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This book gives us our first dose of Montenegro: hints of Wolfe's background there, as well as the tangled politics of the region and his relationship to them. However, despite the international intrigue of the case, Wolfe most definitely does not budge an inch from the brownstone (and he shudders at the very thought of Archie having to go out at night). Maybe he's still recovering from leaving home for the past three books in a row (!!!).


At the very beginning we have Archie's xenophobia popping up (especially the sub-category ZOMG GIRLS WITH ACCENTS): Or you might have spelled it plihz or plizz or plihsz. However you spelled it, it wasn't Middle West or New England or Park Avenue or even East Side. It wasn't American, and naturally it irritated me a little.

Such a master of dialects! *g* And rigorous about distinguishing Park Avenue from the East Side, too...more evidence, as [personal profile] liviapenn has pointed out, of Archie's deep attachment to and knowledge of New York.

Interestingly, Archie's sensitivity to accents eventually gives us a pretty strong clue, if only to the fact that Zorka is a red herring. After the first page of the book, with its words from Carla like "pliz" and "Misturr" and "stoodies," he drops the phonetic spelling and we instead hear various people's accents in the structure of their dialogue. Madame Zorka, however, all the way through gets increasing amounts of exaggerated phonetic dialect--for instance, she doesn't say "Misturr," like Carla, but instead says "Ah, Meesturrr Gudwinnnn? Zees ees Madame Zorrrka." By the time we find out she's actually Pansy Bupp from Ottuma, Iowa, it's hard to be surprised. And oh, Pansy, you picked the worst person in the world to pretend to be a Yugoslavian refugee in front of. *g*

I quite enjoy Pansy's exit...she's whipping up the dramatics (even without Zee Axxxcennnt), and Wolfe has had it:

She flung out her hands. "Oh, can it be--can't this be--?" Her chin was quivering.
"Miss Bupp!" Wolfe thundered. "Don't you dare! Archie, get her out of here! Get her out of the house!"
"Zat weel be a plaizhoore," I said.

Hee! Oh, Archie. He knows how to cap a scene.


I love the bits in this book that give us glimpses of Wolfe's past, as well as hints toward his inner emotions.

Now, to start with, let me say that I usually stick to either a Watsonian or a Doylist framework, without mixing them--but having said that, here I note the undeniable Doylist fact that Stout was forced by his publisher in this one instance to say that Wolfe was born in America, even though in every other mention or implication of his backstory he was born in Montenegro, and it makes perfect sense that he would in fact be Montenegrin (I mean, just two books ago, we had him making a speech thanking the native-born black characters for letting him immigrate, for crying out loud). Because of that undeniable Doylist interference, I am happy to ignore this book's statement, and believe that Wolfe is lying or evading when he says he was born in the U.S. (Besides, it's not like he's under oath, and even if he were, he tells the truths he wants to tell. The person "Nero Wolfe" could be said to have been "born" in this country, after all, from the ashes of the Montenegrin he used to be. And, Doylistically, Rex Stout supports me in this, as his biographer says in the same book cited above: "Rex told me that even in 1939 Wolfe was irked by the FBI's consuming curiosity about the private business of law-abiding citizens. In consequence, Wolfe felt under no constraint to tell the truth about himself when interrogated by Stahl." So, you know...set a Doylist to catch a Doylist. *g*)

*dusts hands*

So anyway, here's what Wolfe says. To Carla and Neya:
"I carry this fat to insulate my feelings. They got too strong for me once or twice and I had that idea. If I had stayed lean and kept moving around I would have been dead long ago.
"I used to be idiotically romantic. I still am, but I've got it in hand. I thought it romantic, when I was a boy, twenty-five years ago, to be a secret agent of the Austrian Government. My progress toward maturity got interrupted by the World War and my experience with it. War doesn't mature men; it merely pickles them in the brine of disgust and dread. Pfui! After the war I was still lean and I moved around. In Montenegro I assumed responsibility for the sustenance and mental and physical thrift of a three-year-old orphan girl by adopting her. I did something else there, too, which advanced my maturity, but that has nothing to do with you. I saw that girl's ribs. The something else I did finished Montenegro for me, and I left the girl, I thought, in good hands, and returned to America."

