Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Black Mountain, by Rex Stout


Marko Vukcic is dead. Nero Wolfe is extremely displeased by the murder of his oldest and dearest friend, and is even more displeased when, after weeks of effort, he is unable to locate or identify the murderer. Marko, it seems, was involved in international intrigue in their native Montenegro, and it seems increasingly likely that his murder is connected to his activities there. When Wolfe receives news that his adopted daughter (also a Montenegrin) was killed in nearby Albania, he decides to take matters into his own hands, and he and Archie hop a plane to Italy and thence to the Black Mountain itself. Wolfe is bound and determined to find the killer and bring him to justice. But first he has to survive a harrowing trek through the mountains, beset by Communist dictators--Tito's regime on the one side and Stalin's Russia on the other--and the local rebels who resist them.

As you can probably guess, this is not the typical Nero Wolfe book. Wolfe does sometimes leave his house--to dine with the world's best chefs, to show off his impressive orchid collection, or to temporarily avoid an enemy or annoyance--but never before has he traveled so far. It would be implausible were it not for the extreme nature of the catalyst: the death of Marko Vukcic and Wolfe's self-imposed responsibility to catch the killer provide a realistic explanation for Wolfe's otherwise fantastic behavior.

The trans-Atlantic shift upsets more than Wolfe's usual routine, however. Archie, our faithful narrator, can no longer relay verbatim the conversations around him. he must trust Wolfe to summarize or translate the goings on around him (fortunately, Wolfe is fluent in Italian, Montenegrin, Serbo-Croat, and Albanian, just to name a few, and is thus more than up to the task). Fortunately, we still get Archie's flair for humor and good storytelling.

Archie is just as out-of-his-element as Wolfe--and more so, since Wolfe had the dubious benefit of growing up in these mountains and has at least some familiarity with the geography and customs. That Archie comes with him at all is evidence of the friendship that undergirds their professional relationship. And anyway, Archie is a good man to have around in case things get rough, and they most certainly will do just that.

The story here is less mystery and more adventure. There is no real mystery at all--Wolfe figures out fairly early on that someone connected with either Belgrade (Tito) or Moscow (Stalin) was sent to kill Marko, and the obstacles that interfere with the apprehension of the killer are primarily practical. Wolfe and Archie must find a way into Montenegro, establish and maintain their disguises, explain their lack of papers to the officials, win the confidence of the rebels Marko supported, and then convince those rebels to help them locate the murderer--or at least to take them to someone who can help them. When they finally do stumble upon the killer (is it really a spoiler to tell you that? with a book like this?), it is purely a matter of chance--and a nearby character supplies a good deal of highly improbable but extremely helpful exposition to further facilitate the completion of their mission.

Still, it's a fun read, and fans who've loved Wolfe for years will enjoy seeing him in his native element and learning a bit about his elusive backstory. (I am not one of those who believe that Stout intended Wolfe to be   the offspring of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler.)  And I for one learned a lot about Montenegrin politics in the 1950s, which is not a topic I would likely have pursued on my own.

Prichard's narration of the audiobook version is good bordering on excellent--I don't know enough about the respective accents to know if his portrayals are accurate, but the end result is certainly aurally pleasing to this layperson.

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