Wolfe and Archie, and I'm sure they're okay, but A Family Affair is as grand a finale as anybody in fiction has enjoyed. As far as detective fiction goes, Stout's farewell to the characters is probably only equaled by Colin Dexter's last Inspector Morse novel. Really, it's that good, and definitely one of the series' many highlights. I'm really going to enjoy rereading Stout in a couple of years, but darned if I'm not in a mood to reread Dexter after this.

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