And to Stahl, the FBI agent:

"You were at one time an agent of the Austrian Government?"
"Briefly, as a boy. Not here, abroad. I quit."
"And joined the Montenegrin army?"
"Later, but still a boy. I then believed that all misguided or cruel people should be shot, and I shot some. I starved to death in 1916."
The G-man looked startled. "I beg your pardon?"
"I said I starved to death. When the Austrians came and we fought machine-guns with finger-nails. Logically I was dead; a man can't live on dry grass. Actually I went on breathing. When the United States entered the war and I walked six hundred miles to join the A.E.F., I ate again. When it ended I returned to the Balkans, shed another illusion, and came back to America."
"Hvala Bogu," I put in brightly.
Stahl, startled again, shot me a glance. "I beg your pardon? Are you a Montenegrin?"
"Nope. Pure Ohio. The ejaculation was involuntary."

There are other tidbits in and around these quotations, but this is the heart of it. And I love how they mesh, and how the facts are such an open framework for further speculation. We have Wolfe the secret agent, Wolfe the WWI front-line rifleman (presumably caught up in the horrific Great Serbian Retreat), Wolfe the American recruit, Wolfe who adopted a starving orphan girl--and then some mysterious event(s) that left him a refugee emigrant bound for his new country. Not to even mention the powerfully-evocative ties between Wolfe who starved to death and Wolfe who now sees his fat as a form of emotional control. So many stories lurk in those sketches that my head whirls!

Also, I had to leave in the end bit, when Wolfe says he came to America, and Archie adds (in Serbo-Croat) "Thank God." AWWW.

Some specific questions that Wolfe's elisions bring up for me:

* In both recountings, he mentions some event that precipitated his departure for America: "I did something else there, too, which advanced my maturity...The something else I did finished Montenegro for me..." and When [the war] ended I returned to the Balkans, shed another illusion, and came back to America." What might it have been that all at once advanced his maturity, destroyed his illusion, and finished Montenegro for him? I seem to remember someone in another post mentioning a hypothesis that he killed someone (a woman?)--but if so, would he consider that as advancing his maturity, when he explicitly doesn't consider war itself a maturing experience?

* Further along in Stahl's questioning, there's this bit:
What about your wife? Weren't you married?"
"No. Married? No. That was what--" Wolfe stirred, as under restraint, in his chair. "It strikes me, sir, that you are nearing the point where even a grateful American might tell you to go to the devil."

What might Wolfe have been about to say there? Oh, the possibilities, the possibilities! And really, any topic that can actually make Wolfe visibly stir like that...yow.

And one more backstory question... when Archie first tells Wolfe about Carla, Archie smugly points out how the name Lovchen pinged to him as something fishy, because of what he's read about Montenegro:
"She seems to be named after a mountain. The Black Mountain. Mount Lovchen. Tsernagora. Montenegro, which is the Venetian variant of Monte Nero, and your name is Nero. [...]"

To me, this suggests that Nero Wolfe's name is a changed name--not a pseudonym, exactly, but a name he chose for himself, and that he symbolically anchored in Montenegro on purpose (just as Carla did with her own nom de guerre). But if Wolfe's name is a changed one, how did Carla and Neya find him from the adoption paper? I suppose it must mean he chose and used the new name before coming to America?


Along with some Wolfe backstory, we also get more of his politics. For one thing, his leftist nature is made plain. For instance, he tells Stahl, "I have contributed to the Loyalists in Spain," referring to the Spanish Civil War, a conflict with Fascists that has been considered in retrospect a dress rehearsal for World War II (Wolfe's side was chock-full of idealists and Communists, and it lost).

We don't get as specific a glimpse of Archie's politics per se, but it's safe to say that he's as anti-Fascist as Wolfe, and in Archie's case the anti-Fascism is explicitly stated to be anti-Nazi, in the form of Rudolph Faber.

Faber is introduced as "a blond guy with thin lips and an aggressive nose who stood and walked like a soldier," who "halted in a manner that should have made his heels click but didn't," and who reminds Inspector Cramer "of the cartoons of Prussian officers at the time of the World War." Even before we know Faber's a Nazi (and the word Nazi is not specifically used until the last few pages of the book), we know he's a Nazi.

