Saturday, July 12, 2014

Too Many Cooks: Review

Of course, a hole in the ice offers peril only to those who go skating. (Nero Wolfe; p. 137)

The tag line on my edition of Rex Stout's Too Many Cooks (1938) says: Nero Wolfe steps out to dine with a dozen cooks and a killer. And "steps out" he does--out of the brownstone (which is a miracle in and of itself), into a train (a moving vehicle!), and out of New York State. He has been invited as an honored guest to attend the scheduled meeting of Les Quinze Maitres, the Fifteen Masters, a group of recognized, world-renowned chefs. When one of their number is killed by a fatal knife-thrust, Wolfe isn't interested. He's on holiday and the whole point of his holiday is to eat meals prepared by the world's greatest chefs, to deliver a speech, and, if possible, to persuade one of the masters to divulge his recipe for saucisse minuit (a fancy sausage dish). As Archie Goodwin says about Jerome Berin (the sausage man) and his colleagues, "These babies are famous. One of them cooks sausages that people fight duels over. You ought to see him and tell him you're a detective and ask him to give you the recipe. He'd be glad to." 

It begins to look like Berin may not be in a position to ever make his sausages again or give out his recipe. When fellow chef, Phillip Laszio is killed, Berin--having been the last one to see Laszio in the dining room--is immediately arrested by the local authorities for the deed. Wolfe works, out of friendship and obligation as a guest, to free the famous chef from an unjust imprisonment, but refuses to pursue the matter any further....Until the unwise villain decides to take a potshot at the detective, drawing blood from a head wound. From that moment on, all bets are off and Wolfe won't rest until he can expose the devil behind the disrupted dinner.

I have rarely enjoyed the Stout novels that have taken Wolfe and Goodwin out of their familiar brownstone background. The whole "fish out of water" scenario just generally doesn't work for me. But Too Many Cooks is a very nice exception. It makes a great deal out of the fact that Nero Wolfe is not where he ought to be and that he had to take a most uncomfortable mode of transportation to get there. It speaks to his love of good food that he would venture to take such a journey--just for the sake of dining with the great masters and the chance to wangle a much desired recipe out of its creator. It would seem that by making much of the situation, Stout has rendered it less of a problem for me.

The set up is superb and the clues are displayed ever-so-subtly so as to slip right by (at least they slipped right by me...). It was a joy to watch to solidification of the Wolfe/Goodwin relationship that is taken for granted in later novels. Archie is moving more evidently from "hired help" to trusted right-hand man. The wrap-up scene moves swiftly--it has to, Wolfe doesn't want to miss the train that will take him back to his familiar surroundings.

The iffy part of the book is a delicate subject--the racial slurs that are sprinkled far more liberally here than in any other Stout book I've read. Most of the wait staff and hotel underlings are African American. The book is set just barely in the South of the 1930s--so racial prejudice is certainly going to be evident and a product of the time and place. That doesn't make the use of the N-word any less jarring. To his credit, Stout has Nero Wolfe deal with the black employees in a quite even-handed manner. He insists--even when faced with the prejudice of a Southern sheriff--on addressing the men as equals (using "Mister" just as he would for any man) and giving them the respect and courtesy he would anyone else. Wolfe's treatment of these men underlines the unfair responses they generally receive. 

Overall, a highly satisfactory (a most Wolfe-like compliment) detective novel. Quite enjoyable--if one is prepared to take the time period on its own terms. ★★★

This fulfills the "Features Food/Cooks" square on the Golden Vintage Bingo card.


9 comments:

fredamans said...

I swear a lot, it's true, but the mixed race girl that I am might be upset if there is an excessive amount of racial slurs in this book. I think that alone has me steering clear of it. I appreciate you being honest though, great review!

Ryan said...

I wonder if I'll ever get around to reading the Rex Stout books that I have.

TracyK said...

This is one of my favorite Nero Wolfe books. I will have to reread it soon. Great review.

Major said...

I reviewed this book for the Mount TBR challenge

http://majoryammerton.blogspot.com/2014/04/cookin-with-nero.html

I think it's worth reading.

Major said...

I meant, Too Many Cooks is worth reading. Just shoot me....writing concisely sure is hard....how do people do that twitter thing anywho.......

Bev Hankins said...

Major: I don't even try to do the twitter thing. :-)

Les Blatt said...

Glad you enjoyed this one, Bev. I think it's one of the best of the early Wolfe books. As for the racial slurs, as you point out, Wolfe - and Stout - are clearly on the side of the angels here; those who use the slurs are clearly bigots and neither Stout nor Wolfe has time for bigots. I enjoyed the review.

Yvette said...

I'm with Les on this one. The slurs are slurred by bigots. Wolfe and Archie are NOT bigots. They are men of their time, true, but even so, Wolfe is no bigot and treats everyone the same (with respect) unless they prove to be the murderer.

I'm with you Bev on not liking the fish out of water books as much as I like those in which Wolfe stays in place at the brownstone.

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