Friday, October 15, 2010

The Nero Wolfe Reviews: Too Many Cooks (1938)

Whooo boy. I have to say I've not been looking forward to reviewing this one for reasons which will be outlined below. Time to take a deep breath and just plunge in....

The Plot: Les Quinze Maitres is an exclusive society of the 15 best chefs in the world. Masters in the art of food. They meet now at that exclusive Kanawha Spa in Virginia with the intent to dazzle each other with their culinary skills and to elect three new members (as three have passed away due to natural causes). Nero Wolfe is invited as a guest and keynote speaker and the honor is enough to get him out of the brownstone with Archie along of course in his usual role of secretary, travel agent, and bodyguard.

Wolfe expects world class cuisine and socializing with the greatest minds in the culinary arts. The last thing he expects is to get tangles up in the murder of one of the great chefs -- a man who has no end of enemies, including many of his fellow Quinze Maitres.

Now Wolfe must take a busman's holiday to catch a killer. Bon Appetite if you dare!

My Take: Let's just get this out of the way first... there is rather a lot of racism in this book and that is where most of my discomfort with the story lies.

At the time Stout was writing racism was still institutionalized. Segregation was a fact of life -- some of it on the books as law others of it a matter of social pressure and convention. It was part of a less enlightened time and narrow minded thinking.

As someone who works in the history field I recognize this as a fact of the times. Too Many Cooks is a product of those times. It doesn't excuse the attitude, it doesn't make it right but it is the past and the past cannot be changed.

One part of me is able to read this book on that level -- seeing it in it's historical context and analyzing what it adds to understanding that time period. But there is also the non-historian side of me which flinches when the n-word is used to describe African Americans here. And the word is used plenty along with other, slightly less inflammatory but no less hurtful racial slurs.

There is a lot to unpack here... For one thing, as I said, many characters use the n-word, but in 1938 Virginia where this story is set that would have been fairly common so Stout is, technically, merely giving realism to the story.

It is indicated that many of the workers at the spa-hotel where the action takes place are African-American. Again, for the time period,this would have been common with usually menial jobs being the ones most open to African-Americans and not many other career paths available. There is also a problem in that Stout tends to leave them as "greenjackets" -- the livery of the spa being for workers to wear green jackets. In Stout's other stories even the throwaway characters like secretaries get a little more individuation and description. Here, for a good chunk of the book, the African-American character are treated just as a kind of collective whole.

And then there's Archie. I know Stout wanted to show Archie's unsophisticated nature but again the racial slurs just make me cringe. Archie never stoops to the n-word but he does use some other racial slurs which are still just... ugly.

There are a few bright spots. Stout writes Wolfe as pretty firmly egalitarian. Wolfe treats the African-American characters exactly as he does the while characters and Wolfe does at least briefly mention the fact that African-Americans are denied many of the rights and privileges that whites have in society. Wolfe also warns the police against taking frustration out on the African-American hotel workers when they opened up to Wolfe rather than to the police. It shows that Wolfe is aware of the relationship African-Americans have with the police in this time period.

Stout also depicts most of the African-American characters as highly intelligent and/or great chefs in their own right. He makes them observant and having their own thoughts and issues and this really rounds the characters out and makes them true characters rather than just stereotypes or anti-stereotypes.

Overall, at least a part of me thinks Stout was against the racism and bigotry of the day and was trying to reflect the social situation of the time and place he was setting the story. It is still highly uncomfortable though for a modern reader or for someone unable to fit the book into it's historic context.

The rest of the plot is rather interesting and we get the excitement of a physical threat to Wolfe -- reminding us once again why one of Archie's job titles is bodyguard -- and there is a bit of Stout's usual hints of romance in the story but Being honest, the racial aspect of the story did somewhat ruin my reading of the book.

I would love to see a serious roundtable discussion of Too Many Cooks by a multi-racial panel; it's one of the reasons I regret reading and analyzing these books in isolation because some, like this one, might really benefit from a book discussion group. In the end, though, as much as I hate to do it, for most people out there it's probably for the best if they skip Too Many Cooks.

My Favorite Quote: Even though the book made me a bit uncomfortable reading it there was still quite a bit of Stout's trademark witty dialogue. My favorite bit comes from Archie.. I thought to myself, darn you, some day you're going to push the button for my wits when they're off on vacation, and then you'll learn to let me in on things ahead of time.

No comments:

Post a Comment