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4Sep/110

Book Review: Too Many Cooks

In the first three Nero Wolfe books, Rex Stout firmly established that Wolfe rarely leaves the house. From 1937-46, Wolfe was routinely pushed out of the Brownstone by Stout with only two stories in this period allowing him to stay homebound:

  • The Red Box (1937) sent Wolfe to a clothing store to question witnesses at the behest of a client and peers in the orchid community.
  • Some Buried Caesar (1939) had Wolfe head upstate to put his orchids on display at an exposition.
  • Where There's a Will (1940): had Wolfe visit a client's house.
  • Black Orchids (1942) was the first novella collection and  saw Wolfe heading out to another flower show where a murder occurred in the first of two stories.
  • Not Quite Dead Enough (1944) featured Wolfe leaving the Brownstone in both novellas.
  • The Silent Speaker (1946): Wolfe goes to police headquarters to report to an inspector who replaced Cramer on a case.

However, it wouldn't be until the 1950s that  Wolfe was pulled as far from his home as in Too Many Cooks which sees Wolfe boarding a train to attend a convention of famous cooks in a West Virginia resort town where Wolfe had been invited as a guest of honor to speak about American contributions to fine dining. One of the great cooks, Philip Laszio is despised by his fellows for stealing recipes and for a Machivellian rise through the culinary world, and is killed with suspicion falling on the other cooks.

A wet behind the ears prosecutor asks for Wolfe's help in the case. When one of Wolfe's suggestions leads to the imprisonment of  a prestigious chef , Wolfe has to set to work to find out what happened.

This book introduced Wolfe's lifelong friend, Marco Vukcic, the owner of Rosterman's as a character. Vukcic served as a humanizing force on the Wolfe character. Vukcic was one of the few people to call Wolfe by his first name. Wolfe's sentiment for Vukcic is in full force when he's confronted by the widow of the murdered man (who was Vukcic's ex-wife) and Wolfe delivers a classic smackdown for  her ruthlessness.

Even involved in the stereotypically genteel world of cooks, there are risks. At one point in the course of his investigation, Wolfe ends up getting shot.

One controversey that surrounds the book is the use of racial epithets. This  is, after all, the South in the 1930s, and it sounds it. There are about a dozen or so uses of the "N-word" and Archie uses a only slightly less offensive term a couple of times. So, it's hardly at the Huckleberry Finn level of racial language, but like Mark Twain, Stout had a point.

Of course, this is a detective book, so the points couldn't be too fine or too preachy, and whatever point he'd have to make would have to tie in to the story. On these points, Stout succeeded. Wolfe has reason to believe that the staff know who committed the crime after hearing from a relucant witness that the killer was black.

Wolfe decides to bring the staff up into his suite for questioning. Archie thinks the entire excercise will be a waste of time, as they cops hadn't gotten anything out of them and that Wolfe wouldn't know how to communicate with blacks.

Wolfe begins his session by humbly expressing his gratitude to the men for the privilege of being able to come to America. He then learns the men's names and refers to them by their proper names unless otherwise requested. In other words, Wolfe treated them with the same courtesy and respect that he initially gives to everyone he questions. And through that, Wolfe is eventually able to get their help.

What Stout communicates to a segregated America is that the way to live together in harmony is to treat every person with equal dignity, and judge them on their character.  As Wolfe says, " ... the ideal human agreement is one in which distinctions of race and color and religion are totally disregarded." It's very powerfully done and not disruptive to the story.

Too Many Cooks is not without its flaws. The first few chapters drag a bit. However, the biggest weakness of the story is that Wolfe dominates the story line to such an extent that there's really not a whole lot for Archie to do.

Outside of a couple scenes on the train to and from New York, the action is confined to the resort, probably within a couple hundred yards of Wolfe's room. Archie is usually the focal point of the investigation with a lot of action and runing errand. Here Archie is more reactive and doesn't even get off many good lines of dialogue. Archie is about as useful and important to the plot as Captain Hastings in a Poirot book. Wolfe's next novel also took Wolfe away from the Brownstone in, Some Buried Caesar, but in that one, Stout wisely gave Archie a lot more play.

While I can't say it's a criticism, the story points to an inconsistency in the Wolfe universe. In Too Many Cooks, Wolfe prepares and delivers a lengthy speech (not fully included) on American contributions to fine dining, and at the final banquet, an all American gourmet dinner is served. Twenty years later in The Next Wintess, Wolfe commends chili as  "One of the few contributions America has to world cuisine."   One wonders why Stout changed Wolfe's mind on this point, or if Stout simply forgot Wolfe had delivered a stirring defense of American contributions to cooking.

The book also includes the recipes for the All-American gourmet meal, the preparation  of which is beyond my simple talents. (If you have cookied the recipes in this book, please share your experience in the comments.)

Overall, Stout prepared a very good recipe in Too Many Cooks, although it could have used a dash or two more of Archie Goodwin action.

Overall, I'll give it a:

Rating: Satisfactory

You can find all the Nero Wolfe books in Kindle, Audiobook, and book form on our Nero Wolfe page.

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