Friday, March 15, 2013

Books Best Forgotten: Under the Andes by Rex Stout

Back in 1984, in the throes of Wolfemania, I bought a copy of the Penzler Books edition of this novel, which was apparently the first book edition. That surprised me, given Stout’s stature and popularity. For one reason or another, I never got around to reading it - until now. And I’m no longer surprised. This is a book the world could do without.

To be fair, this thing first appeared in The All-Story way back in 1914, when Stout was in his twenties, and for a guy in his twenties, I suppose it isn’t horrible. It’s simply tedious. (Though you wouldn't know it from the cover at right - with all that conveniently flowing hair - the female lead goes topless for most of the story. It doesn't help.)

The book begins with promise. Wealthy New York socialite Paul Lamar learns that his wastrel brother Harry has just lost $90,000 in a poker game. Harry refuses to let it go, so Paul takes his place at the table and promptly wins it back. He then tells Harry he’s leaving him to his own devices, and sets off to tour Europe. While abroad, he catches sight of one of the most beautiful (and dangerous) women alive, a fun-loving seductress named Desiree La Mire. Warned to avoid this jezebel at all costs, he quite naturally winds up on the same ship back to the States, and they become somewhat well acquainted. But unlike every other man on the planet, he manages to resist her charms.

Back in New York, Desiree is the toast of the town, and wastrel brother Harry insists on meeting her. And of course he falls hard, so hard that he soon leaves town, refusing to tell Paul where he’s going. When Paul discovers that Desiree is gone, too, he reneges on his promise to let Harry lead his own life and tracks them to Denver. There, high in the Rockies, Desiree admits that Harry is merely a plaything. The man she really loves is Paul himself. But man of steel that he is, Paul still resists.

From there, the love triangle moves on the San Francisco, where they take ship to South America, always following the whims of the fickle Desiree. At this point, we’re about 20% into the story. The young Stout’s prose, while nothing like the Wolfe stuff to come, is smooth and consistently interesting, and I’m anticipating a good read.

Sadly, that’s where the good read ended. While climbing the Andes, a guide tells the travelers the legend of a tribe of Incas who eluded the Spanish by ducking into a cavern, taking all their gold with them. Many fortune hunters have since entered the cavern in search of the treasure, but none ever returned. So naturally, Desiree dashes right in. And naturally, Paul and Harry follow.

The rest of the long, long, LONG story takes place - you guessed it - under the Andes. We’ve now left the real world and entered H. Rider Haggard/Edgar Rice Burroughs territory. Unfortunately (at least for purposes of this story), Stout was not Haggard or Burroughs. Our travelers stumble, stagger and crawl around in the dark. They’re captured by the subhuman specimens of a Lost Race. They escape, stumble around some more, are recaptured, kill hundreds of the little boogers, escape, are recaptured, kill hundreds more, escape, are recaptured, kill some more, escape, survive an encounter with a Lovecraft-style Lurker in the Dark, are recaptured, kill more subhuman boogers, and so on, and so on. Why? Because The All-Story paid by the word. The longer the story dragged on, the more they paid.

There are a couple of good lines. At one point, the narrator says of the subhumans, "They ate death like candy." At another, Harry says, "Will it never end?" My sentiments exactly.

Ho-hum. I’m forced to admit this is one of the few books I grew so weary of that I resorted to skimming. At the end I resumed reading, hoping for a satisfying conclusion. No such luck. The climax fizzled and went out. I went away feeling I’d wasted my time - and my hard-earned 1984 dollars, too.

Thankfully, just at that moment of deepest despair, Skull Island arrived in the mail. This new novel - in which Doc Savage meets King Kong - is Will Murray’s best yet, and that’s saying something. My faith in adventure fiction is restored!

More Forgotten Books (hopefully worth remembering) at pattinase.

P.S. If I've failed to dissuade you from venturing Under the Andes, the novel is old enough to be free for Kindle. There's also a site where you can listen to a free audio version. That's HERE.

9 comments:

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Evan, I have been meaning to read a 315-page ebook version of this book for well over a year but haven't got around to it so far. The cover of the ebook has a nude woman, Desiree presumably, standing on one leg on what I think is a huge uncut diamond and looking toward the skies with the Incas sitting on the floor around her. I might still read it as I haven't read anything by Rex Stout.

Evan Lewis said...

Stout wrote at least fifty GREAT books. Read a Nero Wolfe or two first.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Evan, the Nero Wolfe mysteries are already on my plate and I hope to read some of them soon.

Bill Crider said...

I'd wanted to read this book ever since I first heard about it. Underground caverns, lost races, how could it miss? Boy, was I disappointed. It's at least as bad as you say, and maybe worse.

Keith said...

Thanks for the heads-up. With that cover, I would have probably fallen for it.

Cap'n Bob said...

I'm sure I have a copy around here someplace. I almost want to read it to see if it's bad as you say.

Evan Lewis said...

Please do, Cap'n. I'll hear you cussing from 300 miles away.

Jerry House said...

There was a time when I truly thought Rex Stout could not write a bad sentence. Then I read ALPHABET HICKS and some of his very early pulp work...

rkr said...

Hmmm, I didn't remember it as being that good. (!)