Having firmly established the rules of Nero Wolfe’s first few books, Rex Stout felt free to force Wolfe to bend or break some of his rules. Other than In the Best Families, Stout never forced Wolfe to break so many rules as he did in The Black Mountain.
Wolfe’s lifelong friend Marco Vukcic is killed and Wolfe leaves the Brownstone in a cab to pay a visit the crime scene and goes to question witnesses. Then, tracing Marco’s murder to his support of Montenegrin rebels opposing the Yugoslav Government under Tito, he and Archie fly to Italy and cross the Adriatic an old boat and begin a hike to the place o f Wolfe’s birth under assumed names with no passports. Archie doesn’t speak any of the languages, so he has to rely on Wolfe’s translations to even let us know what is being said.
This is definitely not the typical Nero Wolfe story, which is what some people don’t like about it. However, I thought this story worked very well. It was thought provoking in many ways, not the least of which was how much of Wolfe’s eccentricity was put on as he abandons many of them in order to complete this mission to track down Vukcic’s killer. We also have a few hints of what Wolfe’s life was like before he departed for America. Stout as he does in countless novels, breathes life into his setting.
Stout’s Yugoslavia is a Cold War backwater where you don’t know quite who to trust and the oppression of the Communists has cowed the Montenegrin people, a fact that clearly pains Wolfe. The story is filled with intrigue and espionage on multiple levels.
The story does lack the same level of influence for Archie. There’s no girl for Archie to chase as he can’t understand one word of the languages, thwarting any romantic inquiries. Archie also gets little chance to mouth off to authority except in the first few chapters which are set in New York.
However, this is one novel where the spotlight is rightly on Nero Wolfe, who shines. The story encounters Wolfe dealing with his most personal loss. Wolfe, ever the master of words, uses action instead to show his feelings about Marco as he travels half way around the world to bring Marco’s killer to justice. Of course, words come in handy when, in the face of the lawlessness dominating his homeland, he decides to get killer back to the United States trial without extradition. To achieve this, he has to create one of his most elaborate and risky rouses he’s ever undertaken. And even then, the action doesn’t let up until the final page.
Overall, one of the best I’ve read yet.
Rating: Very Satisfactory
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