Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Too Many Cooks: Rex Stout

The Tuesday Night Bloggers is a group of crime fiction fans who choose an author every month to focus on. The first month they covered Agatha Christie, then moved on to Ellery Queen and in December, Ngaio Marsh. This month the author of the month is Rex Stout and I have decided to join in. My topic will be Too Many Cooks, the fifth book featuring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Rex Stout is most well known for the Nero Wolfe series, although he did write other series and stand alone books.

Overview of the Nero Wolfe series

Copying from some of my earlier posts about Rex Stout's works, here are some facts about the series and some of my opinions.

Rex Stout wrote 33 novels and 41 novellas about the private detective Nero Wolfe and his assistant, Archie Goodwin. The novellas are published in 14 books; each book has two, three or four novellas. The series began in 1934 and the last book in the series, A Family Affair, was published in 1975, shortly before Stout's death. Over the forty plus years this series was published, the protagonists did not age at all, but they were always placed within the context of the time that the book was written.

Nero Wolfe is a genius, a lover of orchids and fine food, who supports himself (and his household) as a private detective. Archie Goodwin, the narrator of the stories, is both his assistant and a private investigator, and he does most of the legwork. They live in a New York brownstone and share the house with Theodore, the plant expert, and Felix, Wolfe's cook. 

What I love about these stories is primarily (1) Archie's telling of the story and (2) the relationship that Archie and Wolfe have developed over time.  Like many fans of this series, I have reread all the books multiple times, and in most cases when I read them now, I know who the perpetrator is.  Thus I am not reading the books for the resolution of a crime but to enjoy the time with my favorite characters.

The Nero Wolfe stories can be roughly divided into those in which Nero stays in his home and Archie does the legwork and those in which Nero leaves home based on some necessity or desire. Almost always, when Wolfe leaves his home, he makes the decision freely, yet he is still not happy with the results. Thus he is a trial to Archie, with his complaining and extra demands. 

Too Many Cooks

Wolfe has been invited to attend a gathering of Les Quinze Maitres (The Fifteen Masters, a group of well-known chefs around the world) and deliver an address at one of the dinners. The gathering is at the Kanawha Spa in West Virginia. One of the members of the group who has alienated many of the members is killed during a competition among the chefs. Wolfe has no desire to get involved in the investigation, but in the end he does, of course.

What do I love about this book, besides the interplay between Wolfe and Archie? One, it starts and ends with a train ride. Two, the focus is on food and specifically gourmet meals. Wolfe's two loves are fine food and orchids, and very often the focus is on the orchids. I liked this book being totally focused on food and chefs.

To get from New York to the Kenawha Spa, Archie and Wolfe are on the train overnight.  I always like mysteries set on trains but in this case there is the added humor afforded by Wolfe's reaction to riding in any vehicle and especially one not controlled by Archie. The book features one of Wolfe's weaknesses: his fear and dislike of leaving his home and the discomfort he feels when taking any mode of transportation. 

As the story begins, Wolfe is on the train, and is exhorting Archie to get on the train with him. Archie ignores him.
I sauntered on. Tickets my eye. It wasn't tickets that bothered him; he was frantic with fear because he was alone on the train and it might begin to move. He hated things that moved, and was fond of arguing that nine times out of ten the places that people were on their way to were no improvement whatever on those they were coming from. But by gum I had got him to the station twenty minutes ahead of time, notwithstanding such items as three bags and two suitcases and two overcoats for a four days' absence in the month of April, Fritz Brenner standing on the stoop with tears in his eyes as we left the house, Theodore Horstmann running out, after we had got Wolfe packed in the sedan, to ask a few dozen more questions about the orchids, and even tough little Saul Panzer, after dumping us at the station, choking off a tremolo as he told Wolfe goodbye. You might have thought we were bound for the stratosphere to shine up the moon and pick wild stars.
One of the reasons Wolfe has been persuaded to venture from his home and submitted himself to the train trip is to seek out the recipe for Saucisse Minuit, a secret recipe for a very special sausage invented by one of the Quinze Masters, Jerome Berin. He begins working on extracting the recipe from Berin on the train trip to the resort, to no avail.

This book introduces Marko Vukcic, Wolfe's old friend, who owns and runs a restaurant in New York, and is a member of Les Quinze Maitres. Stout does a marvelous job of creating in-depth characters. Marko was once married to Dina Laszio, the wife of the chef who was murdered. The reader can feel the depth of the friendship between Wolfe and Marko as they argue about her mesmerizing effect on Marko.

