Saturday, November 7, 2009

Too Many Cooks

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Too Many Cooks (Farrar & Rinehart, 1938).

Well, the first thing that crosses my mind to tell you about the fifth Nero Wolfe novel is not to read the thing on an empty stomach. In it, Wolfe reluctantly agrees to leave the comfort of the Brownstone to deliver a speech about the greatness of American cooking to the members of les Quinze MaƮtres, the world's greatest chefs, who meet every five years to sample each other's creations and elect new members to replace those who've passed away between meetings. This year, the group is meeting at Kanawha Spa, near Quinby, West Virginia, and Wolfe elects to travel by train for a deeply amusing personal reason: he hopes to persuade one of them to cough up a closely-guarded recipe. (Neither the spa nor the town really exist, but Wikipedia suggests it is based on the world-famous Greenbrier, which is near Quinwood.)

Each of Stout's novels seem to revel in the rich accounting of the greatness of amazing food, and this one really goes, delightfully, overboard. I read a chapter or two on Thursday while waiting for a friend to join me for lunch at a favorite restaurant here in Atlanta and was about ready to kill somebody myself if he didn't hurry the heck up and arrive so we could eat. Speaking of which, yes, somebody gets knocked off in short order, in a "locked room"-style killing, but the group doesn't really pause, and certainly doesn't cancel their meeting like us 21st Century sissies probably would. In the thirties, real men didn't let things like murder get in the way of amazing meals.

This brings me to the second thing that comes to mind, and that's the problem of reading a book written in the thirties, set in rural West Virginia, with a truly unfortunate and dated attitude towards race. It is so prevalent in this book that it gave me pause on many occasions, and you expect going in that some hick sheriff of the period is going to be a bigoted jerk to all the spa's staff. Yet it's simply a little heartbreaking to read Archie Goodwin, our hero and the man with the wittiest narration and quickest, most delicious comebacks in fiction, repeatedly reveal himself to be just as casual in his use of vulgar racial epithets as every character in the book. I cannot reveal how, but when cold cream, gloves and burnt cork make a vital appearance in the narrative, it becomes apparent why the producers of the terrific TV series earlier this decade, the one with Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton, never dared dream of adapting this one under any circumstances.

As for Wolfe, well, he's a condescending bully to absolutely everybody as usual, so you might not mind his talking down, tactlessly, to a group of the spa's servants assembled in his room. Stout, unsurprisingly, attempts to show a sympathetic edge under Wolfe's smug, superior tone by revealing that Wolfe is familiar with the works of the poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar - Dorothy Sayers occasionally employed the same sort of trick to suggest Lord Peter Wimsey wasn't quite as unbearable as his class and position would otherwise make him - but the stunt is revealed by its response - the educated man falls for it - to be part of the same risible, painful attitude that infests the book. I read a Buddy Bradley story from the mid-80s last month where the character tried to claim he wasn't a racist because he liked Jimi Hendrix and was instantly shown up by the other fellow. It's the same argument; that Stout allowed Wolfe to get away with it will remain with me far longer than the details of the murder.

Well, that and Archie charming his way into a European girl's graces with some improvised muck about horses and mares. There's always a lot to love in a Nero Wolfe novel; sadly this one comes with a considerable amount to loathe as well.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this, Grant. Some members of the Nero Wolfe fan club went to the Greenbrier in 2007 and arranged for the chef to make the same two dinners described in the book. We all had a wonderful time there.

I generally agree with your assessment of Too Many Cooks. I often tell people that this definitely should NOT be the first Wolfe book they should read. The racist language is a real turn-off, even when you remember that it was written in the 30's. I didn't find Wolfe's speech to the "help" as condescending as you did, considering how most white folks would have handled that situation back then. But it's a hard story to defend, and I hope that anyone who reads it will give Stout's other Wolfe stories (ANY other of his, for that matter) a chance.

Lance R.

Grant, the Hipster Dad said...

Holy anna, that sounds like the neatest trip ever. I'm only five books in, but I don't suppose that Nero Wolfe fandom has many opportunities for group outings like that! I don't know when the heck we'll find the time for another trip to West Virginia, but who knows, maybe we can celebrate me finishing the canon one day with an order of saucisse minuit...?

Man, I really need to not think about Nero Wolfe recipes when I'm an hour away from a long overdue lunch...