Back before Christmas I posted an article about Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe introducing the character and talking about the concept of the armchair detective. In that article (which focused mostly on the radio adventures of the character) I noted that while I could probably find all of the original novels and short stories online either through Amazon or Ebay or downloading them as e-books or whatever, I’m just old school enough that I enjoy having the print editions (yep, there are some things that I just enjoy having hands-on copies of) and tracking them down individually either through going to old booksellers or getting them as gifts. Well, thanks to my mom, I received a 1st edition hardback copy of Stout’s last Wolfe book, A Family Affair.
One of the things that I noted about Stout’s Wolfe stories that I really like is that though he first introduced Wolfe and his associates and various supporting characters in 1934 in a novel entitled Fer-de-Lance, and wrote them to be contemporaneous with society then. as the years passed, though the characters never actually aged and their basic relationships didn’t change, the world around them did, and that was something that Stout acknowledged in his stories. For instance, when America entered World War II, Wolfe became an occasional consultant for the War Department. During the 50s and 60s, Wolfe noted and commented upon the civil rights movement, and some of his cases sprang from that, and so on. As a matte of fact, Stout stated to his biographer John McAleer
“Those stories have ignored time for thirty-nine years. Any reader who can’t or won’t do the same should skip them. I didn’t age the characters because I didn’t want to. That would have made it cumbersome and would seem to have centered attention on the characters rather than the stories.”
That particular aspect of the stories was never more in evidence than they are in A Family Affair which was first published in 1974 and deals heavily with Wolfe’s reaction to the Watergate scandal which was engulfing the nation at the time. As a matter of fact, a central part of the mystery has to do with if, and if so how, the events that take place might be related to that ongoing scandal.
Another theme of the novel, and the part that gives it its title, has to do with just who constitutes one’s “family”. Is family merely a relationship of blood, or are there other relationships that can also be considered family? This is especially called into question when a character who has been peripherally seen before in the Wolfe stories is killed in a rather gruesome manner under Wolfe’s own roof, which is the event which sets the rest of the story in motion.
I’m not going to give much more of the plot away here, as to do so would deprive the potential reader the fun of following the twists and turns which it takes, except to say that for those who have read previous stories and have come to know and love these characters over the years, the climax does come as something of a gut-punch.
A Family Affair is also one of those stories in which Wolfe breaks, as happens from time to time, some of the established rules that he has set up for himself, and which define him as unique from other characters in the genre, but there is always a good reason for that when it occurs, and that is true here.
I have to say that I don’t recommend A Family Affair as an introduction to Wolfe’s world. There are many other stories and books that would serve that purpose better. On the other hand, though I wish that Stout, who passed away in 1975, not long after the publication of the novel, had been able to write many more stories, if there does have to be a last Wolfe novel it is fitting that this is it.
And fortunately for me, since I’ve made no strict rules about the order I’m reading the stories in, simply devouring each one as I find it, there are still some new adventures out there for me to find, and that is something that makes me very happy. And anxious to head out and see if I can find any more today.
(I’ll also be back soon with the “official” part two of this series, in which I’ll write more about Wolfe himself, and my favorite television adaptation of the character.)