Too Many Cooks (Rex Stout)

  • By Rex Stout
  • First published: US: Farrar, 1938; UK: Collins, 1938

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The famous one with the master chefs—Stout’s masterpiece, according to COC.  It’s set entirely outside the brownhouse, which means that Stout can’t rely on his usual tiresome formulae (interviews by committee, hostility to and from the police, and Wolfe sitting around doing nothing for several hundred pages).  This is a strong detective story, with a good spread of suspicion, and a fairly clued least likely murderer.  The clue of the uniform is a genuine “Of course!” moment.

Wolfe comes across as a genuine intellectual as well as a clever detective.  Good to see him condemn racism, and treat black waiters as fellow human beings.  Much humour—Wolfe out of routine; Wolfe manipulates murderers and chef (language and dialogue / argument as a weapon?)

Early Archie—even more obnoxious (brash and cocky—smart aleck) than in 1940s books—WWII matures him?

Contemporary reviews

The Saturday Review (20 August 1938): Fatal skewering of famous chef at convocation of culinary maestros slickly solved by Nero Wolfe and faithful Archie.  Grand build-up, unusually interesting background, and jaunty dialogue effectively disguise fact that solution is just suspicion underdone.  First class.

Observer (Torquemada, 11th September 1938): MIRTH IN FUNERAL

The Crime Club has at last decided to sponsor a Rex Stout murder tale; and its most human, vast, and inert detective, Nero Wolfe, and its uniquely witty Watson, Archie Goodwin.  I am glad that Too Many Cooks, a brilliant story in almost every way, makes its bow under the Club’s “created and prevailing name”, and at the same time I cannot help being glad that I welcomed its delightful author quite some time ago.  In this story, Nero, the perfect gastronome, is for once shifted from his beer-encompassed chair; he has accepted the position of guest of honour at the lengthy meeting of the world’s master cooks in West Virginia, and Archie manages to convey him thither, with much groaning and travail, by train.  But the series of epic meals and expert addresses has hardly got under way before the least worthy of the master cooks is murdered.  Nero is not interested, but the murderer foolishly assumes that he is, and shoots at him from cover, administering a flesh wound.  The big good Wolfe is naturally stung to a fever of quite brilliant cerebration; according to programme he delivers an inspiriting speech on American contributions to the world’s higher cookery, then suddenly changes the subject to murder and confounds a pair of most unpleasant scoundrels.  After all is made clear, and the amorous but unvanquishable Archie has once again achieved emotional liberty, the author presents us with the recipes for his eighteen favourite dishes.  This last section, which is printed on blue paper, should not be read by anyone who, being blessed with a mouth to water, is also cursed with a figure to keep.

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Percy Ashley, 24th September 1938): THE HIGHER COOKING

With Too Many Cooks we pass into the realm of the agreeably fantastic.  Nero Wolfe, Mr. Stout’s detective, is a private investigator of enormous girth, with gastronomy as his hobby.  He is invited to a spa hotel to deliver a discourse on American contributions to the higher cooking before a meeting of the greatest chefs in the world, who form an exclusive club called Les Quinze Maitres.  One of the chefs who is unpopular with his colleagues devises a test to see who can spot correctly all the seasoning in a salad, and in the course of carrying out his test he is murdered.  Wolfe, with that tedious modesty that tends to afflict fictitious detectives on holiday, declines to find the murderer until one of his best friends, a genius at sausages, is arrested.  He quickly clears him of suspicion, but it is not until the murderer tries to shoot Wolfe himself that he decides to solve the problem before catching his train back to New York.

Most people are interested in food, and since the murder does not deprive the chefs of either their appetite or their critical faculties the investigation of the crime is pleasantly interspersed with gastronomical revelations.  The narrative is admirably told in the inimitable American manner by Wolfe’s cynical secretary, Archie Goodwin, and for the connoisseur a list of dishes is added as an appendix.  Those who are not already familiar with the idiosyncrasies of Nero Wolfe should hasten to make his acquaintance.

Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 30th September 1938): Someone once remarked that cookery books provide the best reading.  Others prefer detective stories.  Mr. Rex Stout in Too Many Cooks combines the two, and the reader, having finished the tale, can go on to try the various recipes with which the book concludes.  It is possible, however, that some readers may be inclined to doubt whether Mr. Stout’s detective, Nero Wolfe, and his fifteen leading cooks of the world can be such masters of “La Haute Cuisine” as they claim, when he notes their apparent belief that the rabbit provides one of the finer meats, their relentless cooking of oysters, their seeming ignorance that any wine exists save claret—any claret, one gathers, but lots of it,—that indeed they are not so much gourmet as gourmand.  But perhaps this grumbling is inspired merely by a burning patriotic indignation that in a discussion of the great hams of the world not a word is said of that of York!  A murder takes place during a meeting in the United States of the Fellowship of the Fifteen Cooks.  The mystery is solved, ingeniously enough, by Nero Wolfe in the intervals of eating gargantuan meals, and the story is told in that bright, “wise-cracking” manner many readers admire.

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): The masterpiece among three or four by Stout that deserve the name.  In addition, it is the most amusing, thanks to such incidents as Nero’s being shot in yellow pyjamas, the altercation over saucisse minuit, and the triangle of Archie, the young lawyer, and the beautiful girl.  Locale: White Sulphur Springs.