Monday, July 5, 2010

The Black Mountain and Before Midnight

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of The Black Mountain and Before Midnight (Viking, 1954 and 1955).

I hate to say it, but for me, the story of how I acquired Three Trumps: A Nero Wolfe Omnibus trumps its actual contents. It's a collection of three Nero Wolfe novels by Rex Stout, two of which had been missing from my wife's collection. Stout wrote an awful lot of detective fiction, all of it very entertaining, but more than Marie had managed to collect. After I read Fer-de-Lance, the first of the novels, I resolved to complete her collection. Living in a city with several decent used and antiquarian bookstores helps, but I'm good with that.

Actually, I don't much care for omnibus collections of novels; I would rather have each book separate, particularly as publishers rarely collect them in the correct order. However, I could tell I would need a little help. My wife was missing fourteen books in total when I started. I found ten in a couple of weeks, four looked to be a little more scarce. I noticed that The Black Mountain and Before Midnight each promised to be a bit more elusive, but both were compiled in this particular reprint. The former is one much sought by new and longtime Stout fans alike; while few of the novels and stories change the continuity or characters in any real way, The Black Mountain emphatically does.

I think it's a shame that practically every review gives away the event that sends Wolfe back to his apparent birthplace of Montenegro. Reading the opening chapters of this book would have been far more shocking had I not known. If you've been curious about starting this wonderful series, I recommend jumping to The Black Mountain early in your read so that you can enjoy the experience without the spoiler.

Honestly, I thought it was a good book, but nowhere near my favorite. It really was most entertaining to see Archie Goodwin so completely out of his element, and watching the duo forced to improvise outside of their comfort zone in the hunt for a killer, but I certainly prefer the New York-based stories like Before Midnight.

I'll certainly give Stout all the credit in the world for changing his playbook so effectively in this novel, but I did prefer Before Midnight. This is another story where Wolfe chooses to navigate one of the more absurd facets of contemporary American society: an advertising competition meant to sell some product or other sees the winners become suspects when the man with the answers is found murdered.

I really enjoyed the hair-splitting that Wolfe and Inspector Cramer get into in this one. Cramer is on the hunt for the killer but Wolfe has been hired to find who stole the answers. They both know the other's more than likely looking for the same man, but the distinction is enough to keep the two, legally, at arms' length, in places very amusingly so.

So I was four away from a complete set, and wondering whether I'd have to pay a little more for them when I pulled into the local branch of The Book Nook. Out front of two of the locations, they have these dollar bins that I stopped looking into more than a decade ago; they're useful for nothing but gag gifts. The short version is that, by chance, I happened to pull into the one parking space available in front, and had I parked anywhere else, I wouldn't have seen Rex Stout's name on a green hardback dust jacket and wondered whether it might be the Three Trumps omnibus that I was looking for. Now that's how you find missing books.

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