Tuesday Night Bloggers: Too Many Cooks (1938) by Rex Stout

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Bottle/ Glass for Drinking

TNB StoutToo Many Cooks (1938), the fifth novel in Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin series, has an unusual opening for two reasons. The first is that it begins with Goodwin apologising in a foreword for any mistakes he made in his record of French words used. Moreover, he also suggests that parts of the case or the narrative have been negated as he was unable to decipher the French phrases employed. I found this an intriguing opening for the potential it gave for having an unreliable narrator. The exposition of the story is also out of the ordinary because of one another thing… Nero Wolfe is outside his house! And not only that, he is on a train for a 4 day trip to a culinary convention called The Fifteen Masters, which is taking place at Kanawha Spa. Wolfe is to be an honorary guest, with the remaining members of the group being famous and celebrated chefs.

Too Many Cooks

However, Wolfe has an ulterior motive for altering his routine and that is to obtain one of the chef’s (Jerome Berin) secret sausage recipes. Berin is resolute on this point and refuses to divulge his secret, fearing that Wolfe is in the employ of Philip Laszio, another chef going to the convention and a deeply unpopular one due to his habit of stealing culinary secrets and people’s wives, namely Marko Vukcic’s, who is another chef guest. It is unsurprising that many within the culinary fraternity have threatened to kill Laszio. Goodwin is a good narrator for this type of story as he is able to recount events from a more outside perspective, as he is definitely an outsider at the spa and in turn he sees the other guests as ‘zoo’ animals. With frequent arguments, mainly involving Laszio, the reader is not astounded when Laszio’s wife, Dina tells Wolfe that someone tried to poison her husband by putting arsenic in a sugar shaker. The reader is even less perturbed when at the end of sauce testing challenge (run by Laszio), Wolfe finds his dead body behind a screen, with a knife in his back.

Suspicion falls on the final four sauce tasters, as it is from this point that characters noted that Laszio was seemingly not in the room. Within these final four there were Berin and Vukcic, men known for their animosity towards Laszio and this is good enough for Sheriff Pettigrew and prosecuting attorney Barry Tolman who focus most of their attention on these two people. However, within the required time frame there are several characters whose presence is not entirely accounted for and the fact that there were (at least by my reckoning), three doors into the room Laszio was killed in, means someone could have snuck into the room unobserved to do the murder. Wolfe is reluctant to get involved in the case (an attitude he frequently adopts before doing the exact opposite), mainly because he wants to be able to catch his planned train home. Yet, an early arrest, changes this slightly: Wolfe still plans to catch his train, but now plans to solve the case in the 28 hours he has left. No pressure then…

This is another novel from the Wolfe and Goodwin series where the issue of race crops up, a theme which I examined in a later novel, A Right To Die (1964), last week. Written nearly 30 years earlier, it is interesting to see the differences and similarities in how race is depicted in this novel. Many members of the spa staff are black and Wolfe is anxious to interview them when another witness says they saw a black man in the room Laszio was murdered. A key difference between this book and A Right To Die is found within Goodwin, who is much more racist in his language such as when he refers to the black staff members in the spa kitchen as ‘blackbirds,’ ‘Africans’ and ‘smokes’. Moreover, Goodwin is convinced that talking to the staff as a group will be ineffectual:

‘You’ve lost your sense of direction, honest you have. Africans or blackbirds or whatever you like, they can’t be handled this way. They don’t intend to tell anything…’

Goodwin goes on to ask, ‘Are you expecting me to use a carpetbeater on the whole bunch?’ All of which, contrasts with the Goodwin we find in the 1960s who is loathed to discriminate on skin colour and whose language avoids the non-politically correct terms mentioned above. Wolfe is on the whole still quite modern in his attitude towards race, despite using the term ‘coloured men’. When addressing all the kitchen staff Wolfe aims to talk man to man, on equal terms, stating that he won’t use threats, tricks or violence to get them to talk. In addition, he gives such a good speech advocating they should volunteer information, so as to not remain excluded from certain civic rights, that it is partially quoted back to him by one of the kitchen staff in A Right To Die.

The solution to the case is an interesting one and the getting of it even imperils our detecting duo. My main issue with the ending is how in the revelation scene, a certain character is given a means by Wolfe to avoid getting their full just deserts. Consequently I found this a bit annoying.

Gender, is also a problematic theme at times in the book such as in the beginning when Goodwin meets Berin’s daughter called Constanza, who begins being idolised and objectified by Goodwin who refers to her as ‘love’s dream’ and then ‘it’. She is then labelled as dangerous to male freedom and liberty, when Goodwin finds himself resenting another man looking at her leg:

‘I pulled myself together inwardly and considered it logically: there was only one theory by which I could possibly justify my resentment… and that was that the leg belonged to me. Obviously, therefore, I was either beginning to feel that the leg was my property, or I was rapidly developing an intention to acquire it. The first was nonsense; it was not my property. The second was dangerous, since, considering the situation as a whole, there was only one practical and ethical method of acquiring it.’

The passage begins with Goodwin almost becoming possessive over a woman he barely knows to then logically curing himself of his infatuation by suggesting that marriage was the only means of ‘acquiring’ Constanza, and of course marriage is akin to a trap and therefore a danger. Consequently she is finally portrayed as sly and sneaky in that she gets Tolman’s attention on the train by deliberately spilling her drink on him. I found this an interesting and telling trajectory, as it reveals Goodwin’s ambiguous and awkward attitude towards women. The danger associated with women is also indicated in the nickname Goodwin gives Dina which is ‘swamp woman,’ which reinforces the idea of women entrapping men.

Wolfe also maintains his usual negative and stereotypical attitude towards women, which is evinced when he describes Constanza as ‘hysterical,’ and then goes on to say ‘all women are. Their moments of calm are merely recuperative periods between outbursts.’ He also refers to women in the story as ‘astounding and successful animals,’ which firstly devalues women but also feeds into the theory of women being deceptive and predatory.

Overall I don’t think I enjoyed this book as much as A Right To Die, as the opening of the book was quite weak and tangential, at some points not making sense such as the hotel detective who throws stones at people and Goodwin’s inane conversation on the train to Constanza. I also didn’t find the beginning as gripping or as interesting as I would have liked. The plot does improve once Laszio dies but the ending did annoy me a little.

Rating: 3.5/5

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