By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Rex Stout
Narration by: Michael Prichard
With a plan to visit Montenegro this year, it is interesting to listen to a murder mystery in that country. Rex Stout may or may not have visited Montenegro but he obviously had some understanding of the complex history of Tito’s Yugoslavian Federation. Tito led a communist guerrilla movement called the Partisans during WWII in Yugoslavia. He resisted Hitler and became Prime Minister and then President for Life of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia after the war. Though nominally a communist, Tito defied Soviet hegemony during the Cold War and tilted toward market socialism in the 1950s and 60s. After Tito’s death in 1980, Yugoslavia disintegrated and Montenegro re-asserted itself as an independent nation.
Rex Stout’s mystery is published in the 1950s, and reflects on the complex relationship between several republics that make up the Yugoslavian Federation. In the 1950s, the Federation includes Bosnia, Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Slovenia, and Serbia. Stout touches on the fear that exists in Montenegro during that period of Tito’s rule.
Putting aside Yugoslavia’s history, Stout’s “… Black Mountain” illustrates how astute and clever a mystery writer can be. Those who are familiar with the Nero Wolfe series know that Wolfe is a private detective with a wide girth, high intelligence, and moral rectitude. His right-hand man and muscle is Archie Goodwin.
The mystery begins when Wolfe’s Montenegrin childhood friend is murdered in New York. This is a friend that goes back to Wolfe’s early life in Montenegro. Local New York police investigate the crime but are not privy to some personal information Wolfe has about the murdered friend. In the 1950s, there are Montenegrin nationalists that are fighting against Tito. They seek independence from Tito’s repressive socialist regime. Wolfe’s friend is supporting these nationalist rebels when he is murdered. Wolfe neither condones nor financially supports his friend’s participation in the rebellion but he insists on bringing the murderer, whether communist, socialist, or nationalist, to justice.
At the risk of creating an international crisis, Wolfe and Archie secretly pursue clues to the murder by illegally entering Montenegro. What makes this mystery interesting is that Stout uses the politics of the 1950s to enhance credibility and integrity in his writing. Stout shows the enmity felt by some Montenegrins toward three political realities of the 1950s; e.g. existence of the Iron Curtain, Tito’s brand of socialist communism, and neighboring communist country interference in Montenegro.
Wolfe is nearly arrested by a local police commander in a Montenegrin town. The police commander is a Tito sympathizer willing to use a covert agent to kill American supporters of the Nationalist’s rebellion. Wolfe hoodwinks the police commander into transporting the murderer of his childhood friend back to the United States.
There are many vignettes that reveal the complex political situation in Yugoslavia during the 1950s. Albania is essentially acting as a surrogate for Russia in torturing Montenegrin nationalists and socialists that resist Russian influence. The Albanians are neither liked by Tito’s public officials nor the nationalist rebels. The nationalist rebels are so victimized by Tito’s repressive laws that they trust no one except their immediate family. Torture and murder are accepted behavior by all sides of the conflict.
Stout, through the character of Nero Wolfe, shows the face of an idealized American who does whatever it takes to right a wrong, but only within defined ethical boundaries. Wolfe insists on rule-of-law for judgment of criminals. There is no Wolfe’ vigilantism. There is no torture for confession of murder. There is no communist baiting; even when McCarthyism is at its peak in America. There is only justice proscribed by rule-of-law. Wolfe has the opportunity to kill his friend’s murderer but chooses to have him returned to the United States for trial.
“The Black Mountain” is an entertaining mystery; expertly narrated by Michael Prichard. It is a story that will make some interested in more tales of the rotund American hero and his witty, deadly fellow crime fighter.