Friday, March 1, 2013

A Right to Fie: Rex Stout's White Guilt

Rex Stout (1886-1975) was a master of detective fiction, but a racial imbecile.

Even at its most erudite, escape fiction must keep political harangues firmly out of the narrative, or must in any event strive to permit such materials only in a way that is incidental to the enjoyment of the story itself. Otherwise the story languishes and the reader is left with unintentionally comedic results. One thinks of Arthur Conan Doyle’s bizarre and rambling (though very astute) fugue against Mormonism in his very first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet. Although the ax which Doyle is grinding there against the Smith/Young cult is entirely reasonable in fact, the didactic tone of his attack has no connection to the main narrative of that novel, nor is the interruption all that entertaining as an interpolated tale. But if you thought that A Study in Scarlet was badly damaged by extraneous moralizing, just wait till you see what Rex Stout has done while trying to use a murder-mystery as a vehicle for hyping the Civl Rights hoax. At least Doyle’s anti-cult position was sympathetic, if distracting; Stout’s is both distracting and false.

In A Right to Die, a decent story about the murder of a civil rights crusader, Rex Stout has botched his ordinarily masterful management of the Manhattan Brownstone by allowing Nero Wolfe and his muscular amanuensis Archie Goodwin to stray into the minefield of liberal white guilt. The fact that the two are treading unfamiliar and dangerous ground is obvious as soon as they begin the journey. Nearly every line spoken either by or about black people in this book is uniformly scripted by what were already (in 1963) well-entrenched codes of political correctness centering upon the default nobility of blacks and the indubitable guilt of whites.

I don’t know what got into Stout in the early ‘60’s, but having read this book, and also its successor The Doorbell Rang, it’s obvious that some precursor strain of the Great Society had afflicted his mind in the throes of Camelot. Of course, many of Rex Stout’s fellow white intellectuals were at that time joining the revolution to overthrow everything normal in Western society, but one can at least be excused for cherishing the hope that a genius and all-around good guy like Stout would not participate in the orgy. The fact that he felt compelled to genuflect to the monstrous lie of the civil rights farce shows that even the most brilliant thinkers are not necessarily safe from the tide of revolution.

Because of Stout’s clumsy grandstanding, this book is a decidedly mixed bag. In The Doorbell Rang, an entertaining adventure wherein Wolfe takes on the FBI and attracts the meddling attention of J. Edgar Hoover, we are also subject to a poorly integrated diatribe against government intrusions upon civil liberties. I’m as opposed to such activities as the next man, but the lecturing element was neither needed nor enjoyable in a mystery novel. Wolfe is simply unconvincing as a political crusader; indeed his most enduring quality is as a man who defies all forms of progress, even such minute forms as the movement from one chair to another.

At least in Doorbell, Stout kept my attention well fastened to the wit and action of my favorite pair of Manhattan crime-fighters. But in the book under review, Stout’s politics are far too evident upon his sleeve, and they do not belong in the mouth of Nero Wolfe. It would be bad enough if the novel were merely moralizing; what is far worse is that it is also inexcusably false in its presentation of black/white relations, of its own era or of any other.

One of the quintessential pieces of interracial lunacy foisted upon America in the '60's was "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner". This movie appeared just after Poitier had abandoned his first wife and four children so as to miscegenate more freely in Hollywood.
I will give just a couple of examples of Stout’s sad failure to pull off the job of making Wolfe and Archie into MLK-style racial utopians, though I could supply twenty. In Chapter One, we meet the client of the novel, a black man whose name is Whipple. After revealing the fact that his son is engaged to marry a white girl named Susan Brooke, and that both young people are members of a civil rights outfit, Whipple makes his request: he wants Wolfe to find some dirt on the fiancĂ©e so as to prevent Whipple Junior from saddling himself with the difficulties of an interracial family. So far, so sound. But Wolfe begs to differ with Whipple’s quibble, and tells him so. Wolfe’s objection shows that he has taken leave of his senses in agreeing to pursue such a weird case:

“[My] comment is about marriage. It’s possible that Miss Brooke is more realistic than you are. She may be intelligent enough to know that no matter whom she marries there will be the devil to pay. The difficulties, snags, embarrassments, and complications…are in any case inevitable. If she marries a man of her own color and class, the grounds for them will be paltry, ignoble, degrading and tiresome. If she marries a Negro the grounds will be weighty, worthy, consequential and diverting.”

How painfully dishonest all of this is. And how unintentionally racist! A white liberal is never more racist than at those moments when he is striving to establish his bona fides as a post-racial guru. It is one thing to be subjected to this sort of nonsense from Keith Olbermann or John McCain in 2013; but it’s simply unbearable from the world’s smartest obese detective in 1963. Let me underline the unintentional racism of Wolfe’s remark. While issuing a blanket condemnation of all forms of marriage (a funny enough angle for the likes of the happy bachelor Wolfe), he proceeds to say that if a woman must expose herself to the infamies of marriage, she might at least score political points while doing so. And what could be more progressive in the marriage game than to marry a Negro!? The good thing about this speech is that it perfectly typifies the mentality of white liberals who embrace faddish intermarriage; the problem with it is its unspeakable hypocrisy and the patronizing view it presents of blacks, as if whites marrying blacks were a way of elevating the latter while improving the whole society.

Archie appearing in his usual pristine white.
One of the stupidest and least persuasive parts of the book is the tedious discussion we get from Archie about his lust for one of the black murder suspects, Beth Tiger. Although Stout devotes several long passages to Beth’s beauty in the book, it would be too embarrassing for both you and me to go over all of them here. Instead I will give you the dumbest, funniest, and most accidentally racist part (and thus most reflective of fake white pomposity), where Archie first catches sight of the Black Venus at one of Wolfe’s grilling sessions:

“Tiger was one of those specimens who cannot be properly introduced by details. I’ll mention that her skin was about the color of an old solid-gold bowl Wolfe has in his room which he won’t allow Fritz to clean, that if she had been Cleopatra instead of what’s-her-name I wouldn’t have missed that movie, and that I had a problem with my eyes all evening, since with a group there I am supposed to watch expressions.”

Translation: Tiger was so beautiful that she has caused Archie to compromise his investigative objectivity and to forsake his crush on Elizabeth Taylor, considered the most beautiful woman in the world at that time, but who evidently couldn’t hold a candle to this golden specimen. Fans of the Wolfe stories know Archie better than this. Archie certainly does appreciate female beauty and he does not spare us the details when making these reports. But his admiration is never slavish or obsequious, and none of the white girls he takes a shine to would ever be able to distract him from his work. What makes Beth Tiger an exception to Archie’s policy of steadfastly dividing dames from detective work? Answer: she’s a black beauty. Clearly, Archie is no racist.

The civil rights element in this book does no service, and much harm, to our enjoyment of the plot. I have now read a handful of the Wolfe and Archie books, and I am a confirmed fan. When restricting himself to the world of orchids, gourmet cookery, and deductive reasoning, Stout does well. Indeed, no fictional hero can make me feel so welcome in his domicile as can Nero Wolfe in his brownstone on 35th Street. It is that milieu that Wolfe fans recall long after the names and criminal details of the stories have faded, and for my money it is often more fun to enter the brownstone than to visit 221b Baker Street. Stout had a powerful imagination and a magnificent gift for storytelling. But in A Right to Die, he allowed the charming bubble of his ordinarily ideology-free world to be punctured by the stupid and rotten zeitgeist of the ‘60’s civil rights movement, a horribly chosen maneuver which Stout usually avoided wisely and happily.
Archie's usual type would have been far more tasteful.

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