Under the Andes

January 13, 2011

So, obviously everyone’s had the experience of being in  dark room and not being able to see anything. And then after a few minutes your eyes adjust to the lack of light and you can see a little bit again, even if it’s just vague, dark shapes. But if you can see anything at all, that means that there is light coming from somewhere, even if it’s only a tiny little bit. Eyes do not function in the total absence of light.

There are a lot of things that drove me crazy about Rex Stout’s Under the Andes, but that was the worst. I mean, Rex Stout is supposed to be a genius. I can accept the nutty plot twists, because nutty plot twists are funny, but the way everyone kept being able to see in total darkness was even more infuriating than the bit where the narrator is like, “Oh! Inca knotted thread writing! I saw that in a museum once, so I can totally read it.”

The narrator is Paul Lamar, a wealthy, sophisticated New Yorker. His younger brother Harry runs off to Chicago with a French dancer called Desiree Le Mire, and Paul follows to keep an eye on them. The three of them travel to San Francisco together and end up wandering down the West Coast and into South America in a yacht, stopping at all the different towns to let everyone fall in love with Desiree, which everyone but Paul is happy to do. Apparently lots of titled Europeans have shot themselves over her. That gets mentioned a lot.

When they get to Peru, Desiree is seized with a desire to go mountain climbing. Also, she tells Paul she’s in love with him, and he’s as horrible about it as he can be, i.e. he laughs in her face and tries to kiss her. So when their guide shows them a mysterious cave from which no one has ever returned she immediately rushes in out of spite. And when she screams from inside the cave, Paul and Harry feel that they have no choice but to follow her. They run into the cave, and promptly fall into an underwater river, which carries them deep underneath the Andes.

They soon encounter the descendants of a lost tribe of Incas, who are tiny, dark-skinned and hairy, presumably so that we can’t forget how primitive and backwards they are. They can’t seem to speak or hear, and they somehow manage to remain relatively healthy on a diet made up entirely of fish. And although they can apparently see quite well in absolute darkness, despite, you know, science, they do keep some rooms lighted, including the royal apartments and a gigantic hall with a lake in the middle.

It’s when they arrive in this hall that they discover Desiree, dancing on top of a sparkly column, but they have to run away to avoid capture before they get a chance to communicate with her. Harry says:

Now, they must want us for something. They can’t intend to eat us, because there isn’t enough to go around. And there is Desiree. What the deuce was she doing up there without any clothes on? I say, Paul, we’ve got to find her.

Paul, by the way, has already concluded  that they’re  not going to be eaten, because descendants of the Incas can’t possibly be cannibals. This is one of many things that make sense in Paul’s world, but not in mine.

Finally they are captured and brought to the cave with the lake to be judged. Desiree has apparently been put in charge of their fate, and one of the Incas brings her some colored threads with which to communicate her decision. The idea that Paul can even see the things from halfway across the lake, let alone read them, is ridiculous, but he shouts to her that black means death, white means mercy, purple means reward, etc. This is my favorite bit, because Desiree is still angry about him trying to kiss her, so she chooses the black thread. Paul is appalled, and shouts some insulting things at her across the cavern until Desiree suggest flipping for it — we’re shown earlier in the book that tossing a coin is her usual way of making important decisions. She wins the toss, and Paul tells her so, which impresses her deeply, since she’s too far to see the coin herself, and he could easily have lied to her. So she changes her mind and chooses the purple thread. Paul attributes her change of heart to her appreciation of good sportsmanship, and also “the eternal mercy of woman.”

The rest of the book consists of Paul, Harry, and sometimes Desiree being chased around an endless network of caverns by the Incas. Sometimes they are captured. Sometimes they have a battle, which consists of large quantities of Incas hurling themselves at Harry and Paul and being slaughtered by the dozen, while the two brothers amass a number of scratches and one or two deeper wounds, which quickly heal as they hang out next to a lake or stream for a few days. Sometimes one of them gets a fever or an infection. Sometimes they use spears to kill enormous fish. Once the three of them get stuck in a cave with a gigantic reptile with glowing, hypnotic eyes. They frequently have nothing to eat for days, but somehow they’re always up for whatever physical challenges come along.