Archie hates everything about him, all springing from his ineffable Nazi-ness (Nazitude?). And in the scene (by now practically a tradition) where Archie gets to punch him in the face, Archie makes it plain:
I trotted around and got between him and the door, faced him, and said urgently, "Pick it up!" I knew at the time that it was childish, but in the first place the impulse to make some kind of alteration on the supercilious look of his face was absolutely irresistible, and in the second place I had been permanently impressed by what I had been reading in the papers about certain things being done by certain people in certain parts of the world.

Aw, Archie. *pat*

(Let me also recommend to you Archie's eloquent narration of his face-punching: I said calmly, "Look out, here it is," and put it there.) Bwah.

A question: after Faber slowly climbs to his feet, Archie tells us:
He turned slowly, and looked at me, and I looked away on account of the expression in his eyes. It embarrassed me so much it damn near scared me, to see such an expression in the eyes of a man who had merely been knocked down. Naturally, it had been my intention to request him to pick the book up when he got upright again, but I didn't do it. When he got under headway towards the door I stepped aside and let him go, and asked Fred to go to the hall and let him out.

What was the look on Faber's face? From Archie's phrasing, 'embarrassed me so much it damn near scared me,' I'm inclined to think it was something that did seriously scare him (sorry, Archie, but you know how you always Protest Too Much), so...something like dangerous depths of rage/fury, rather than something more pathetic like humiliation?

And hey, speaking of Faber...


As I've mentioned before, there is a pattern in which a visitor will be suspicious of Archie and tell Wolfe to get rid of him, and Wolfe will say no and then follow up with some piece of praise/statement of unity. Well, in case you needed it, the scene with Faber shows you that Archie knows (and loves) that pattern too:
Rudolph Faber looked at me, with his thin lips thinner, and then said to Wolfe, "Send him out of the room."
I started to deride him with a grin, knowing the reception that kind of suggestion always got, no matter who made it; but the grin froze on my face with amazement when I heard Wolfe saying calmly, "Certainly, sir. Archie, leave us, please."
I was so damn flabbergasted and boiling I got up to go without a word. I guess I staggered. But when I was nearly to the door Wolfe's voice from behind stopped me:
"By the way, we promised to phone Mr. Green. You might do so from Mr. Brenner's room."
So that was it. I might have known it.

Oh, ARCHIE. You SHOULD have known it, you silly boy. Just watching the sudden change, as his smug certainty of being openly cherished suddenly falls to pieces--to the point that he seems to actually think Wolfe means it rather than, you know, HAVING A PLAN. Wolfe obviously realizes Archie is not on the same page at the moment, given how he explicitly adds the code words about Mr. Green. Oh, Archie! The cheeky sangfroid of your surface masks such a fragility!


Touching on a couple of bookend scenes:

In his first meeting with Carla, Wolfe actually flees the office! Archie finds him in the kitchen:
He stood at the far side of the refrigerator, facing me in a determined manner that seemed entirely uncalled for, and told me abruptly as I entered:
"Send her away."
"My God!" I admit I blew up a little. "She said she'd pay something, didn't she? It's enough to freeze the blood of an alligator! If you read it in her eyes that her friend Neya did actually glumb the glass, you might at least--"
"Archie." It was about as hostile as his voice ever got. "I have skedaddled, physically, once in my life, from one person, and that was a Montenegrin woman. It was many years ago, but my nerves remember it. I neither desire nor intend to explain how I felt when that Montenegrin female voice in there said 'hvala Bogu.' Send her away."
"But there's no--"
I saw it was hopeless, though I had no idea whether he was overcome by terror or was staging a stunt.

Context in fact reveals that Wolfe was not staging a stunt--so it must have been actual terror. It's the sort of panic-attack that we were already seeing less of as the series progressed, but here it spikes up full force. And I doubt that it's random or coincidental that his instinctive flight is into the kitchen, rather than into the elevator and up to his room or the orchids. Something about the Wolfe who starved to death in Montenegro, and his relationship with food now (not to mention the relapses as another symptom of severe mental retreat), suggest it.

