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Literature / The Black Mountain

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Rex Stout's seventeenth Nero Wolfe novel, published in 1954.

As Archie is about to depart the brownstone, he receives a call from Sergeant Purley Stebbins: Wolfe's oldest friend Marko Vukcic has been shot and killed outside his apartment. After Wolfe pays his respects, he learns from his adopted daughter Carla Britton (nee Lovchen) that both she and Marko have been involved in a Montenegrian independence movement. When a European informant informs Wolfe that Vukcic's killer is in Montenegro and Carla has returned to her homeland, only to be slain herself, the famously stationary detective is moved not just from his brownstone, but from the continent, diving headlong into political suspense in order to track down a murderer and bring him to America to face justice.


Tropes in this work: (Tropes relating to the series as a whole, or to the characters in general can be found on Nero Wolfe and its subpages.)

  • Acrofatic: Despite his size and repeated complaints about sore feet, Wolfe hikes for miles through the mountains of Yugoslavia.
  • Agony of the Feet: Both Wolfe and Archie suffer foot-related hardship after arriving in Montenegro, Archie from barefoot rock-climbing, and Wolfe from merely walking more than he is used to.
  • Anyone Can Die: The book includes the murder of multiple recurring characters, including one who has been a regular in the series since the 1930s, and who is one of the closest people to Wolfe. No lesser provocation would spur Wolfe to travel abroad in search of a murderer.
  • Asshole Victim: No one mourns when Danilo Vukcic has Jube Bilic killed.
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  • Back for the Dead: Both Marko Vukcic and Carla Britton.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Literally, in the form of Peter Zov's luger.
  • Cliché Storm: An in-universe example. Carla's appeal to the "great and noble cause" of Montenegrin independence strikes Wolfe as a load of hackneyed political codswallop of the sort used by communists and fascists.
  • Coins for the Dead: When visiting the morgue to identify Marko's body, Wolfe receives permission to place two old coins over his friend's eyes, something he had long ago promised to do.
  • Cold War: Perhaps the most Cold-Warry of all the Wolfe books.
  • Commie Land: Titoist Montenegro is such a place, and the Montenegrin characters constantly remind us of this fact by addressing one another as "comrade" and injecting Marxist rhetoric into their prosaic conversations.
  • Dirty Communists: Gospo Stritar, Jube Bilic, Peter Zov, and the Albanians are all nefarious reds of one sort or another, but the Tito-Stalin split means they are not all on the same side.
  • Drives Like Crazy: Wolfe's old friend Paolo Telesio.
    Archie: I was willing to keep my mind open on whether Telesio was to be trusted as a brother, but in less than a mile it was already closed about trusting him as a chauffeur. Apparently, he had some secret assurance that all obstructions ahead, animate or inanimate, would disappear before he got there, and when one didn't and he was about to make contact, his split second reaction was very gay.
  • Eagleland: Wolfe's conception of his adopted homeland is that of a shining city on a hill, in contrast to the tyrannical communist regime that controls his birth country. This culminates in his reciting the preamble of the Declaration of Independence while making his escape from the Spirit of the Black Mountain.
  • Eiffel Tower Effect: Mount Lovcen is the most famous feature and namesake of Montenegro (and also the origin of Wolfe's first name), and most of the action in Montenegro occurs close to the mountain.
  • The '50s: The book was released in 1954 and includes references to Joseph McCarthy and the recent (1948) expulsion of Yugoslavia from the Cominform.
  • Going Commando: Telesio urges Wolfe and Archie not to bother with underwear, so that they can fit more chocolate into their luggage.
  • He Who Fights Monsters: As a guerilla committed to fighting the regime, Danilo has had to sacrifice some of his humanity and morality, to the point where he almost condemns Wolfe and Archie to death. Only a speech from his wife convinces him otherwise.
  • The Illegal: Wolfe and Archie are undocumented immigrants in Montenegro, but manage to avoid both imprisonment and deportation.
  • Insistent Terminology: Wolfe absolutely refuses to refer to Podgorica by its new name "Titograd", even at the risk of drawing unwanted attention.
  • Language Barrier: This is the only Wolfe novel where the majority of the action takes place in non-English-speaking places. As a polyglot, Wolfe is able to converse with everyone they meet, but Archie is out of the loop. This doesn't stop him from flirting with a pretty Montenegrin girl.
  • La Résistance: The Spirit of the Black Mountain is a small group of anti-communist guerrillas based in the mountains. Wolfe points out that they have no hope of ousting the regime, and that all they can do is "tickle the tyrant's toes".
  • Mood Whiplash: Wolfe and Archie's solemn tragical reflection about the murder of a close friend and major recurring character is humorously interrupted when Archie observes that Wolfe needs directions to find the Manhattan morgue despite the decades he's spent solving murders.
  • Mother Russia Makes You Strong: Or Montenegro does. According to one of the resistants, "Montenegrins sit on rocks".
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Wolfe's wacky cover story for why he is wandering around Montenegro without papers, accompanied by a man who cannot speak Serbo-Croatian. As he tells the authorities, a fool in Montenegro can only walk off a cliff and break his neck.
  • Out-of-Genre Experience: While most of the stories are armchair-detective-meets-noirish-gumshoe murder mysteries, this one is more of an adventure story with elements of a 1950s Cold War spy thriller bolted onto it.
  • Pet the Dog: We witness a rare moment of tenderness on Wolfe's part when he and Archie are taken upstairs by Danilo's wife to see the sleeping children. While looking at the children, Wolfe says something in Serbian, and later refuses to translate the remark for Archie.
  • Spanner in the Works: Wolfe tricks Peter Zov into returning to the U.S. by making him believe that he (as in Wolfe) is going to take over Marko's role as funder of the Montenegrin independence movement, and Archie suspects he intends to expose him as a murderer only once Zov has entered the brownstone to dispatch Wolfe. That plan only lasts as far as the New York harbor, where a press photographer recognizes Wolfe, allowing Zov to shoot him in the leg before being restrained.
  • Snooping Little Kid: More of a snooping teenager. Jube Bilic tries spying on Wolfe and Archie, and winds up getting killed by the Spirit of the Black Mountain. Apparently Jube has made a habit of snooping, and this is the last straw.
  • The Speechless: To explain his inability to speak Serbian, Wolfe considers having Archie pretend to be a deaf mute, but decides it would require too much acting, and they would be overheard speaking.
  • Straw Character: Jube Bilic embodies all the nastiness, sneakiness, and hypocrisy which Rex Stout associated with communists, from spying on his father to wearing American blue jeans while condemning the United States.
  • Swapped Roles: Since most of the story takes place in Montenegro and many conversations take place in Serbo-Croat, which Wolfe speaks fluently but Archie doesn't, Wolfe has to report to Archie in order to keep him in the loop. Archie includes a warning prefacing the story alerting the reader of this.
  • Translation Convention: The "Serbian" dialogue is represented as English, as Archie explains in the foreword.
  • Unseen No More: Wolfe's European contact Mr. Hitchcock makes his only physical appearance in the series.