Too Many Cooks is the 5th Nero Wolfe book by Rex Stout. It is an interesting story where Rex Stout issues challenges to his characters and challenges to his audience.
I love experiencing history through old fiction. There is a difference between reading written history, reading the written journals and thoughts of others, and reading fiction. That difference is that in fiction, we try to capture the true image of the time. In writing Science Fiction we try to create unique and interesting worlds. In writing current fiction we try to capture the ebb and flow of the now.
Too Many Cooks was written in 1938 back when novels were serialized in weekly and monthly magazine spreads. The novelization of a serial story can be seen in some of the weight of the story. Each chapter is well defined with neat edges which makes it very easy to stop reading from chapter to chapter.
But, serialization is not what captured my attention with this story.
If one has experienced Nero Wolfe one knows that Wolfe does not like to leave his house. He barely moves from his chair. Rex Stout carved an eccentric man whom is interpreted through Archie Goodwin, the mans natural opposite. Yet, I find myself liking Wolfe not Goodwin. Archie irritates me with his wit and humor and constant smart comments. I like him only because I can spend my time deciphering slang and sentence structure that you no longer see these days. He is the quintessential 1930’s New Yorker. I can’t stand him.
But, I love Wolfe and you see Wolfe act through Goodwin. Wolfe is elegant in manner and mind. He indulges himself and he does not lie to anyone about that fact. I can appreciate Wolfe’s eccentric manner more then Archie’s rough and tumble good nature.
In this story, Rex Stout has forced Wolfe out of his home and to a trip. Wolfe, we see, moves around and interacts with the environment almost like a normal person. He may be stressed but he is stressed in the same way someone who did not grow up with computers is stressed over using fully automated systems. He can function. He just does not enjoy it.
Rex Stout challenges Wolfe by making him leave his home to solve a case. He gives him a reason that the reader can accept. Wolfe has left his home for food, his true indulgence. He goes to West Virginia of all places. I find it surprising because I live in Virginia myself and seeing someone travel to a spa in West Virginia in the 1930’s was not an expected adventure.
In West Virginia, Rex Stout challenges his audience. He challenges his audience by challenging their cultural comfort. He does this through Wolfe and through Archie and we are invited to experience two different perspectives. In Too Many Cooks one of our parties is a Chinese American woman. She was born in San Francisco and she even speaks of the prodigious of her ethnic heritage although she is married to one of the famous players on our field of suspects. She fears that she will not be believed or listened to due to her ethnicity.
We also deal, for the first time, with people of color. Here Rex Stout opens the door for understanding culture and discrimination in the early 20th century.
The colored members of the cast are mostly black Americans. They are all employees of the spa. Waiters, doorman, cooks, groundskeepers, mechanics, animal caretakers, and maids. When Archie describes them, he often describes them as one would a horse. In one line he says, “The one that sat the stillest was the one with the flattest nose, a young one, big and muscular, a greenjacket that I had noticed at the pavilion because he never opened his mouth to reply to anything.”
The green jacket applies to their work uniform. In the rest of the description, Archie might as well be describing a horse. The turn of phrase is reserved only for black people. That might seem assumptive but I noticed it because Archie does not describe other people in that fashion. Let me point out to when he described an attractive female.
I had a chance now to observe that she was as young as love’s dream, and her eyes looked dark purple in the light, and her lips told you that she was a natural but reserved smiler.”
Compare the two and Archie’s tone and inflection changes as he describes colored people. He refers to them as Negro’s which was a common term at the time. Negro meaning black was adopted early on. But that to is an interesting distinction, for Wolfe calls them black men, and one of our more unsavory characters refers to them as niggers. Wolfe treats them as he would any equal and Archie is startled but not disgusted by that fact. Archie is not repulsed, nor does he seem to think of them as lesser. Just different. While Wolfe rejects that all together and sees them as men.
Rarely do I break down a writers text. Dissection are not my normal tastes for literature. But here, there are so many distinct threads of behavior and mannerism. We know that the author purposefully crafted them as he did because the work is of fiction. We know that he is setting a scene with his usage. Now, almost eighty years later, that scene tells us about the daily life in the 1930’s in a way no novel or history book will. Even movies may not capture things in the same way.
Rex Stout is making a point in this story. It is secondary to other things but it is very, very clear.
My mother grew up in the 1960’s civil right movement in New York. Twenty years after these events culture started to shift. Terms started to shift. Perceptions and attitudes started to change. And now, seventy years later, I sit at a computer pondering this view into what was and appreciating how things have changed. I get to do other things then be the maid or cook and I never think of myself as a colored person, but as a person in general.
Books can be remarkable windows.
The story itself is also quite interesting with plenty of twists and turns to the plot.