Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Rex Stout, Too Many Cooks

Rex Stout, Too Many Cooks
© Rex Stout 1938; renewed 1966
Bantam Books 1993
ISBN 0-553-27290-X

Nero Wolfe, accompanied by Archie Goodwin, leaves New York, traveling by train to the Kahawha Spa (a fairly thinly disguised Greenbrier Resort) in West Virginia.  They are heading for the quadrennial gathering of Les Quinze Maitres, 15 of the world’s greatest chefs.  And Wolfe is to address the group on the contributions of America to haute cuisine.  In fact, one of the delights, for me, is the menu for the American Dinner; it includes a dish named “Avocado Todhunter.  Todhunter is Rex Stout’s middle name, and his mother’s maiden name.  I just love that little touch.  But Wolfe’s real purpose in making the trip is to convince Jerome Berin to let him have a sausage recipe.  And, unsurprisingly, murder intervenes.

Philip Lazio, also of ot the famed chefs, and the chef de cuisine at the Hotel Churchill in New York, will be murdered.  Berin has this to say about Lazio:

Lazio is worthy of being cut into small pieces and fed to pigs!—But n, that would render the hams inedible.  Merely cut into pieces and buried.  I tell you, I have known Lazio many years.  He is maybe a Turk?  No one knows.  No one knows  his name.  He stole the secrets of Rognons aux Montagnes in 1920 from my friend Zelota of Tarragona and claimed the creation.  Zelota will kill him; he has said so.  He has stolen many other things.  He was elected to Les Quinze Maitres in 1927 in spite of my violent protest.  His young wife—have you seen her?  She is Dina, the daughter of Domenico Rossi of the Empire Café in London; I have held her many times on this knee…As you no doubt know, your friend Vuckcic married her, and Lazio stole her from Vukcic.  Vukcic will kill him, undoubtedly, but he waits too long.  He is a snake, a dog, he crawls in slime!  You know Leon Blanc, our beloved Leon?  You know he is now stagnant in  sn sffair of no reputation called the Willow Cub in a town by the name of Boston?  You know that for years your Hotel Churchill in New York was distinguished by his presence as chef de cuisine?  You know that Lazio stole the position from him by insinuation, by lies, by ! chicanery, stole it.  Our dear Leon will kill him!  Positively!  Justice demands it!...I will kill him myself…He has stolen from everyone.  God apparently created him to steal, let God defend him..

And, eventually, we learn that Lazio has stolen from Berin, stolen saucisse minuit, apparently his masterpiece—and, of course, the dish for which Wolfe seeks the recipe.  This leads to some coolness between the chef and the detective.

And, of course, Lazio is murdered.  But before that happens, Dina Lazio tries to induce Wolfe to investigate the possibility that someone has tried to poison her husband, by substituting arsenic for sugar for Lazio’s use in making a salad dressing.  Wolfe declines to take the case.  And also before Lazio is murdered, the chefs engage in a tasting challenge.  As Wolfe describes it to Archie:

The cook will roast squabs and Mr. Lazio, who has volunteered for the function, will make a quantity of Sauce Printemps.  That sauce contains nine seasonings besides salt: cayenne, celery, shallots, chives, chervil, tarragon, peppercorn, thyme, and parsley.  Nine dishes will be prepared and each will lack one of the seasonings, a different one…The gathering will be in the parlor and each will go to the dining room, singly, to prevent discussion, taste the sauces on bits of squab, and record which dish lacks chives, which peppercorns, and so on.  I believe has wagered on an average of eighty percent correct…

At one point during the tasting, Vukcic is delayed (by his ex-wife) when his turn comes (he was to follow Berin).  And when Vukcic does take his turn, Lazio is not in the tasting room.  Nor is he there for the final three—with Wolfe going last.  And Wolfe becomes curious about Lazio’s absence, and, looking behind a screen, finds him, dead, with a knife in his back.

The investigation reveals that Berin got only 2 of the missing ingredients right, whereas the others averaged better than 80% (Wolfe missed 2 of them).  And Berin’s animosity toward Lazio seems to the sheriff and the prosecuting attorney sufficient to arrest Berin.  Wolfe becomes involved, and eventually identifies the actual culprit.

Despite the time I have spent on this, Too Many Cooks is not one of my favorites in the Wolfe canon.  The story is nicely handled, and the characters are well done and convincing.  What is not convincing is Wolfe’s explanation of who the murderer is.  It involves someone dressing up in the waiters’ Kanawah Spa livery, disguising his appearance with black face, entering the tasting room during the time Vukcic has been detained, and stabbing Lazio with one of the knives available for slicing the squab.  What has to happen for this to work?

First, Vukcic has to be detained. Second, the tasting has to be situated in a room with exterior doors.  Third, the murder has to know about the tasting and to get from wherever he was to the dining room at the appropriate time [1] without anyone seeing him close-up (black face would be pretty obvious).  Fourth, Lazio has to go along with the murderer’s explanation of his presence.  Fifth, the screen behind which the body is hidden has to do a remarkably good job of concealment.  Sixth, none of the kitchen staff has to enter the dining room at an awkward moment.  And, in fact, the murderer is seen by three people, one of whom realizes that he is wearing blackface.   That’s lot of moving parts.  
Aside from the denouement, however, it’s a good read.  Seeing Wolfe in a very uncomfortable environment (for him) was nice.  And the discussions and descriptions food were enticing.  

[1] This is the easiest part of it, by the way.

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