Because author Rex Stout is so closely associated with his most famous fictional character, housebound detective extraordinaire Nero Wolfe, fans may find it hard to believe that the Indiana-born writer ever wrote anything else. And that, I suppose, is understandable, seeing that between 1934 and 1975, Stout came out with no fewer than 33 novels and 40 or so novellas featuring one of crimedom’s most well-known sleuths. But just as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote in many other genres besides the one featuring Sherlock Holmes, so too did Stout: 13 non-Wolfe novels and 44 short stories in the thriller, mystery, historical adventure, lost world/lost race, and even romance genres, to be precise. And thanks to Armchair Fiction’s current 24-volume LOST WORLD/LOST RACE series, readers may now experience Stout’s one and only contribution to that wonderful fantasy subgenre, Under the Andes. This roller coaster of a novel originally saw the light of day in the February 1914 issue of The All-Story magazine (which publication would also release works from such lost-world practitioners as Edgar Rice Burroughs and Abraham Merritt), when Stout was all of 28 years old. It promptly sank into seeming oblivion until 1985, and this recent Armchair release, featuring the same beautiful cover artwork by P. J. Monahan as had graced the 2/14 All-Story, is the novel’s fourth reprint in the last 35 years.
The book is narrated by Paul Lamar, a 32-year-old, extremely wealthy dilettante scientist who lives on NYC’s 5th Avenue with his irresponsible, 22-year-old brother Harry. When we first encounter the pair, the older Lamar is bailing out the younger after Harry’s most recent losses at an uptown gambling den. And trouble soon crops up again, when Harry falls head over heels in love with Desiree Le Mire, a dancer who had recently taken Europe by storm, who Paul had even more recently met during a transatlantic crossing, and who is currently performing on Broadway. When Harry and the blonde siren suddenly take off for Colorado, Paul follows, in the hopes of once again averting a family scandal. The elder brother trails the lovers to the summit of Pike’s Peak, where an understanding of sorts is reached amongst them, after which the trio decides to take an extended ocean voyage. A yacht is rented, and our adventurers travel from San Francisco, down to Mexico and Central America, and on to Lima, Peru.
There, Desiree takes it into her head that she wishes to see the land of the Incas, and so the three hire an arriero (muleteer) to take them from Cerro de Pasco to another town, Huanuco (yes, actual places, as any map will show), crossing the mighty Andes en route. A cave is ultimately reached that their guide importunes them to avoid, but headstrong Desiree charges straight on in, followed by the two brothers, and all three plunge fairly rapidly down into a swift-moving, underground river, which separates the trio and washes them into a pitch-black cavern. Ultimately, our heroes are captured by the inhabitants of this stygian realm: the debased remnants of the Incas who had fled from Hernando Pizarro 400 years earlier! Lamar’s narrative then goes on to detail the manifold hardships that the three suffer during their many weeks in this underground kingdom, their battles with the Incas, their numerous rescues of one another, the unusual creatures that they encounter, and their many attempts to find their way back to the surface.
And indeed, of all the many heroes who I have encountered during my immersion in lost-race fiction, few have suffered more than our trio does here, all of whom sustain injuries from spears, knives, bites, boulders and burns before the story is done, not to mention lack of sleep and severe thirst and hunger (living on dried fish and cave water for weeks on end will do that to a person!). In essence, after a 40-page setup, Stout’s book is one long, 200-page chase sequence, punctuated only by torture, rescue, battles, and continued chases. Unlike in most other lost-world books, the race encountered here is comprised of completely undifferentiated individuals. The Incas here are all the same — squat, ugly killing machines – and none of them is even given a name. The only one who stands out from the pack is the Incan king, and even in his case, a name is never vouchsafed — or learned — by our narrator. Think of them, thus, like H. G. Wells’ Morlocks: a nasty underground race of devolved mutants who are only interested in killing. And that the Lamar brothers surely do themselves, by the hundreds, in several remarkably violent sequences. (No wonder Harry tells his brother, during one of the book’s many fracases, “Paul, it’s rank butchery. I’m wading in blood…”)