This has long been a favorite book, but it is somewhat controversial. Many readers object to the language in the book. It is painful to read some of the language used when talking about or addressing black people in this book, but the terms were usual for the time the book was written and the setting in West Virginia. The dialogue would have been unrealistic for the time if it had been cleaned up. I did personally have some objections to Archie's language about various ethnic groups.

The only other negative in this story from my point of view is the lack of my favorite auxiliary characters. We don't get the usual interactions with Fritz and Theodore, and the freelance operatives that work for Wolfe on occasion. I also miss Inspector Cramer and his subordinates, who often are involved in the investigations one way or another when the cases are in New York. This is a minor quibble of course. Saul Panzer, the operative most used by Wolfe, is called in to help with gathering some information and evidence.


Publisher:  Pyramid Books, 1963. Orig. pub. 1938.
Length:     190 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Nero Wolfe, #5
Setting:     West Virginia
Genre:       Mystery
Source:     I purchased my copies.


Clothes In Books said...

So glad you are joining us for Wolfe Month Tracy. This one sounds great - I have heard of it but not read it, and will add it to my list.

TracyK said...

I wish I could be reading some of these for the first time, Moira. An interesting point about this one is that one of the black characters is a prominent character in another Nero Wolfe story nearly thirty years later (A Right To Die, 1964). My post is very lengthy and there is so much more I could have said.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for joining us for Rex Stout January! There are a couple of editions of this book that contain the recipe for, among a few other things, saucisse minuit -- not the Pyramid edition you used, as I recall, but certainly in the Dell mapback you show. The editions with the recipes are harder to come by ... I won't be making saucisse minuit any time soon LOL, but it's nice to know I could if I wanted to!

TracyK said...

Noah, The recipes at the end of the book was one of the things I neglected to mention. I was just running out of steam. The Dell mapback does have the recipes. I read 1/3 of the book using the Pyramid edition, then gave up on that one because the print was too light. I moved on to an omnibus edition containing Too Many Cooks, and it also had the recipes included.

Cath said...

I planned to read this for the Vintage crime challenge two years ago and never did get to it. As I'm doing it again this year I might well read this as it sounds fun.

TracyK said...

I do hope you like it, Cath. And I will be eager to hear what you thought of it, either way.

Anonymous said...

I found this a really interesting book, Tracy, not least because it show Wolfe outside his usual environment. That alone got my attention. I agree with you that the 'regulars' such as Fritz add so much to the Wolfe stories. Still this is a good 'un with a solid mystery in it. And Archie. ;-)

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Nice piece and review, Tracy. After reading Moira's review of a Rex Stout novel, previously reviewed by you, I'm really keen to read at least one novel by the author, to start with.

col2910 said...

I love your enthusiasm for the Wolfe books Tracy. I'll eventually get around to dipping my toes into the series at some point.

Cath said...

So here's a strange thing... I'm reading Books to Die For, John Connolly's book of famous authors recommending their favourite crime novels. And the one I got to today was someone (I forget who) recommending Too Many Cooks. Life is odd sometimes...

TracyK said...

That is funny, Cath. I even saw on Goodreads that you had added Books to Die For. I have that book, have read portions of it, but had forgotten that Too Many Cooks was covered in that book.

TracyK said...

I like the books where Wolfe and Archie leave their home, Margot, but I do miss all the other characters. But it does provide some variety. Not that I ever saw the Nero Wolfe series as formulaic.

TracyK said...

Prashant, I am sure you enjoy reading a Nero Wolfe book, and everyone should try at least one.

TracyK said...

Thanks, Col, I cannot contain my enthusiasm for the Wolfe series. I have tried to think of a good one for you, but none of them are very gritty. I think you said you had Over My Dead Body, which I do like (of course). The only one I can think of with actual semi-thrillerish type activity was The Golden Spiders. There is a gunfight and thugs who are pretty threatening.

Graham Powell said...

When I first read TOO MANY COOKS, I actually got angry at some of the language used by Archie and the local police, but it's clearly a setup. Later in the book Wolfe treats the black staff as equals, even pointing out that one of them is "a college man", and rebukes the casual racism of the other characters.

TracyK said...

I agree, Graham. I cannot remember how I reacted when I first read this book forty or more years; possibly it was clear to me that Wolfe's behavior makes up for any discomfort with the other characters' behavior.

Mathew Paust said...

I'm in complete sympathy with your preference of characters over plot puzzles, Tracy. Characters and voice trump pretty much everything else for me. I haven't read Rex Stout in ages, and I just now realized I miss those old boys, too.

TracyK said...

I don't know why I have always loved those characters. Archie is sexist, Wolfe is a misogynist (mostly). The books do have some decent female characters sometimes, although not usually prominent ones. Nevertheless, I still can reread these books over and over.