(Parenthetically: "glumb the glass"? ARCHIE. Sometimes you try sooo hard to be in a Hammett novel. Or possibly a Thin Man movie. :D)

At the end of the book, Wolfe is faced again with a ferocious female Montenegrin, this time Neya, running at him with a knife. And Archie is too late!: As I made the office she was half-way across it and her hand was up with the shining blade, and Wolfe was there in his chair with no time to move, and I had no gun, and all I could do was yell and keep going.

This time, though, there is no attempt to skedaddle. Wolfe, instead, KILLS HER WITH BEERS. In fact, he breaks her wrist with one bottle and smashes her head with a second, both at once--another example of his reflexes and sheer strength, shown rather than told.

And Archie, as is typical with him in these situations, can't help but let his emotions crack through. Once he gets to Wolfe's side: I looked at him for blood and didn't see any. [...] I couldn't see anything wrong with Wolfe, but I asked him in a voice that sounded funny to me: "Did she get you?" Poor boy. He doesn't even get to follow up with a face-saving wisecrack, as Stahl caps the farce by strolling in, which sends Archie off into hysterical laughter.

Archie obviously continues to feel guilty, even though it doesn't seem that Wolfe blames or castigates him at all--as usual, Archie punishes himself for seemingly failing Wolfe much more than Wolfe does.


* There are some moments in this book where Archie, navigating the usual task of goading Wolfe juuuust enough, realizes he's on the verge of going too far:
"I think it's safe now. Stay close behind me and if I holler run like hell."
Wolfe's inarticulate growl, as I wheeled and headed for the office, warned me that there was barbed wire in that neighborhood, so when he came in a few minutes later and got re-established in his chair I made no effort to explain my viewpoint any further.

"No, boss, really. You told the G-man you have never married. Yet you have a daughter. Well--" I shrugged. "I'm not a prude, but there are limits--"
"Don't jabber. Go on up there. She was an orphan and I adopted her."
I nodded skeptically. "That's a good trick, but pretty transparent. What do you think my mother would say--" But I saw his whole face tighten and knew I was getting close to out-of-bounds, so I asked casually, "That all?"
"That's all."

I like these glimpses at the complexities of his gadflying, and his intimate knowledge of the subtleties of Wolfe's expression and emotion, all of which lets him recognize Wolfe's boundaries and veer neatly away from them.

* Right before those lines there's a telling exchange:
"But the fact is I guess you'd better pay me off. I'm resigning as of this moment."
"Resigning from what?"
"You. My job."

YOU. I maintain it's no accident that "You" comes first. Resigning = breaking up, first and foremost, with the job issue coming second.

* There are some nice moments of Archie's physical awareness of Wolfe, in particular the dinner at which there was an air of absent-mindedness in [Wolfe's] ardor as he tore the backbones apart and scraped the juicy shreds off with his gleaming white teeth. I enjoy the sensuality of the description there. Possibly Archie notices it too, because he follows it up by making sure to contrast their return to the office, in which "That is, [Wolfe] waddled. I strode." Yes, yes, Archie, very manly I am sure. *eyeroll*

* Archie tries to justify himself to Wolfe for not suspecting Carla of hiding the document:
"My mind was occupied. I was sitting down and she was standing in front of me and I was thinking about her curves."
"That is not thought. Those nerves are in the spinal column, not the brain.


* On that note, Archie does the usual threaten-to-marry business in this book--but here it has extra resonance, and therefore drives Wolfe extra 'round the bend, what with the adopted-daughter and all. And Archie going on about what it will mean to his relations toward Wolfe!:
I made my voice grave and respectful. "When I marry her, I guess it will be unavoidable for me to call you Dad."
"Archie, I swear by all--"
"And I would be your heir in case you die. I would be the beneficiary on your life insurance. We could play in father and son golf tournaments. Later on you could hold the baby. Babies. When the time comes for the divorce--now what the hell!"

Heee hee hee. Archie, you are the DEVIL. And a very Oedipal one at that!

