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Literature / A Family Affair

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The final novel in Rex Stout's series of Nero Wolfe mysteries, published in 1975 (six months before the author's death at the age of 88). It is set in October 1974, and takes place in the aftermath of President Richard Nixon's resignation over the Watergate affair.

Late one night, the brownstone receives an unexpected visitor — Pierre Ducos, Nero Wolfe's favourite waiter at Rusterman's, the restaurant once owned by his late best friend. He claims that someone is trying to kill him and begs to consult with Wolfe, but when Archie Goodwin puts him in a spare bedroom for the evening, he is killed by an explosive device that has been concealed in his jacket pocket.

Infuriated at a murderer striking within the confines of his home, Wolfe resolves to find the killer before the police, and discovers that Pierre's death may be connected to the murder of Harvey Bassett, an electronics expert and inventor who had dined at Rusterman's with friends weeks before his death. Bassett was obsessed with the Watergate scandal and was planning to sue the disgraced Richard Nixon over it, raising the possibility that he was murdered by shadowy players in that drama.

But as the body count rises, the authorities draw closer and Wolfe's stubbornness increasingly raises the possibility of his and Archie's disgrace, it become apparent that the truth may be found closer to home...

Not to be confused with Family Affair, the American sitcom that ran from 1966 to 1971.

Tropes in this work:

  • Big Bad Friend: Orrie Cather is the murderer.
  • Blackmail Backfire: This turns out to be the motive behind at least two deaths. Pierre was blackmailing Orrie over his affair with Bassett's wife, and then Pierre's daughter tried to blackmail him over his death. It didn't work out for either.
  • Bittersweet Ending: It's not quite a Downer Ending, since the case is solved, Wolfe and Archie escape jail and are likely to have their licenses restored in short order, and peace is restored to the brownstone once more. But the fact that Orrie Cather was the killer and took his own life rather than face disgrace and old Mr. Ducks has lost his son and granddaughter means that the main characters nevertheless aren't exactly thrilled about events.
  • Book Ends: A particularly explosive example; the novel begins and ends with some poor unfortunate getting blown up at the brownstone. In the first case, it's a cold-blooded murder in the house itself. In the last case, it's Orrie killing himself at the front door.
  • Broken Ace: Orrie, by the end.
  • Call-Back: Several, as is common with the series, but one in particular is a spoiler: when confronting Orrie over the murders he's committed, Archie and the other 'teers bitterly note that they should have cut him loose after he got pegged for murder in Death of a Doxy, since even though he was Wrongly Accused in that book the fact that people could even consider it plausible should have suggested that he couldn't be trusted.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: Several, as Wolfe and the other detectives realise the identity of the killer at different points:
    • Archie himself has one when Wolfe remarks that in a previous interview with Bassett's friends, they'd mentioned that he was obsessed with his wife and the possibility of her committing adultery. He connects it to Orrie's own womanizing tendencies.
    • Much to Saul and Archie's surprise, Fred Durkin admits he figured it out when Orrie asked to interview Pierre's daughter when Wolfe assigned her to Saul; he knew Wolfe would never do so, so must have had an ulterior motive.
  • Irony: After threatening to arrest Wolfe for obstruction in almost every single one of previous appearances, Inspector Cramer shows up... to try and prevent Wolfe from being arrested for obstruction. And when Wolfe and Archie eventually are taken into custody, Cramer is not involved.
  • It's Personal: Several layers:
    • The victim was Wolfe's favourite waiter at Rusterman's, the restaurant once owned by his now-deceased best friend Marko Vukcic. Wolfe was also once the restaurant's trustee and is depicted as having a consistent soft-spot for the place;
    • In addition, Pierre was killed in Wolfe's own house, thus outraging Wolfe's sense of Sacred Hospitality;
    • Wolfe is also deeply outraged by the Watergate scandal and, when it looks like Nixon and his men might have been somehow involved, relishes the opportunity to have some role in Nixon's downfall and punishment;
    • And finally, when the killer is revealed as Orrie Cather, Wolfe, Archie and the others naturally view this as a personal betrayal.
  • Leave Behind a Pistol: Lampshaded; our heroes openly declare that while they won't actually kill him and can't deliver him to the police for both personal reasons and a lack of evidence, they intend to "make it impossible" for the killer to keep living. Orrie gets the message and blows himself up with the final rigged cigar in front of Wolfe's house.
  • Sacred Hospitality: Once again, Wolfe is driven to action by someone daring to kill a man who was under his roof as his guest and thus under his protection.
  • Title Drop: There's a couple of mentions that this case is "a family affair." In the earlier ones, it's referencing how, since Wolfe is obstructing justice, he and Archie need to keep their investigation strictly "within the family." The last mention, after they've realized Orrie is the killer, reflects their sense of betrayal at one of their doing such a thing.
    It was like getting the idea that a member of your family had committed three murders. A family affair. Would you have known?
  • Wham Episode: Orrie Cather, Wolfe's long-time operative who has been part of the novels since the very first one, turns out to be the killer.