In 1914, at the ripe old age of 28 - and two decades before he began the Nero Wolfe mysteries - Rex Stout wrote an adventure story, Under the Andes. The plot is familiar to any fan of H.R. Haggard and his ilk. Three companions venture someplace exceedingly awkward, find a "lost race", locate some missing treasure, deal with primitive customs (like human sacrifice) and eventually make their way home in some incredibly implausible way.
Most readers travel to Under the Andes from the expected direction: Nero Wolfe fans looking for another good mystery. The action-packed, over-the-top romp of Under the Andes is unsurprisingly, a disappointment to them. But approached from the opposite direction - say, you're someone with a self-destructive penchant for turn-of-the-century pseudoscientific adventures - it is easy to see that Under the Andes is one of the finest of its ilk - a "lost race" story carried by strong, interesting leads.
The primary protagonist is Paul Lamar, New York millionaire and well-respected man about town. He's also a bit of an insufferable cock - concerned about his reputation, obsessed with his status, repelled by the ideas of romanticism or - you know - enjoying life. His younger brother, Harry, is more vivacious - the gambling, loving, fighting type who throws himself into everything with great gusto. Between the two of them steps Desiree Le Mire - notorious dancer and the most beautiful woman in the world. Shimmering hair, pale skin (of course), blazing eyes and an utterly spoilt attitude. Harry falls for Desiree (who wouldn't, I guess...) and does his damndest to run off with her, much to Paul's chagrin.
Uncomfortable romantic pratfalls ensue. Paul catches up with the young lovers and insists on chaperoning them around the world - mostly to make sure that a) they don't marry and b) Harry doesn't kill himself when Desiree invariably dumps him. Things get more complicated when Desiree falls for Paul - apparently because the frozen-hearted Paul is the only man to never make a play for her. Allowing themselves to be led by Desiree's whims, the group gets further and further from New York - eventually winding up in South America.
Desiree insists on a bit of a hike, so the three adventurers wind up in the Andes. Their guide tells them the story of Atahualpa - the Incan king kidnapped by Pizarro. A group of trusted priests were bringing gold to ransom the king, but got frightened by the Spanish, and lost in the mountains. Foreshadowing duly accomplished, Desiree, Paul and Harry all fall down a hole.
From there, the fun really begins. Paul and Harry crawl around in the pitch darkness until they're captured by furry, stinky, mute dwarves - the descendents of the lost Inca priests. Desiree is caught separately and her gleaming white body is put on a pedestal (literally) by the degenerate Inca king. Although the three are happily re-united, the king is the jealous type...
The adventure is quite repetitive from this point onwards. The heroes repeatedly escape the subterranean Inca gollums only to be repeatedly recaptured. Their civilised wiles are always enough to slip through the traps of the primitives, but, simply put - they're under a big bloody mountain. There's nowhere for them to go. Although the Inca are no match for the Big Strapping White men, there's an infinite number of them - and their grimy king has a sinister intelligence of his own (plus an unhealthy lust for Desiree).
The "lost race" portion of Under the Andes is actually the least interesting part. Unlike the noble (if slightly dysfunctional) civilisations of H.R. Haggard, the trapped Inca are almost completely feral. Voiceless and cruel, the soldiers stumble through their daily routines of catching big cave fish, worshipping the (unseen) sun and then returning home to their shaggy wives. There's gold a-plenty, and some neat bits of stonecraft, but Mr. Stout glosses over the finer points of Inca society - the object of Under the Andes isn't discovery but escape.
In fact, the Inca barely crack the top five when it comes to enemies. The darkness is top of the list - Paul and Harry are frequently stumbling through pitch blackness, the horror of which Mr. Stout describes in loving detail. There's also a bizarre tentacle monster - half snake and half octopus with a hypnotic stare. It makes no sense, but is brilliantly written. The men keep assaulting it bravely then running away as swiftly as possible. An underground waterfall, a perilous climb or two - all these things make more interesting villains than the ramshackle remnants of a continental empire.
Harry - shallow, frivolous Harry - comes into his own under the Andes. He's driven, heroic and brave. Paul - formerly the leader of the group - comes undone. He's certainly intelligent enough, but his dispassionate, joyless demenour is ill-suited for the adventure ahead. Even selfish Desiree demonstrates a newfound bravery as the adventure continues. Her courage (and the fact that she's topless the entire time) is enough to melt Paul's frozen heart. So on top of the tentacle-monster, they're stuck dealing with a bit of romantic tension as well.
Despite being 97 years old, I'm not going to spoil the ending. Each of the party members is redeemed, the Andes are duly escaped and, to some degree, life goes on as before. A curious denouement also implies that the entire adventure was a dream sequence, or, as a more sinister interpretation, the story of a deranged mind (Paul is oddly reminiscent of Hildred Castaigne from Robert Chambers' "The Repairer of Reputations"). As enjoyable as that might be as a possible interpretation, the most fun comes from taking Paul's narrative at face value.
It ain't Nero Wolfe, but Under the Andes isn't supposed to be. It is a page-turning litany of action-packed woe about a group of people who refuse to give up hope, despite the overwhelming odds against them. Also, a hypno-eyed snaketapus.
[Editor's note: Under the Andes is free through Project Gutenberg. And out of copyright, so you can download it guilt-free. Enjoy!]