A Right to Die
by Rex Stout

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

a Nero Wolfe & Archie Goodwin mystery

Viking: New York, 1964
182 pages

May 2010

The right to pitch a good ball wrong

[Archie Goodwin narrating:] He had no appointment and, looking at him across the doorsill, it didn't seem likely that he would be bringing the first big fee of 1964. ... 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?

While naturally I enjoy some of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe & Archie Goodwin mystery stories more than others, and — more technically — admire some more than others, the novel A Right to Die constitutes a rarity in that I found it rather less than "Satisfactory", to use Wolfe's own word of praise.

How the novel began to go wrong is suggested in the first paragraph (see the excerpt above), and is made resoundingly clear within the first few pages. But why the novel went wrong eluded me until some reflection after I finished reading.

What we have in A Right to Die is a murder mystery with a early-1960s civil-rights background, and further, its theme is that aspect of the civil-rights movement that deals with not just perceptions of social inequality but more pointedly with daring to date and marry across the color line. More dangerously, when a white girl is murdered, the officers of the law, backed by much of society, don't have far to go to conclude that the black fellow she was dating is the culprit.

Such a scenario, if not a portrait from life, certainly is an echo of some notorious murder cases. The civil-rights angle is constantly at the forefront of A Right to Die because both victim and accused had been working for a civil-rights organization in New York City. Plenty of dramatic potential, but —

Trapped in the spectrum of skin

Where things first go wrong is the descriptions of people. I cannot think of another novel in which the precise shades of skin color of so many people are mentioned so frequently. Darker-skinned folks are precisely noted on the skin spectrum, not just now and then, but all the time. I realize that this is a novel set in a civil-rights milieu, and with many of the characters involved in a civil-rights organization, and the crime is a "race crime" — but this is too much.

A few contrasting styles come to mind, great novels each from a different earlier generation: Huckleberry Finn, Penrod and Sam, Gone with the Wind. In these very different novels, when the white author needs to let you know that among his or her white characters are some black ones, it's done, you learn, and you read on. To my sensibilities, all of these novels do more for black respect with less fuss and certainly less self-consciousness.

Perhaps because there is so much racial busyness for Archie to concern himself with, and, albeit more elevated, some for Wolfe as well, their relationship in this book doesn't have its usual lustre. There are some flashes of wit, but the overall tone feels somewhat leaden.

On the technical side, the narrative falls out of the modified "eternal present" that the Wolfe brownstone house and its characters usually float within. By hearkening back to a twenty-years-past case of their own, Archie's narrative is forced at several points to make it feel like he and Wolfe and even Lily Rowan have been stuck in a long rut.

Worse for the plot, there is a fairly obvious early clue that is long ignored by Wolfe and Archie. Now if an early clue jumps out at me, who am no great analyst of detective plots in motion, and that clue turns out to be the decisive motivator in the plot — that's way too obvious.

The why of the wrong

Reflecting on why A Right to Die is not satisfactory, I wondered if Rex Stout, considering himself not only a lifelong holder of social-equality values but prominent in some organizations himself, decided it was time to turn his pen to a good cause, as in fact he had during World War II. Perhaps someone like his friend and neighbor Lena Horne — who later wrote a fond introduction to a reprint of one of his books — gave him a hint. Regardless of the impetus, I'll grant a good motivation, but why did it go wrong here?

It wasn't until I happened to contrast this novel with its quick successor The Doorbell Rang (1965) that I saw the answer. The theme of The Doorbell Rang is very similar: it is civil liberties, the rights of the individual against the too-frequently oppressive State; and our heroes' foil if not entirely the foe is the FBI. Its plot is cleverly wrought, the interaction between Wolfe and Archie is snappy, and the story zips to a successful conclusion. Much better!

Here's the difference as I see it. In A Right to Die, the cause of Negro civil rights is something that Rex Stout believes in and supports. In The Doorbell Rang, the cause of individuals against the State is Rex Stout's own cause, part of his nature: he lives and breathes it, and his novel with that as theme is alive.

Thus in A Right to Die we have a doubtless worthy effort, but a less than satisfactory result. As Nero Wolfe says, early on:

"Nothing in nature is absurd, though much is deplorable."


© 2010 Robert Wilfred Franson

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