Friday, August 12, 2005

Nero Wolfe: Too Many Cooks

Last time I wrote, I panned The Black Mountain, which disrupted the Wolfe formula by taking him away from his famed New York brownstone. I thought the break in the formula was the problem. Too Many Cooks proves me wrong. This time Wolfe and Archie go to a spa in West Virginia where the world's 15 greatest chefs are gathering for fellowship. One of them is hated and ends up assuming room temperature. Wolfe doesn't want to figure it out, but circumstances force him into it. Wonderful story. Pick it up.

But the point of this post is not so much to review the book as it is to note the interesting perspective on race. The book was published in 1938. At various points I was horrified by the references to the black men working at the spa. They are called boys, niggers, shines, etc. One black man's wife is said to have left him to raise three "pickaninnies." Local law enforcement is clearly racist (which plays a part in the way the facts develop) and Archie is not much better. Because author Stout chooses to speak primarily through Archie, I began to wonder about Stout. Not to worry. Once Wolfe goes into action we finally see a man who has his head on straight about race. He dispenses with racist language and attitude and is rewarded with a frank relationship with the black men who are very relevant to the story.

The longer one thinks about the book, the more one reflects on race and the times. I continue to be haunted by the way Wolfe tells the black waiters and cooks that he is told blacks and whites have a certain way of dealing with one another in a place like West Virginia, but then demolishes the notion by proving that individuals matter much more than race.

When did that strain of civil rights cease to be a mainstay of the discourse?

6 comments:

Jay D. Homnick said...

There is also an important later book in which the son of the main black character in Too Many Cooks hires Wolfe to help him with a situation at a civil-rights organization.

Perhaps someone can help us by recalling the title; it eludes me for a moment.

S. T. Karnick said...

A Right to Die,, 1964.

Hunter Baker said...

But what did you think about Too Many Cooks, S.T.?

S. T. Karnick said...

It's on the To Read list, thanks to your excellent review. I have a copy of the book at hand, but am currently reading a Perry Mason.

Kathy Hutchins said...

When did that strain of civil rights cease to be a mainstay of the discourse?

About thirty minutes after the federal government made it possible to earn a living by race hustling.

Both Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy consciously struggled with the issue of faithfully depicting race relations in the South without succumbing to either sentimentality or insult. O'Connor, at least, failed to anticipate how badly her efforts would be misunderstood. At least one Catholic high school in Louisiana has banned O'Connor from their English curriculum because of The Artificial Nigger.

P.A. Breault said...

This isn't the first time Archie has used a derogatory term, or Wolfe more or less chiding him for it. One need only read "Fer-De-Lance" and "League of Frightened Men" for examples.

In any case, thanks for the providing the impetus. I re-read it again this evening. It is a rich story.

Pettigrew said good-naturedly, "You go to hell."

"No, not hell." Wolfe sighed. "New York."