Monday, April 29, 2013

Crime Fiction: Too Many Cooks and Champagne for One by Rex Stout

In 2008 and 2009, Bantam Books reprinted 10 of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin mysteries in rather handsome two-in-one paperback volumes. One of those -- comprising both Too Many Cooks and Champagne for One -- had been sitting on my shelf, unread, for a couple of years. But I finally took it with me on a recent trip.

Like most mystery-fiction fans, I’d read plenty of Nero Wolfe stories in years past, and was ready to become reacquainted. One of the stories in this paperback, Cooks, was originally published in 1938; the other saw print 20 years later.

My first surprise was that these tales stood up well, despite the passage of so much time. Even though I’d probably read them both before (in fact, I’m sure I read Champagne at some other point in the past), I was engrossed.

The next surprise was not so positive: I found it hard to deal with all the careless prejudice that features in Stout’s fiction, and was a significant part of the period during which he lived and wrote (1886-1975). It made me wonder how best to deal with this issue. We went through the same sort of debate a few years back with sanitized versions of Mark Twain works, and that didn’t seem to go so well.

Too Many Cooks is set at a spa in the American South, where some of the greatest chefs in the world have gathered. Wolfe, who is notorious for not wanting to leave his New York brownstone, has been invited as the keynote speaker.

But murder is on the menu when one of the attending chefs is killed. That event forces Wolfe to delve into the unsavory relationships between this gathering’s other guests, for without his investigative intervention, who knows how long the less-brilliant local authorities might take to solve this case? Wolfe doesn’t want to be away from home too long.

Wolfe and his younger, much more energetic chief investigator/secretary, Archie Goodwin, are their inimitable selves in these pages. The rest of the characters are feisty, opinionated and unpredictable. It will probably occur to the reader that some problems could have been resolved more easily, had there only been computers or cell phones at the time; but, in fact, it’s a pleasure to watch some old-school detecting.

In Champagne for One (1958), the set-up is more contrived. A wealthy New York woman sponsors a dinner and dance for a few residents of a home for unwed mothers -- a charity created by her late husband. One of those young residents, who had threatened to commit suicide, does, indeed, die at the event.

It sure looks like suicide. But Archie Goodwin, who had shown up for this occasion as a favor to an acquaintance, thinks it’s murder instead.

Once you get past the setting (a dance for unwed mothers? Really? Even in the 1950s, this would have been bizarre), Champagne offers a classic Wolfe puzzle. The great man is irritated; he doesn’t like his routine to be interrupted. But he finally puts his brain into gear, interviews everyone concerned, and works his way through both deception and blackmail to get to premeditated murder.

Too Many Cooks is the better of the two tales here, but also the one more tainted by ugly language. The racism on display probably comes from a combination of the times, the Southern location and the presence of many African-American characters.

But it’s not just those players who feel the brunt of bigotry; there are derogatory references made here to Italians as well.

As it turned out, I never got used to such insults. Each time I encountered one, it was like hitting a wall. I lost the flow of the story for a moment, had to swallow hard and then resume. But I don’t know any better way of handling this. The story, a classic of whodunit literature, is obviously a product of its era and place. I wouldn’t want someone deciding for me that I couldn’t read this or another work, simply because of its controversial language. ◊

Roberta Alexander is an editor and mystery reviewer in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

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Blogger Graham Powell said...

I thought CHAMPAGNE was pretty meh when I read it, but COOKS is one of Stout's greatest books. The casual racism of the police towards the black staff incensed me when I first read it - but it's all a setup, as Stout brilliantly shows when he has Wolfe pull the rug later in the book.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013 at 10:03:00 AM PDT  
Blogger John C said...

I have to put some study into ths subject of racism and what is known of Rex Stout. It is never certain that Wolfe takes much notice of "race"/ethnicity - he is always something of a stranger in a strange land himself, but Archie Goodwin is as reflexively racist (and anti-feminist) in his expression as any good old white Irish-American Boy of the time might seem. I have to correct the impression of the reviewer, I note Goodwin being dismissive of "dagos/spaniards" not Italians. I also note that there is a sort of self-aware campness that runs through Nero Wolfe, always just that bit bigger than life, and Stout's awareness of his readership. I don't believe Stout was above using Archie as a mechanism for ribbing his reader, who might forget to look at all that goes on in
Stout's references to his world. Definitely, Stout favours a male reader, and feeds his sensibility, while promoting some of Archie Goodwin's more refined and occasionally "feminine" or unusually gentle aspects for the reader identifying with Archie. Stout also promotes both civility, and the mores of a gentleman, as a bridge between elements in a harsher society. In a humorous, even ironic note, Stout's female characters are meant to be treated with courtesy, if not always respect, though Nero Wolfe is consistently unnerved by them.

Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 1:55:00 AM PDT  

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