Sunday, August 24, 2014

Benefits of old pulp fiction

I mentioned a couple posts ago that I'm on a Nero Wolfe binge. For those of you unfamiliar with Mr. Wolfe, he's the hero of several dozen detective novels written by Rex Stout starting in the 1930s and continuing for decades. His plots are marvels of elegant complexity, his narrator, Archie Goodwin, Wolfe's assistant detective, is a Humphrey Bogart type who is excellent company. His characters are unpredictable the way actual people are unpredictable, and the bad guys always get caught in the end. Great literature it ain't, but sometimes just a well-told story is more than sufficient.

One side benefit of reading the early ones is running into thought patterns that were unremarkable at the time, but now seem amazing.

For instance, in "The Rubber Band", the one I'm reading now, written in 1936, we have a cantankerous old coot who doesn't trust Wolfe and is about to refuse to do what Wolfe wants him to do. Trying to convince him, Wolfe says, "You called me an idiot, Mr. Walsh. I return the compliment. What is worse, you are hot-headed. But you are an old man, so there is humanity's debt to you."

Humanity's debt to him just because he's old. An unthinkable concept in current society. But then, in the late 30s, Social Security had just been put into place, and people were thinking in terms of what we as a society should do to protect our elders from grinding poverty in old age. I'm not going to insist that the world owes me just because I have survived to 71, but the idea that I've contributed to humanity and might expect at least some respect in return has its appeal.

Of course, there's the other side too. In "Too Many Cooks", written in 1938, I bumped right into the casual ethnic slurs of the time. There are several African American characters, whom Archie refers to with the N-word, and some Italians who are described as "dagos". The plot manages to wind its way through the unthinking racism of the time, coming down against it, but, as someone who really does think the Washington football team should change its name, I was shocked to see the words in print. But one of the minor characters was a squinty-eyed West Virginia sheriff whose behavior reminded me that there's more to racism than non-PC language.

1 comment:

  1. I'm going to have to look these books up now.I don't think I've ever read any Rex Stout. I used to go through Simenon novels (Inspector Maigret) though.