Thursday, May 14, 2015

Rex Stout’s Too Many Cooks

Too Many Cooks was the fifth of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries, appearing in 1938. The most unusual feature of this novel is that none of it occurs in New York City. Considering that Nero Wolfe hates the idea of even leaving his house, much less the city, that is certainly rather startling.

What could have tempted the gargantuan detective away from his familiar West 35th Street brownstone? Only one thing - a meeting of Les Quinze Maîtres, a club comprising the world’s fifteen greatest chefs. They meet every five years and this year Wolfe, whose fame as a gourmet approaches his fame as a detective, is their guest of honour. Their 1937 meeting is to take place as Kanawha Spa in West Virginia, and it turns out that murder is likely to be on the menu! Philip Laszio is the most famous of the chefs, and the most hated. His fame has been based on the theft of recipes, the poaching of talented assistants and various other forms of chicanery. Virtually every member of Les Quinze Maîtres has a motive for murdering Philip Laszio.

Murder does indeed take place. Wolfe is not especially interested. He is offered very generous fees by several interested parties but to undertake the investigation might entail his having to stay in West Virginia for a few days, something Wolfe regards as a fate worse than death.

Fate will however (naturally) conspire to involve him in the case despite his best attempts to avoid it.

Archie Goodwin has of course accompanied Wolfe to Kanawha Spa. Which is just as well since the best thing about the Nero Wolfe books is the verbal sparring between Archie and Woolfe.

The presence of fifteen of the greatest living chefs, drawn from all parts of the civilised gastronomic world, adds a good deal of colour and also gives Wolfe the opportunity to instruct Archie in the proper appreciation of the culinary arts (which Wolfe regards as being far more important than such trivialities as literature, architecture of painting).

Rex Stout was a man of very decided political opinions. Thankfully these opinions did not intrude to any significant degree in the first four Nero Wolfe books but alas in this story he does become quite preachy at times. It’s not enough to wreck the novel but it is a little heavy-handed at times.

A theme that recurs constantly in 20th century American popular culture is the conflict between urban America and rural America. This generally takes the form of a contempt mixed with fear, almost to the point of paranoia, on the part of urban protagonists towards their country cousins. This theme plays a major role in Too Many Cooks. The inhabitants of West Virginia are almost without exception portrayed as stupid knuckle-dragging rednecks.  Stout was not himself city-bred but he certainly seemed to pick up an extraordinary animosity towards rural America. Or perhaps he simply loathed West Virginians!

Despite these authorial quirks this is an entertaining enough mystery and like all the Nero Wolfe tales it has plenty of amusing moments. 

While it seems to be very highly thought of I confess to preferring the earlier Nero Wolfe books such as The Red Box, The Rubber Band and The League of Frightened Men. While it’s fun seeing Wolfe taken out of his natural habitat the fact remains that New York, Wolfe’s brownstone and his orchid rooms are part of the package (in fact they are almost characters in themselves) that makes these books so delightful and their absence from this book is a slight weakness.


1 comment:

  1. I do like this book quite a lot, but Rex Stout is my favorite author so I am partial to all of them ... I must have liked this portrayal of the south and not found it too objectionable, even though I probably first read it when I was still living in Alabama. I have a lot of copies of this one but I don't think I have this mapback edition. I am going to have to look out for it.