A couple of chapters into Too Many Cooks by Rex Stout, a woman named Dina Laszio, the wife of famed chef Phillip Laszio, comes to Nero Wolfe to say that she is afraid someone is trying to poison her husband. She knows Wolfe doesn’t owe her anything and probably doesn’t hold her in high regard, but in seeking his help she says, “I count on your sense of justice … your humanity … .”
Wolfe’s brusque reply is: “Weak supports, madam.” He continues by offering this typically jaundiced aphorism: “Few of us have enough wisdom for justice, or enough leisure for humanity.”
Indeed, one of the gifts which Rex Stout imparted to his creation, Nero Wolfe, was the gift for aphorism. And the one delivered there is in its way a wonderful summary of how he looks at things. He is a great detective, but he doesn’t see his role as setting the world right or solving everyone’s problems. He has a pronounced sense of his own flaws and of those things which make him ill-suited to the society of others, but he is not out to fix himself either. Rather, he endeavors to accommodate his kind of misanthropy by arranging his life in such a particular way that he deals with others only on his own terms and timing. He uses his skill as a detective to make a lot of money, and, occasionally, for pursuing an end when his own sense of self-respect is offended. He does the job, but he doesn’t credit even himself with “enough wisdom for justice,” which is a much purer concept, and certainly he does not consider that he has “enough leisure for humanity.”
Rex Stout’s series of Nero Wolfe books are so deeply beloved, I think, not because of brain-teasing mysteries—though the crime and mystery is the peg which holds the rest—but rather the pleasure of being immersed in Nero Wolfe’s beautifully constructed household and routine, and enjoying the interplay and competition between him and his assistant Archie Goodwin—the narrator—as well as the extended family of regulars, including Fritz the chef, Cramer the police inspector, and so on. Every day proceeds with its glorious routine of a superb breakfast, a trip to the plant rooms, a ride down the elevator to the office to read the mail and possibly conduct business, an invariably wonderful lunch, another trip to the plant rooms, another interval in the office for business, an always-remarkable dinner, and then one final possibility for interviewing suspects/witnesses/clients in the office before bed. Wolfe never leaves his house for business (at least that is his rule), and rarely for pleasure, as he as arranged all of his pleasures so close at hand: his food, his orchids, his books and his beer.
When such a structured way of life for one’s characters is established and made familiar, it then creates the opportunity to have fun with “fish-out-of-water” scenarios, and Rex Stout certainly did not shy away from that approach during the thirty-three odd novels (and even more novellas and shorts) in the series. Too Many Cooks is one of the greatest and most enjoyable of these stories where Wolfe leaves home. In this case, the trip is to North Carolina, and a gathering of great chefs to which he has been invited. Even in this, he has a more self-serving motive: he wants the recipe from one of the chefs—Berin—for a spectacular kind of sausage he tasted once as a young man and never forgot.
Naturally, the most dangerous place for anyone to be is in the vicinity of a great detective on vacation, and sure enough there is a murder, and sure enough Wolfe solves it and gets paid in his chosen manner.
Another gift Stout gave to Nero Wolfe was the gift for making speeches: these are actually beautifully composed discourses of logic and persuasion, with, at times, the correct amount of intimidation thrown in. Since Wolfe doesn’t run around town pushing people against walls and pummeling them (though occasionally Archie has to expend physical energy on that level) it is his verbal dexterity which he must employ in order to get what he wants from the witnesses, the suspects and even at times the clients. Too Many Cooks contains more than its fair share of wonderful speeches and arguments from Wolfe, and features one classic example in particular. The book is set in the pre-WWII South (the time contemporary to its writing, as always with Rex Stout) and the resort where Wolfe and the motley crew of great chefs are staying is staffed by a large number of black employees. The straightforward racism of many of the whites who are running things there is made quite clear in the narrative. What we’re only allowed to characterize now as “the n-word” is liberally strewn around. Archie, for his part, doesn’t join in with that, but does take a pragmatic or cold-eyed approach when vital information related to the murder is needed from the black employees; he believes that the local sheriff is best prepared to deal with them (he alternately uses his seemingly-self-invented colloquialisms of “blackbirds” and “Africans”) and he thinks that Wolfe would be only wasting his time getting involved. Wolfe, unperturbed, proceeds in his own style. He invites all fourteen relevant staff to his hotel room, learns their names and details of their personal lives, serves them drinks, and then begins a process of speechifying, charming, persuading and interviewing that goes on for seventeen pages. In the end, his aim is to overcome what he thinks is a desire on their part to protect the identity of a fellow black man, but ironically he gets the information he wants when one of the waiters can no longer abide that (false) premise and interrupts to set the record straight. Yet, ultimately, whether Wolfe has enough “leisure for humanity” or not, the point he is actually establishing is that it’s more productive to treat people respectfully and as individuals than merely as “types” and through brutish tactics.
It is strange to laud the entertainment-value of a detective novel by lifting up the tendency of a character to give long speeches, but that’s how it is with Nero Wolfe: his speeches are delightfully-constructed exercises in the English language, and his well-established personality injects ample humor to such scenes, abetted by Archie’s skepticism and—in his role of narrator—his sharp observance of the response coming from the audience Wolfe is addressing.
There’s more to Too Many Cooks than those speeches, of-course. There is the fun of Nero Wolfe engaging in travel and his behavior on the train. There are the relatively well-drawn and enjoyable personalities of the various eccentric chefs in this story, and there is even an occasion in the plot for Wolfe to get shot; this is for him an exceeedingly rare bit of physical entanglement in the proceedings. And as always, there is the fun and tension of the relationship between Wolfe and Archie, and here is where Too Many Cooks is, I believe, fairly crucial to the whole series.
It is the fifth in the series, preceded by Fer-de-Lance, The League of Frightened Men, The Rubber Band and The Red Box. In those earlier books, the relationship between Wolfe and Archie was not precisely what it ended up being for the rest of the series. Specifically, Stout seemed unsure how impressive a person Archie Goodwin needed to be. Later there would always be a kind of rivalry, mutual tweaking, and attempts to one-up one another, but in those earlier novels there is a certain level of disrespect from Wolfe towards Archie, which can be jarring to encounter. Wolfe would always be the boss, but at times in those first few books it seemed Archie was being treated a little bit too much as the hired help. That dynamic changes for good with Too Many Cooks, and I think the change in geographic location had a lot to do with it. Wolfe, off-balance (literally and figuratively) due to the traveling, is more dependent on Archie in this story, and Archie thereby becomes a little more commanding and worthy of respect. Also, while Archie Goodwin’s back-story has him born in Ohio, it is ironically in leaving New York City on this excursion to the South with Wolfe that he grows a little bit more into the sophisticated New York private-eye that he ultimately is. I think Stout just went with these subtle changes as he was writing, but that he liked the new dynamics better, and this may also explain why in the very next novel (1939′s Some Buried Caesar) he once again takes Wolfe and Archie out of New York City.
It’s odd, I admit, to consider a single Rex Stout book in terms of its quality relative to others; there are strong enough commonalities to all the Nero Wolfe novels that we tend to think of the whole body of work rather than singling out particular books. However, I think Too Many Cooks would have to rate in the top five of the entire series, from the opening where Archie saunters with a cigarette on the platform at Penn Station while Wolfe yells from within the train, to the end when Wolfe finally manipulates and/or bullies his way to getting the precious recipe that he went all the way to North Carolina to obtain. Each page sparkles with the charm and verve of Rex Stout’s writing at its best. As Nero Wolfe novels go, it is as close to a masterpiece as one can get, and that’s saying quite a lot.
Rating: Nine and a half out of ten lead pipes.