Too Many Cooks
by Rex Stout

Review by
Robert W. Franson
& Jennifer M. Franson

a Nero Wolfe & Archie Goodwin mystery

Farrar & Rinehart: New York, 1938
279 pages + 23 pages of recipes

Collins: London, 1938
279 pages + 23 pages of recipes

collected in —

Kings Full of Aces

May 2011

Tantalizing dishes, failures of tone

Wolfe pointed a finger at him. "The gastronome's heaven is France, granted. But he would do well, on his way there, to make a detour hereabouts. I have eaten Tripe a la mode de Caen at Pharamond's in Paris. It is superb, but no more so than Creole Tripe, which is less apt to stop the gullet without an excess of wine. I have eaten bouillabaisse at Marseilles, its cradle and its temple, in my youth, when I was easier to move, and it is mere belly-fodder, ballast for a stevedore, compared with its namesake at New Orleans! ..."

Too Many Cooks is an oddly seasoned novel in the generally excellent Nero Wolfe & Archie Goodwin mystery series by Rex Stout.

First, there is a change of venue, from their standard base in the old brownstone house in New York City, to a resort in West Virginia, the Kanawha Spa. Here is to be a gathering of a small club of master chefs from around the world, and Wolfe is an invited and respected guest. While plot reasons presumably dictated a setting in the South or near-South, the resort (generally thought to be based on The Greenbrier at White Sulphur Springs) is not well-characterized otherwise.

Second, and far more significant, is a change in tone from their standard at home. Weirdly, this change is in the direction of racial insensitivity. Racial and ethnic slurs casually tossed into conversations could have authorial justification from trying to depict attitudes of the place and the era. What is really damaging is that the thoughts of the narrator, Archie Goodwin's internal commentary as well as his spoken words, have fallen off a sensitivity cliff. He speaks and thinks as though he never met black people in New York, and on one occasion even is startled to see some that were coming for an appointment. This is ridiculous. For frosting, there's some carelessly stupid labeling of Asians. All this feels entirely out of character with the Goodwin we see in previous and following stories, and any reader of the novel when it was new, or later, is likely to be confounded by it; even for a reader already familiar with the series, the racial tone is off-putting at best.

We're not talking political correctness here. Even Mark Twain's humane and thoughtful 19th-Century masterpiece, Huckleberry Finn, has been charged with insensitive words by modern readers more sensitive than subtle, and ill-informed of the cultural forces working within history. Too Many Cooks goes out of its way to make some of its characters, and even its narrator, annoyingly offensive. The racial slurs are jarring; they distract, and therefore detract, from the story.

Is this justified by the plot? We can see what Stout might have had in mind, but it really isn't necessary. In fact, after a certain point in the novel, all the epithets drop away, out of speech and out of Archie's narrative. No leaf of conscience is turned over, apparently just that Stout reckoned the point had been made and there was no further need. This is a failure of consistency within a novel which itself has a tone inconsistent with the rest of the series; or, if you like, the latter part of the book has an unheralded return to normalcy. In fact, the black characters in the novel are treated by Stout with respect and portrayed with individuality.

That aside, both Wolfe and Goodwin seem rather over-rattled by their train journey, over-acting as though they're a little tipsy from the motion, or Stout is. They settle down somewhat but not entirely during their stay at the resort. The plot turns out to be rather good, with interesting characters including a plethora of suspects.

On the positive side of the ledger, Wolfe's beloved haute cuisine takes the spotlight in Too Many Cooks. In fact, Wolfe's willingness to help unravel the mystery is motivated in large part by his desire to acquire a coveted sausage recipe, and a taster's trial of sauce ingredients forms an important plot point. Mouth-watering descriptions of the master chefs' various specialties abound. Best of all, Stout includes the recipes for many of these dishes in a special section at the end of the novel; many readers will find this to be the highlight of the book.

On balance, a good story: but definitely not one to begin your Wolfean reading.


© 2011 Robert W. Franson
& Jennifer M. Franson

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