A Right to Die

I had never read a Nero Wolfe mystery before, though I knew his general story: the large man who never leaves his New York brownstone, tends his orchids, eats well, and solves mysteries by having all of the facts brought to him. Yet a fellow blogger had written of how much she enjoyed these stories, and I subsequently learned that the fanboys are legion, so I borrowed a copy of A Right to Die on CD from the library and put it on my iPod to listen to during my walks to the office.

I didn’t know what to expect, but I don’t think I’m going to join the legion of fans. Maybe I didn’t start out with Stout’s best work, but I really don’t find myself wanting to go back for more. The story is set in 1964 and the story revolves, in part, around civil rights. A young African-American man is accused of murdering a white woman to whom he was engaged to be married. Wolfe undertakes to prove his innocence at the request of the young man’s father, a man he’d met some twenty years before and to whom Wolfe owed a debt of gratitude for a small intellectual favor paid.

Although all of the clues and hints are there for the eventual resolution of the mystery, I have to say it felt like a shaggy dog story. Most of the story turned out to have absolutely nothing to do with the true killer’s motives. The resolution pops up just at the end and we see that the original accusation was nothing more than misdirection. That’s a bit of a shame given the whole civil rights core of the tale. The very sore subject of a black man accused of murdering a white woman and thus expecting no justice or fair treatment seemed wasted when the mystery was solved in a completely different way. (I don’t think I’m spoiling the story too much by telling you this. Wolfe proved that the young man could not have been the murderer about half way through the story.) In fact, I was so certain that the civil rights angle was important to the story that I was convinced I’d figured out early on who the killer was based on motivations from that part of the plot. I was mistaken, of course.

Wolfe’s hyper-intellectual character seemed contrived. He certainly has a vocabulary, and he isn’t afraid to use it, but his insights seemed obvious, and his grasping of the answer to the mystery based on his musings about diphthongs seemed contrived as well. It was as though Stout looked for some arcane detail that only a specialist would understand and then made it the hook for solving the mystery as a way to make Wolfe look like a towering intellect. Nor could I stretch my willing suspension of disbelief to accept the idea that characters can remember twenty-year-old conversations verbatim, even down to the types of drinks in their hands as they talked. I think I could tolerate all of that (if I had to), but I was really annoyed by the narration by Wolfe’s assistant, Archie Goodwin. It was too arch, too snarky. Perhaps this is what the legions of fans enjoy most about these stories. I found it unwarranted and not nearly as clever as the character seemed to think it was.

Would I listen to or read another Nero Wolfe mystery? Possibly. There are a lot of other books on the shelves, though, and I don’t see myself hurrying back. (But I confess that I might enjoy watching one of them on DVD some quiet evening at home.)

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One Comment on “A Right to Die

  1. Stephanie Z Says:

    If you don’t like Archie, there’s not much point in reading the books. They are much more about character than anything else, so you do have to like the characters.

    That said, the A&E productions, with Timothy Hutton as Archie, are also visually stunning, so they’re probably worth a try on their own.

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