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Too Many Cooks (1995)

Too Many Cooks (1995)
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Rating
4.1 of 5 Votes: 3
ISBN
0553763067 (ISBN13: 9780553763065)
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English
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bantam
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Too Many Cooks (1995)
Too Many Cooks (1995)

About book: Nero goes to West Virginia for a gourmet dinner. If you can swallow that one impossible premise, and some overt racist language and stereotypes, then this book is enjoyable and a certain classic of the Wolfe series. It is hard to discuss this book without addressing how remarkably different the world is since it was written. To the 21st century reader Stout seems to misstep badly when it comes to race and both Archie and Nero come off very badly in their conversations with the wait staff especially (this being the 1938 South, the wait staff are all Afro-Americans). In one section in particular the book seems to become a kind of diatribe that throws racial slurs at the reader more for shock value than purpose. That is where the book translates least well into the present, and where Stout's writing is both atypically tone deaf and off putting (if not offensive). The strange thing is Stout was trying to be racially progressive, and make both Archie and Nero appear so too. Consider the setting in West Virginia, the closest approach of the cultural Old South to New York City. Contrast the stereotypical knee-jerk racism of the local sheriff and his low opinions of the hotel staff on purely racial grounds to the courteous attitudes and respectful attention of Archie and Wolfe to those same men. Through Wolfe we discover that these are men of talent and intelligence; one is an accomplished chef in his own right and another is a student at Howard University. All of this is calculated to force a reader who might be seeing the all-black staff of the resort as a background to the story, as actual persons rather than as a skin color. Stout bothers to give more back story and dialogue to some of these men that we only meet for a few pages than he gives to the local District Attorney who is a major secondary character. In an age where going to college at all was a mark of achievement, he has a simple waiter attending the Harvard of the Negro community. And how Stout chooses to frame this episode is noteworthy as well. The prelude to Wolfe's meeting with the staff is a grotesque rant by the sheriff on the evils of the black race. Immediately afterwards Archie appears to take up this perspective himself, calling the hotel staff assembled in his room every racial epithet current in the late 1930s, starting with N* (I won't write it out but Stout does, often in this passage) in an obvious and conscious imitation of the sheriff, and then moving on to equally outrageous but equally common racial slurs (smokes, blackbirds, darkies...) while simultaneously treating them with respect and interest. Recall that this was written in 1938, when it was possible to publish an extended racially charged rant like the one both Archie and the sheriff embark on in a major family magazine without comment or protest. Those words and those images were an intrinsic and inescapable part of depression era culture. So Stout was trying to drive home a point to the reader that racism as evinced by the name-calling is actually much more than name calling, as evinced by Archie's approving notice of his guests even while he is calling them every nasty term he can think of, and a point that is then driven into the ground by Wolfe when he makes pronouncements like "You, gentlemen, are Americans, much more completely than I am, for I wasn't born here. This is your native country. It was you and your brothers, black and white, who let me come here and live, and I hope you'll let me say, without getting maudlin, that I'm grateful to you for it". The lesson ends, and Archie immediately ceases with the racially charged language.The purpose of this passage is clear; Stout was enunciating a position on racial relations that was remarkably progressive for 1938, was noted as such at the time, and is certainly not an obnoxious position today. Unfortunately his manner of making that position clear has aged extremely badly, especially since it comes across as patronizing and as if Stout/Wolfe have the ability to bestow dignity. Worse, Stout's thinking on Asians is not nearly as evolved as his position on the races, and coming in conjunction with Archie's racist language damns Stout's entire purpose to modern eyes. I have gone to these lengths because I am finding a number of reviews both here and around the internet where readers condemn this book for its apparent sympathetic racism, and while I agree that the racial language is over the top and repugnant, it was not intended to be approving. If this book offends you, I can understand why and to a degree agree. I am also not defending Rex Stout and this novel as a product of their time. So are Step-n-Fetchit films, and there is no justifying reason why anyone should be forced to watch them just for the sake of the few laughs they contain and a lesson on mid-20th century racial caricatures. No. Instead I merely want to explain this seemly bizarre and pointless racist interlude in the heart of one of Stout's best known and carefully written novels. Again, if you can swallow the impossible premise that a world class chef would choose to work in rural West Virginia, and get past the overt racist language and stereotypes, then this book is enjoyable and a certain classic of the Wolfe series.

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.First posted on my blog My Reader's Block. Please request permission before reposting. Thanks.
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Reviews
Stacey Becker
I wavered between two and three stars with this book. It's another I listed to on CD during my commute. The saving graces in the story for me was the sarcastic humor sprinkled throughout by Archie, Nero Wolfe's right hand man, and the ridiculous visual image that is brought to life of Nero Wolfe.Other than those two aspects, I found it a little dry and boring. Perhaps it would have been more interesting if I was a foodie, but alas: I'm a meat, potatoes, and ketchup kinda girl. I don't know that I've ever said this about a book before, but I think I would have preferred this visually...in a movie or mini series!
Geoffrey Feller
Nero Wolfe is notoriously agoraphobic; his normal method of solving crimes is to send his resident assisting detective Archie Goodwin to gather information and bring it back to the Manhattan brownstone in which Wolfe resides. The eccentric genius then solves the crime in his mind between tending his orchids in a rooftop greenhouse and dining on gourmet meals prepared by his personal chef. What would draw Wolfe from his lair and onto a train for a trip out of state? It's a conference of master chefs at a West Virginia resort and Wolfe is the guest of honor, set to deliver an address defending America's contributions to haute cuisine. Of course, one of the several arrogant and opinionated chefs is murdered during Wolfe's stay and he is persuaded to clear the name of the prosecutor's prime suspect. Wolfe is anxious to solve the murder so that he can catch the train that will take him back home. As usual with Rex Stout's series, "Too Many Cooks" is highly entertaining and readable. Published in 1938, the story's premise is amusing given the plethora of cooking competition shows; I'd love to see Nero Wolfe as a guest judge on "Top Chef"! But I was a little surprised at the way Stout addressed race relations of the period. Sure enough, the N-word is used with depressing frequency by some of the West Virginians, although this is surely true to life. Even Archie makes bigoted comments that must have seemed a lot milder to readers more than 75 years ago. However, Wolfe himself is respectful to the black characters (servants and cooks, of course) and never utters a derogatory term. If some of Wolfe's remarks on race seem condescending today, back then they were downright enlightened. The mystery itself was interesting and I was unable to guess who the murderer was before the revelation. This is a great series and "Too Many Cooks" is among the best of a fine lot.
Caryn-amy Rose
I've reread most of the Nero Wolfe series so often it's hard to pick apart any more, any more than I could give an unbiased critique of my first boyfriend. But this one has the duo on an adventure, with the requisite prickliness that comes from Wolfe being out of his element, a wide array of characters done in the usual outsize-yet-somehow-realistic wit Stout gives Archie to assess with. This book is both written and set in 1938. Particularly in this setup and story, the class and race backdrop involved, and the clean, constitutional handling of it, is a stark contrast to those of us living in a less logical and principled world. Finally, like all his books -- page-turning, witty, and more refreshing than mouthwash.
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