Last week I touched on A Right to Die (1964) in my post for the Tuesday Night Bloggers, but this week the text is going to be taking centre stage and in particular in this review I am going to be examining the depiction of race in the story. 1964 was an important year for civil rights, especially because it was in this year that the Civil Rights Act was legislated, banning discrimination based on skin colour, sex, religion, nationality and race in the United States. Stout wrote this story the year before, which was also important as it was the year John F Kennedy gave his now famous speech on civil rights.
The plot of this book feels very topical to the times and race is a pertinent issue to the case Nero and Archie take on. To begin with Mr Whipple (who first appeared in another Stout novel, Too Many Cooks (1938)) and is now an assistant professor at Columbia in Anthropology, calls on Nero to investigate his son’s fiancée who is white and wealthy and therefore Whipple is sure there must be something wrong with her because his family are black. Her name is Susan Brooke and she works with Whipple’s son, Dunbar at The Rights of Citizens Committee. Moreover, Whipple feels that the difference in race will prevent him and his wife forming a close friendship with their prospective daughter in law.
Although Nero is not comfortable with such a case, he feels he owes Whipple a favour as he helped out in a previous case. Archie initially follows up various leads, investigating her life at Racine where she and her family used to live. But no clues to skeletons in the closet seem to appear either in her father’s death or the suicide of one of her suiters, Richard Ault. The investigation takes a surprising turn though when Susan Brooke is found murdered with her skull bashed in and Dunbar is quickly arrested. Race to an extent may have played a part in it, but there were other factors such as his ownership of the murder weapon and the fact he waited 30 minutes after discovering Susan’s body before calling the police. The murder weapon interestingly was a policeman’s billy club which was used to assault two black people in Alabama and part of me did wonder what this might signify, if anything, now that it has been used to murder a white woman. Nero though is convinced Dunbar is innocent and goes into this investigation with a lot more vigour.
His attention narrows in on the other members of the Committee, as well as Susan Brooke’s own family members, including her brother Kenneth, her sister in law Dolly, and Peter Vaughan, who claims to be have been engaged to her for nearly 2 years and all of them were merely waiting for her ‘kink,’ otherwise known as her charitable work in the civil rights movement to be over. All three deny the idea that Susan was ever engaged to Dunbar. Up until this point the white characters in the book have tended to be neutral or more modern in their attitudes to race, but this changes with the emergence of the Brooke family members. Nero and Archie work their way through the various suspects, finding suspicious circumstances and further death, but very little concrete evidence and it is not until Nero has a spark of inspiration that the real culprit is caught. This is a culprit whose motivations are personal and go right back to background issues of race, racism and civil rights. The killer was well hidden until right near the end, although once the solution was revealed I thought the ending could have been wrapped up a lot quicker. In addition, though a good solution I did feel that it made a lot of book look retrospectively like a wild goose chase.
Depictions of Race in A Right to Die
The topical nature of the book is brought to our attention from the very first page when Archie first meets Mr Whipple where he thinks:
‘So far as I knew, in their hot campaign for civil rights the Negroes hadn’t mentioned the right to consult a private detective, but why not?’
This suggests a more modern outlook on Archie’s part, albeit an evolving one and it is also mentioned that Nero donates money to The Rights of Citizens Committee. Later on in the novel Archie demonstrates further his aversion to discrimination by skin colour:
‘When I consider myself superior to anyone, as I frequently do, I need a better reason than his skin.’
Although interestingly skin colour does figure a lot in the description of black characters where Archie’s story telling is at pains to differentiate the exact shade of different characters’ skin colour such as ‘honey’ or ‘coal.’ Yet this is not something which is repeated or mirrored in the description of the white characters in the book.
I have already mentioned some parts of the story where white characters are racist and in particular these viewpoints come from characters I do not think the readers are supposed to particularly like or identify with. However, early on in the story before the appearance of Susan relatives, it seems as though that the discriminatory behaviour being exhibited is mostly coming from black characters. I have already mentioned Whipple’s aversion to Susan Brooke, but Dunbar, his son also expresses similar thoughts when after accusing Nero and Archie for being responsible for Susan’s death (calling Nero a ‘fat ape’ in the process), he goes on to say that in white people in New York racism is buried within them, especially the use of the “N” word. I found Nero’s response to this diatribe engaging as he reminds Dunbar that everyone has buried words which appear to the surface from time to time which discriminate or insult specific groups of people. Dunbar’s insult of ‘fat ape’ comes back to haunt him here, as Nero suggests that this is one of his buried or not so buried words. On a sad note at the end of the story Whipple’s wife says she wished Nero was a ‘negro.’ On the one hand you can see the honour conveyed in this, but on the other hand you can see how still acceptance is being prevented due to skin colour.
Overall I think the issue of race is well-handled and contextualised in the book considering the time period and is miles ahead of some books tackling similar (ish) issues within the same genre such as Ngaio Marsh’s Black as he’s Painted (1974), who seems uncomfortable in discussing the topic and inevitably flounders. Reflecting on A Right to Die, part of me wonders whether Stout was trying to balance the positive ad negatives made by both white and black characters, making both sides culpable of the same problems, albeit in a natural way through the course of the plot. I think Marsh attempts something similar but doesn’t quite succeed in her book.
Any Other Business
I found the title intriguing as initially it does link to the wider theme of civil rights, but it was the choice of the final word, die which puzzled me. In a sense everyone has the right to die, but then again no one cannot die irrevocably and in this book only one person chooses to die, the others have the time, place and method of their death decided by someone else. So overall, I was wondering whether A Right to Kill would have been a better title, or whether that would have problems of it own.
Gender was also an interesting theme in the novel as well, with Nero Wolfe portraying a negative attitude towards women, an attitude the introduction of this book says we should ‘suspend harsh judgement’ on, for the sake of a ‘good story.’ Not sure I agree with this and conversely rather than suspend or ignore this element of the book I have instead examined it in my first Tuesday Night Blogger’s Post on Rex Stout.
On the whole I thought this book was a quick read and a good plot on the whole, as Archie generally has an engaging narrative voice. The dialogue and characterisation also tend to be good, though the sparseness of the narrative style does prevent readers becoming more closely connected or involved with the story and central characters.