Nero Wolfe's mountain
The Black Mountain is quite an oddity among Rex Stout's generally excellent mystery series about detectives Nero Wolfe & Archie Goodwin. So just what makes it an oddity?
- First, the novel's exotic setting. Normally his heroes operate in or not far from of their base, the old brownstone house in New York City. In The Black Mountain we begin in New York as usual, but this case leads us to Montenegro, in these years part of Communist Yugoslavia — the place of Nero Wolfe's birth. We're given a lot of scenery and adventure in Montenegro, as well as some in transit. Stout shows here that he handles well the landscape and texture and society of isolated, mountainous Montenegro as comfortably as he does the environs of New York.
- Second, the novel's exploratory and adventurous plot. This is not really a detective story, except in its framing. The heart of it is the adventures of Wolfe and Archie in Montenegro, and the challenges are those of maneuvers in the dark, mountain climbing, and dubious, dangerous people on their home ground. This is done well, reasonably believable, and quite suspenseful.
- Third, the novel's exposition of Wolfe's personal history. Instead of occasional droplets of incidental backstory, here we have a regular mountain torrent of information about Wolfe's youth: places, people, activities. This is all fun and fascinating reading for fans of the series, and quite illuminating of Wolfe's character.
- Fourth, the shift of active principle from Archie's role to Wolfe's. Wolfe is motivated to rise to the occasion. In the country of the Black Mountain, Wolfe knows the territory and speaks the languages. Goodwin still is the viewpoint character, and Stout lets Archie report even non-English dialogue as though in real-time by a simple and ingenious narrative device which works quite smoothly. And Archie, as a man of action, does find plenty to do.
How well does Rex Stout succeed with all these displacements off his beaten path in The Black Mountain? Actually, quite well. There's a huge authorial risk in placing a detective story into an exotic setting or with exotic characters: there may be too many unknowns for the reader, too many variables beyond his guessing or perhaps even following. By concentrating on the adventure, Stout largely avoids that risk. The Wolfean backstory is brought to the foreground by Wolfe and Archie being dropped headlong into it. Stout also takes the opportunity to contrast American principles of justice with living under Fascist and Communist regimes.
I wouldn't recommend anyone reading this novel until after reading a bunch of the other stories in the Nero Wolfe & Archie Goodwin series. It will be appreciated far more as a piquant contrast, as when Wolfe and Archie cannot dine superbly at home or at Rusterman's restaurant, but drop into some ethnic eatery of only local repute, but purveying some characteristically delightful dishes — which Wolfe naturally knows and relishes.