Eventually Paul falls in love with Desiree, but she gets killed shortly before they finally escape the caves. I suppose she wasn’t virtuous enough to survive: she spends most of the book topless, and also there are some fairly unsubtle implications that the Inca king has raped her. Paul and Harry return to New York and go back to their old lives, and Paul writes down the whole story, only to find that Harry doesn’t remember a bit of it, up to and including Desiree’s existence. There is no apparent reason for this.

So, yeah, a delightfully terrible book. I hope Rex Stout’s other early novels are equally ridiculous and embarrassing. I will be sadly disappointed if they’re not.



  1. I’ve never read any Rex Stout but have always meant to. You make this sound very attractive, so maybe I’ll give it a try!

    • Part of me wants to tell you to run to your nearest bookstore and pick up a few Nero Wolfe mysteries, but — no wait, that’s actually all of me. But part of me ALSO wants to say that this book might as well not be by the same person, so if you read Under the Andes, anyone who’s been trying to get you to read Rex Stout will still be trying to get you to read Rex Stout.

      • I’ve started reading it now and it’s the kind of improbable adventure story I really like. They’re just now starting up into the Andes. This is one of my right-before-I-fall-asleep books.

        • Just wait until you get to the interminable middle bit — then it will actually put you to sleep.

          • Okay, I finished it. You were right. I talked my sister into reading it too. One of her many degrees is in archeology and she’s always been fascinated with the Incas. She’s not speaking to me any more.

            • Oops. I have a feeling Rex Stout considered any actual facts about the Incas to be completely irrelevant.

  2. Wow. That book sounds absolutely ridiculous. It makes Nero Wolfe seem quite sane.

    • Hey. There’s nothing wrong with Nero Wolfe.

      • Sorry, I meant that in the best possible way! The few I’ve read were very good. He just always struck me as slightly odd (compared to, say Miss Marple), though Archie more than makes up for it.

        • Well, he’s definitely eccentric. But, I don’t know, that always struck me as a perfectly normal thing for a series detective to be. Probably the crazy things about Wolfe — and Archie — are part of why I like them so much.

  3. I couldn’t read this book–my brain would be pronouncing that name as DesEYEr LemEYEr. And that would be terribly uncomfortable after a while.

    • If it helps, her last name isn’t mentioned for, like, 90% of the book.

      But I kind of know what you mean.

  4. Having read this quite a while back I would steer anyone away from this book for a first exposure to the author. Mainly because it may cause someone to not give the outstanding Nero Wolfe stories a chance after such a bad taste.

    You know it was a pretty bad story when you are indifferent to the fate of the girl because of how she behaves. I was wondering just what the guy saw in her to go to such efforts.

    • There seemed to be no point to any of it, right? I mean, forget about the girl — every time Paul was like, “Come on, Harry, can we just kill ourselves already?” I was like, “YES. THAT. PLEASE.”

  5. Huh, neat, I hadn’t realized anyone else would be reading this this century! I feel more or less the same way–Nero Wolfe is brilliant and classic, and this was very strange, but goofy fun. When it wasn’t interminable. To your summary I would add mentin that they are ultimately save by a rock slide–none of the characters accomplishes much on their own. Except Desiree, perhaps…

    Also, I highly recommend SHE, by H. Rider Haggard (and I slightly recommend his King Solomon’s Mines). Both were clear inspirations for this, and both are much better.

    • I don’t know — I mean, they managed to build that raft. I don’t think they’re entirely useless. Just mostly.

      My dad went through a H. Rider Haggard phase a year or so ago, and I keep meaning to read something of his. You’ve just bumped it a spot or two up my reading list.

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