Monday, January 7, 2019

Under the Andes by Rex Stout

Idiotic adventure with unlikable characters
Rex Stout is best known as the author of the Nero Wolfe detective stories, but he also wrote adventure fiction outside the mystery genre, including his novel Under the Andes, which was originally published in the February 1914 issue of the pulp magazine The All-Story. I’m usually up for a vintage two-fisted adventure from the pulp fiction area, but this novel proved to be a dismally disappointing exercise in idiocy.

The hero of the story is Paul Lamar, a man of the world who is filthy rich for no apparent reason, to the point where he doesn’t think twice about throwing away a million dollars. Paul is so perfect at everything he does and so confident in his manliness he makes James Bond seem humble. He couldn’t possibly make a mistake, which is why he needs a little brother, Harry, who is just as macho as Paul but not quite as smart. They both get mixed up with Desiree Le Mire, a French dancer who alternately serves as femme fatale and damsel in distress. Desiree is obviously Stout’s vision of feminine perfection, which is disturbing. Stunningly beautiful, she behaves like a trashy gold digger, yet inexplicably manages to take high society by storm in every city she travels. Once she and the boys venture away from civilization, Stout has her topless for most of the book. She comes onto both Paul and Harry, and both are dumb enough to adore her.

The trio decide to explore the Andes not for any scientific expedition or rescue mission but rather just to avoid ennui, because they are bored with yachts and casinos. They venture into a cavern where they find the remnants of a legendary lost tribe of Inca who sought subterranean refuge centuries before. What a great premise for a “lost world” thriller! Unfortunately, Stout isn’t at all interested in the former glory of the Inca civilization. Instead, he depicts the Inca’s descendants as having devolved into brutish, ape-like troglodytes too stupid to even speak. Once underground, Paul and Harry proceed at every opportunity to beat and stab the captors who are feeding them, even though they have no escape route or plan for survival. The Inca are so dumb they don’t even recognize a knife until it’s plunged into their chests. Somehow Paul can read an Inca quipu, even though the smartest anthropologists still haven’t figured out how to do it. The book is mostly a maze of indiscriminate caverns and unrelenting spear thrusts, all capped off with one of the most asinine epilogue twists of all time.

Although the story takes place almost entirely underground, Stout gives little consideration to the problem of light. Four or five early chapters take place in total darkness, during which Stout asserts that human eyes can adjust to a total lack of light, then uses that as an excuse to describe subterranean sights in detail as if they were bathed in the light of day. The Inca have lamps in their quarters, which must be inexhaustible because the heroes spend weeks wandering through a labyrinth of uninhabited caverns without any mention of lamps, torches, or fire. Jules Verne or Edgar Rice Burroughs would have come up with some contrivance like phosphorescent rocks, but Stout doesn’t bother to give it any thought.

Even fans of vintage adventure fiction have to admit that the old pulp magazines were filled with a lot of garbage, of which Under the Andes is a perfect example. Despite whatever name recognition Stout may have garnered from his mystery writing, this terrible mess is not worth your time.

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