Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Perhaps there's a reason Wolfe stays in his brownstone after all

From Rex Stout's The Black Mountain (1954):
"I thought you was a private eye."

"I don't like the way you say it, but I am. Also I am an accountant, an amanuensis, and a cocklebur. Eight to five you never heard the word amanuensis and you never saw a cocklebur."
If you've encountered Nero Wolfe before, I don't need to tell you that that's his right hand man, Archie Goodwin, mouthing off there. It's perfect Archie: quick, cocky, and a bit goofy.

Sadly, that's one of the few bits of prime Archie in The Black Mountain--which is the main reason it's the first disappointing Wolfe story I've read. The book starts promisingly, with the murder of one of Wolfe's few real friends, chef and restaurateur Marko Vukcic, a crime so shocking and close to Wolfe's heart as to compel him to leave the brownstone and travel all the way back to his boyhood home of Yugoslavia in search of Vukcic's killer. That ought to make for a fascinating story, showing us Wolfe well outside his carefully controlled environment, but it never quite works, in large part because the language barrier reduces poor Archie to a pair of uncomprehending ears and a gun hand. He relates Wolfe's various foreign-language conversations (which, he explains, Wolfe translated for him later) in real time, but while that enables the story to clip along, it doesn't enable Archie to play his usual wisecracking, hunch-following role. And the unmoored, unusually mobile Wolfe is less jarring, and less interesting, than expected: we too quickly become used to the idea of Wolfe hiking the mountains of Montenegro, and neither the spectacle nor the insight into character that we might have hoped for ever quite comes off.

It's a mark of Stout's achievement in this series that I was completely surprised to find my self not enjoying The Black Mountain, as no one could reasonably expect that an 87-book series wouldn't include at least one fizzle. More important, it would be churlish to complain of that fact--I'll still gladly take up the next invitation I get to the doings at West 35th Street.

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