* Another example of how much Archie looooves to stump Wolfe--after Archie has learned about the col de mort gadget at the studio, he suspensefully unwraps it in the office:
I straightened up with a nod.
"Uh-huh, I thought so."
"What the devil is it?"
"My God, look at it! It's the col de mort!"
"Confound you, Archie--"

Then of course Archie goes on to explain it. But first he had to have some fun. *g*

* In the scene in the office with Faber, before Wolfe sends Archie out and Archie loses his grip, there's a sequence that shows us more of Archie's powerful attachment to a particular idea of himself:
[Faber's] forehead wrinkled in displeasure. "Now, my man--"
"Not on your life. Not your man. I belong to me. This is the United States of America. I'm Nero Wolfe's employee, bodyguard, office manager, and wage slave, but I can quit any minute. I'm my own man. I don't know in what part of the world the door is that your key fits, but--"
"That will do, Archie." Wolfe said that without bothering to glance at me; his eyes were on the caller. "Apparently, Mr. Faber, Mr. Goodwin doesn't like you. Let's disregard that. What can I do for you?"
"You can first," said Faber in his perfect precise English, "instruct your subordinate to answer questions that are put to him."
"I suppose I can. I'll try it some time. What else can I do for you?"
"There is no discipline in your country, Mr. Wolfe."
"Oh, I wouldn't say that. There are various kinds of discipline. One man's flower is another man's weed. We submit to traffic cops and the sanitary code and so on, but we are extremely fond of certain liberties. Surely you didn't come here in order to discipline Mr. Goodwin? Don't try it; you'd soon get sick of the job. Forget it."

This is Archie Goodwin, the man who OWNS HIS FURNITURE. *g* And Wolfe is clearly aware of Archie's need for reinforcement on this point, as he casually but firmly goes to bat for it against Faber (an action that should have kept Archie from flying off the handle in a minute, if Archie weren't so darn fragile/lacking perspective re: needing Wolfe's approval).

Of course, the sequence also shows us that, even as Archie loses his temper and goes on about being his own man, Wolfe is allowed to interrupt and stop him without even looking at him, with no protest at all from Archie. He's his own man...who has nevertheless put himself willingly under Wolfe's hand. Sigh!


* Percy Ludlow: mancrush? Archie first observes him:
He was about my age and size, with a good pair of light-colored eyes, and a gray suit of a distinctive weave hung on him in a way that made it obvious the fit had not been managed by waving a piece of chalk at a stock job.
"I was looking for you." He came up to us, with a conventional smile. "Miltan wants you in the office. This ridiculous affair." [...]
We shook, and I met his eyes and liked them, not on account of any candor or friendliness, but because they showed sense.

And later, he describes him to Wolfe: My age, and a good deal like me: courteous, gifted, of distinguished appear--"

Archie really does seem to appreciate a sharp-dressed man. *g*


We have Saul being awesome and highly-trusted, as when Wolfe mails him the crucial document or brags about him in front of Cramer when having Saul tell the tale of unmasking Pansy Bupp. Saul is soft-spoken and courteous, and I find his reassurance of Pansy really quite sweet--when she finds out he phoned her mother, she starts to freak out, and he says, "Yes, ma'am, I did. It's all right. I didn't scare her, or anything. I made it all right." Aw.

The friction between Orrie and Archie remains: Orrie comes down from getting private instructions from Wolfe and aimlessly needles Archie, who doesn't seem to want to play, first cutting off the joking with "I'm busy" and then actually throwing his notebook at Orrie (who dodges it and "danced out").

Cramer only ever chews cigars in this book, and with great vigor, though we don't yet have the flat statement from Archie that he never ever lights them.

I believe this is our first mention of Parker! No first name yet, nor an onstage appearance--just an intention from Wolfe to "arrange for Mr. Parker to represent" Neya Tormic.

So, what are your thoughts on this book? And what becomes of the adopted daughter between now and Black Mountain? (Hmm, perhaps we should save that topic for the Black Mountain discussion? Or at least the Black-Mountain-specific part of it, anyway...)

I have to go out of town on Tuesday, and will be gone for about a week. My internet access will be sporadic at best, so I suspect I'll have to catch up on some of the discussion a bit belatedly. Apologies in advance!
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