I have a rare congenital eye disease and I have been going to Moorfields Eye Hospital in London for – well, let’s just say over forty years – sometimes travelling a long way to get there. It is an excellent hospital with a world-class reputation and over the years I have spent an awful lot of time there both as an outpatient and an inpatient.
I had an appointment yesterday. I always take plenty to read. It is hard to do any work or to write up my journal with people sitting on either side of me in waiting room, so I always have at least one book with me and it is important to have the right book or books and a newspaper too. Sometimes it can be a long wait. On Friday I arrived at 8.40 and I wasn’t signed off by the clinic until 12. 00. The book that kept me company was Rex Stout’s The Black Mountain. It was a comfort to have old friends like Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin at my side.
Having said that, this is far from being Stout’s best book. It is one of the few occasions when Wolfe leaves the brownstone, in this case to go to his native country of Montenegro to track down the killer of an old friend. As soon as he and Archie leave the New York, the novel starts to go downhill.
There are some fictional detectives who are so closely associated with a particular location that it doesn’t feel right when they are transplanted to somewhere unfamilar. I am one of those who feel that Sherlock Holmes was not quite the same after he left London with its fogs and gaslight to retire to the Sussex Downs. I also prefer the Maigret novels set in Paris to ones that feature Maigret further afield. Similarly in the case of Rex Stout, I’m not reading just for the mystery, perhaps not primarily for the mystery, but to hang out in the brownstone on West 35thStreet. And it is not just Wolfe and Archie. It is the whole case of characters. In the kitchen Fritz is always cooking up a storm, Theodore is tending the orchids on the top floor, and any minute Inspector Cramer is likely to show up in a very bad mood.
It is comfort reading of the highest order and perfect for a hospital waiting room.