Something at Stake

Rex Stout’s The Black Mountain is quite a remarkable book, and not just because it happens to be the first one of his that I enjoy without reservation. What makes it a standout, at least as far as I’m concerned, is that Nero Wolfe proves to be human after all, hard as he tries to hide it. Another unusual feature of the book is that it is basically a revenge story, a Wolfe-ian riff on Mickey Spillane’s favourite theme.

Both his fans and his critics tend to agree that Stout was very much a formulaic writer. The Nero Wolfe stories, they say, are all more or less cast in the same mould, with tiny variations introduced now and then to avoid the reader getting bored, and proudly ignore the changes and evolutions occuring in both society and the genre. The Black Mountain gives the lie to both claims. It doesn’t follow the series’s formula at all and it is very much a book of its time politically, which is not this blog’s business, but also thematically.

The standard early detective was a deus ex machina rather than a genuine protagonist – a disinterested party whose only role in the narrative was that of solving the puzzle. They had nothing to fear and nothing at stake, though they might occasionally muse on their moral or legal responsability. Then came E.C. Bentley and Trent’s Last Case. Much has been said and written about this book, including on this blog, but maybe its most remarkable feature is how it subtly changes the detective’s status from a mere literary device to a genuine character. Trent falls in love with the prime suspect and suddenly he is no longer a simple « thinking machine », he has something to lose and this, and not the crime only, is now the focus of the novel.

As with much of Bentley’s « discoveries », this new approach to the detective character took some time to catch on. Most Golden Age mysteries followed the early pattern of the detective as dispassionate crime-solver. Things began to change in the mid-Thirties under Dorothy L. Sayers’s impulse. The Lord Peter/Harriet romance cycle can be seen as the launching point, if not actually the birth, of the « personally involved detective » trope in crime fiction. While it was seen as a major breakthrough at the time, it didn’t immediately usher in a « new wave » though it prompted some welcome and overdue changes, such as the end of « compulsory celibacy » for fictional detectives – they were now allowed to fall in love and even marry. They were also now at risk of being harmed or killed just like everyone else. All this appears rather commonplace, and even cliché, nowadays but a novel like Traitor’s Purse (Albert Campion in jeopardy!) was righly seen as revolutionary at the time. So were for the same reasons Patrick Quentin’s Peter Duluth books or in a more discreet way Cyril Hare’s Francis Pettigrew stories.

Not until after WWII did this new phenomenon become a trend, though. We may ironically have to thank Mickey Spillane for that. I, the Jury was reviled by critics but its success meant that lay readers were finally ready for detectives in life-affecting cases, and soon every established detective or so had theirs. Most ended in tears and with the detective’s new-found heart broken but without or with little lasting effects. Perhaps the most famous and certainly the most influential of those « hard case » books, Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, ends on a devastating note for Marlowe – and yet none of this remains when we meet him again in the next and final entry in the series, Playback. He is the same old Philip Marlowe we’ve always known. Conversely, Ellery Queen losing the woman he loves at the end of Double, Double is promptly forgotten by everyone including himself. Self-contained episodes were still the default mode then.

The Black Mountain thus fits just right in the era in which it was published, proving that, pace popular wisdow, Stout was able to (temporarily) catch on with the times – and that there’s nothing wrong with formulas as long as you’re not a slave to them. Whoever has ears…

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