Like all the Nero Wolfe stories, The Black Mountain is narrated in the first person by Archie Goodwin, always close to the heart of the action but forever a step or two behind Nero Wolfe in unraveling the mystery. The language barrier provides a new twist here: Archie must often wait minutes or hours to be brought up to date on the words, which sharpens his already acute attention to other nuances. Although Wolfe reports in full when time allows, Archie's usual breezy confidence as a narrator is undermined by his inability to know directly what is being said.
The Black Mountain differs from other Nero Wolfe books not only in the setting, but also in its wealth of action. Archie shoots more villains in one scene than in all his other recorded exploits combined. In keeping with Stout's themes, however, Archie takes no pleasure in his gun slinging: he kills the three torturers because he must, without glamorizing his feat or gloating over it afterwards. Six people die in all, a bloodbath for Stout, but each death stands as a sobering moment in the narrative — a far cry from the casual slaughter and callous wisecracks of so many books and films in the genre.
Stout allows the plot to carry him outside his usual framework, just as Nero Wolfe reluctantly leaves New York to chase the murderer. Stout, Wolfe, and Archie all want to go home, and thus the novel fulfills a classic AB- A structure, ending with order restored and characters...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Communist repression may not be the burning issue it was in 1954, but Stout's insights on the importance of freedom and the withering effects of the police state are still worth discussing. The topical interest that has been lost because of the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe is restored to some extent by the current mess in what was Yugoslavia. Stout has much to say about what was wrong with life under Tito, and it would be natural to explore the cause and effect relationship between the blight of those years and the present obsession of Yugoslavians with killing each other. In addition, the murder of Marko Vukcic is a classic example of 1950s-style terrorism, and as such has many intriguing points of similarity to, and difference from, the terrorism of the 1990s.
Wolfe's return to his boyhood home offers rich material for analysis, as does Archie's wretchedness in the alien environments into which his loyalty drags him. The incidents of their brief but eventful stay in Montenegro provide ample topics for those interested in the economics, politics, sociology, and psychology of the police state. The novel is dated in its details, but not in the essential issues it raises.
1. Wolfe concocts an elaborate cover story to account for his presence with Archie in Montenegro. How does the tale of "Tone Stara" resemble Wolfe's true situation as an expatriate returning to his homeland? Is Wolfe (or Stout) using this fiction to explore the...
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In The Black Mountain, Stout makes a remarkably eloquent and insightful contribution to the anti-Communist literature of the 1950s. Having chosen to make his master detective a Yugoslav by birth when he originated Nero Wolfe over twenty years earlier, Stout takes advantage of that fact by arranging for Wolfe to return to his much changed homeland in pursuit of a murderer. The victim is Marko Vukcic, Wolfe's oldest friend, but Stout never lets this become a tale of personal vengeance. Wolfe sees beyond his own grief, even after his adopted daughter becomes a second victim: "Many men are responsible for Carla's death, but if I were to name one it would be Georgi Malenkov. He is the foremost champion of the doctrine that men and women must be subjected to the mandates of despotic power." Throughout the narrative, Stout sustains a brilliant attack on that poisonous notion. Refusing to wear the blinders so prevalent at the time, he condemns Communism because he perceives that its leaders subscribe to "the intolerable doctrine that man's sole responsibility is to his ego. That was the doctrine of Hitler as it is now of Malenkov and Tito and Franco and Senator McCarthy; masquerading as a basis of freedom, it is the oldest and toughest of the enemies of freedom."
Wolfe exposes himself to grave personal danger, and to the equally grave risk of failure, because he will not let the enemies of freedom — regardless of their politics — get away with their...
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Stout borrows many of the old standbys of the spy thriller, even as he continues to pay tribute to his precursors in detective fiction. No one will ever mistake Nero Wolfe for James Bond (although Ian Fleming once proposed a joint venture), but he functions quite passably in the thick fog of international intrigue, even though he despises it. There are double agents, icy torturers, cyanide capsules, night crossings — all familiar enough cliches of the Cold War spy novel, although infrequent in Stout's work.
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Over My Dead Body (1940) had introduced Carla Wolfe, with a very different Yugoslavia in the background and British and Nazi agents clashing in New York. "Home to Roost," a novella published in the collection Triple Jeopardy (1952), involves Wolfe in the exposure of a clandestine Communist and murderer. Stout makes no bones about his contempt for Communism; consistently, however, he avoids jingoism and phobias: the Communists thwarted by Wolfe and Archie are punished for what they have done, not for what they believe.
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