Monthly Archives: February 2013

Too Many Cooks Rex Stout Nero Wolfe

Too Many Cooks (a Nero Wolfe novel) by Rex Stout

Review of Too Many Cooks Nero Wolfe by Rex StoutA 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. Continue reading Too Many Cooks (a Nero Wolfe novel) by Rex Stout

The Cinch Review

Spontaneous human combustion in Oklahoma?

Spontaneous human combustion theorized by sheriffA local sheriff in Sequoyah County, Oklahoma, is seriously investigating the possibility that a 65-year-old man died as result of spontaneous human combustion. A neighbor saw smoke coming from the door to the man’s home. The body is said to have been not only burned but “incinerated,” while there was no damage to the house or furniture.

Well, I introduced my theory on this subject a few weeks ago. My paper is still awaiting peer review. The question is: Could this man’s life have been saved by a thirty dollar humidifier?

I know: it’s not quite fitting to joke about a man’s death. May he rest in peace, and may those who loved him be comforted. Yet, this kind of thing is so bizarre that one feels that there is maybe a little leeway for levity.


And then, there is also always the possibility that my theory is right, and I therefore have an obligation to promote it in the name of saving someone’s life.

Well, excuse me, I think that it’s getting time to go fill up that humidifier again.

Tower of Song Tom Jones

Tom Jones and a Towering “Tower of Song”

ReviewScheduled for release on April 23rd in the U.S. (on Rounder Records) is a new album from Tom Jones, titled Spirit in the Room. It was released on the other side of the pond last year. I confess I’ve only just become aware of it, and that was through my encountering on YouTube the video for Tom Jones’ rendition of Leonard Cohen’s great old tune “Tower of Song,” which is the first track on the album.

This is one of those cases where yours truly tries not to come across too hyperbolic and breathless, but, frankly, hearing Tom Jones’ performance of this song left me simultanously devastated and delighted. It’s one of those musical moments I would compare to tripping over a bag in the street stuffed with two million dollars in unmarked bills, and making it all the way home with it safely. Those are the good days. If you have not heard it, do take a listen to it via the embedded YouTube clip here and I’ll say a few more words of my own about it below.

(A side-note: Many other artists ought to watch that clip and learn that there are ways to make videos that neither detract nor distract from the song. Kudos to the director, one Paul Caslin.)

The song was first recorded by Leonard Cohen on his great 1988 album I’m Your Man. Leonard’s version features a sparse kind of piano/synth arrangement, with backing singers, distinctly low-budget but witty. Yet Tom Jones’ stripped-down rendition makes Cohen’s seem exceedingly ornate by comparison.

To me, at least, Tom Jones’ version of “Tower of Song” is one of those revelatory performances where a singer takes a song to a place that the songwriter himself could not have envisioned, and lives in it and makes it his own.

When Cohen wrote the tune, it was the song and testament of a songwriter. He sounded pretty darned old in 1988, singing this song and looking back (and to a degree looking forward) on his life and the vocation of songwriting and meditating both profoundly and humorously upon it. He was in fact about fifty-four years of age. (Who knew that twenty-five years later he’d be experiencing a peak of popularity, undertaking huge concert tours and continuing to write some of the best songs of his career? Certainly he, of all people, did not know it.)

There is a couplet in the song that I think is crucial both to the original rendition and to this cover version:

I was born like this, I had no choice
I was born with the gift of a golden voice

In Cohen’s version, this is an exquisite joke—a self-deprecating piece of irony. No one ever accused Leonard of having a golden voice, although many have accused him of having a voice comparable to considerably less precious substances. The couplet is both a gag and a metaphor: his gift, as we know, is actually that he is a writer. He is obliged by some ineffable commandment to write his songs, but he also finds that he must sing them himself, regardless of his voice, simply so that they will be heard.

Yet, sung by Tom Jones, the magical and beautiful thing is that Continue reading Tom Jones and a Towering “Tower of Song”

The Cinch Review

Edward I. Koch, 1924 – 2013

Edward I. KochMy favorite story about former New York City mayor Ed Koch—who passed on the other day at the age of 88—is one he used to tell about himself. He enjoyed telling stories about himself, of-course. This story involves a boating operation called the Circle Line, which ferries tourists around the entire island of Manhattan, up the East River and across the Harlem River and down the Hudson, with a tour guide pointing out the sights. As it chugs up that part of the East River adjacent to 88th Street, the tour guide would naturally point out the graceful old mansion situated there, which happens to be named Gracie Mansion. It is the official residence of whoever is the mayor of New York (although our current monarch, Mr. Bloomberg, chooses to stay in his own fancier digs on 79th Street).

Circle Line ferryAs I recall hizzoner Mayor Koch telling it, he would enjoy going outside of the residence sometimes and looking for the Circle Line ferry approaching; as it passed, he would wave wildly and yell something like, “Here I am! It’s me! Here I am!”

The story is especially funny, I think, because it is so very easy to picture him doing this. Continue reading Edward I. Koch, 1924 – 2013