Wednesday, March 13, 2013

"In a movie theater at least you can hold hands."

One of the many commonalities between Rex Stout and P. G. Wodehouse* is that their characters are essentially stuck in time. For Wodehouse, that era was gone by the time he really established himself as an author: it's early Edwardian. As Orwell explained in "In Defence of P. G. Wodehouse,"
The kind of life that Wodehouse writes about by preference, the life of the "clubman" or "man about town," the elegant young man who lounges all the morning in Piccadilly with a cane under his arm and a carnation in his buttonhole, barely survived into the nineteen-twenties. It is significant that Wodehouse could publish in 1936 a book entitled Young Men in Spats. For who was wearing spats at that date? They had gone out of fashion quite ten years earlier. But the traditional "knut," the "Piccadilly Johnny," ought to wear spats.
Stout's characters, meanwhile, are forever of the 1930s, the period of his first success. Though the Depression barely makes an appearance--the Wolfe stories are more akin to the Busby Berkeley musicals than, say the realist movie that John L. Sullivan wants to make in Sullivan's Travels--but the characters, from the thugs and Inspector Cramer to, more importantly, Archie and (sigh) Lily Rowan, are the familiar fast-talking slang-shooters of period's brilliant screwball comedy.

Such stasis is no small part of the comfort these books afford--a comfort matched by few, if any, other writers. Yet both writers continued working regularly until the 1970s, and both, in familiar series tradition, let their characters float in a vaguely defined eternal present rather than having them age or specifying that their new adventures are taking place in the past.** And thus it becomes interesting to note where the present (now well past) creeps in. Christopher Hitchens, for example, once pointed out the ghastly strangeness of Bertie Wooster--allied to no cause aside from aunt-baiting--running into an anti-war demonstration in the 1974 novel Aunts Aren't Gentlemen. With Stout, the dislocations are never jarring, merely interesting.

Such a moment appears in In the Best Families (1950), one of the most clever and satisfying Wolfe stories. Archie has been dispatched to a country house under slim cover, pretending to investigate a mere dog poisoning (shades of the Philo Vance Kennel Murder Case?) while really looking into murder, and after dinner he's stuck in the living room with all the suspects as they watch television:
Nintey minutes of video got us to half-past ten, and got us nothing else, especially me. . . . Television is raising hell with the detective business. It use to be that a social evening at someone's house or apartment was a fine opportunity for picking up lines and angles, moving around, watching and talking and listening; but with a television you might as well be home in bed. You can't see faces, and if someone does make a remark you can't hear it unless it's a scream, and you can't even start a private inquiry, such as finding out where a young widow stands now on skepticism. In a movie theater at least you can hold hands.
I'm no detective, but I sympathize. As March crawls past, insisting on its pretense of being winter with all the wheezy grotesquerie of a past his prime ladies' man bathed in cologne, the Baseball Machine at the Rocketship maintains its winter dormancy. If Archie wants to bring some suspects by, I'll be happy to help him catch a murderer while the cathode rays sleep.

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