Stout’s book contains any number of memorable set pieces, including the one in which the two brothers are brought to the top of a superheated, 100-foot-high column above a whirlpool (pictured in the Monahan illustration) and are compelled to either roast to death or jump; the first rescue of Desiree from the king’s clutches, hidden as she is in a veritable maze of underground warrens; a lakeside cavern fight that our trio engages in against hundreds of ravening warriors; a run-in with a monstrous, reptilian, tentacled creature, like something out of an H. P. Lovecraft nightmare, that our hardy band encounters in another cavern; the raft trip that the three take, along underground rapids and waterfalls, in the hopes of finding an exit to the surface; an even more harrowing, second rescue of Desiree; and an absolutely furious and thrilling final chase sequence, as the barely-still-alive trio is pursued by the maddened Incas, during both cave-ins and earth tremors. In truth, the book is a genuine thrill ride, into which Stout mixes in some interesting romantic angles (Harry loves Desiree, while Desiree loves Paul, who vainly tries to resist her temptations), some downbeat grimness (Paul frequently entertains the notion of suicide), and even some occasional humor (such as when Paul tells us, regarding the Incas, “I am satisfied that they were incapable of vocalization, for even the women did not talk!”). And the book is, surprisingly, somewhat risqué, especially for 1914, in that Desiree is completely topless after her initial plunge into that underground torrent, and all three are completely nekkid by book’s end, their clothing having fallen off in tatters. And for those readers who suffer from the occasional bout of claustrophobia, I would say that Under the Andes might be especially nerve racking, as the author really does make the reader feel what it would be like to subsist in such trying underworld conditions for an extended period of time. Not since reading Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960) eight years back has this reader experienced such an uncomfortably closed-in sensation.
As it turns out, Stout himself is a pretty terrific writer, even here in his second novel, written a full 20 years before he started on the Nero Wolfe series. He obviously did a fair amount of homework before the penning of his sophomore effort, adding convincing geographical detail as well as historical tidbits and Incan lore. Thus, we get to know about Pizarro, the Incan king Manco Capac, the Incan god Pachacamac, and quipos (knotted and varicolored cords that the Incas used in adjudication), as well as the dreaded soroche (a form of mountain sickness in the Andes). Stout adds numerous literary references to his work, and his characters (whether realistically or not) are apt to start spouting lines from such varied writers as Rudyard Kipling and Alfred Tennyson, and alluding to Cervantes’ Don Quixote, de Montalvo’s Amadis of Gaul, and Lesage’s The Bachelor of Salamanca. He is capable of a lovely turn of phrase, as when Paul thinks, whilst watching a beautiful sunrise from the top of Pike’s Peak, “He who made the universe is no artist; too often He forgets restraint, and blinds us … ” Then again, Stout can be wonderfully dry, as when Paul opines, regarding the Incas’ probable cannibalistic diet, “There is nothing particularly revolting in the thought of being eaten; the disadvantage of it lies in the fact that one must die first … ” And still again, he can proffer a line of quiet wisdom, such as when Paul thinks “ … if, looking death in the face, a man can preserve his philosophy unchanged, he has made the only success in life that is worthwhile … ”
Still, successful as Under the Andes undoubtedly is, some small problems do crop up. Stout does offer up the occasional bit of bad grammar (as in “The light of the urns were now hidden from us … ”), and his descriptions of the underground caverns and passageways are sometimes (but only sometimes) difficult to visualize. Particularly hard to picture was the whirlpool sequence, but perhaps that is just me. I was also mystified as to why our two American heroes are so wont to use British slang expressions, such as “bally rot.” Too much time spent vacationing on the Continent, perhaps? Still, these are very minor matters in a book filled with so much action, suspense and wonder.
Further good news regarding this Armchair Fiction release is that it is practically devoid of the multiple typographical errors that had plagued several other of the publisher’s books in this LOST WORLD/LOST RACE series. I have purchased no fewer than 10 other titles in this tremendously fun bunch of vintage novels, and am hoping that they are all as thrilling, well written and typo-free as Rex Stout’s Under the Andes. Stay tuned…
“… super-wealthy dilettante scientist” told me immediately that this was a fantasy. The setting sounds just amazing.
If I were superwealthy, maybe I’d have time to dabble in science, too. Naaah….
I’ve had this one in my to-be-read pile for some time. Perhaps I should move it closer to the top. Thanks!
My pleasure, Becky. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did….
Misshapen Inca dwarfs living in underground caves in the Andes also appear in Øvre Richter Frich’s De udødelige dverge (The Immortal Dwarfs) written sometimes in the nineteen twenties.
A new one on me! Thanks, Tom!