I have new Insider posts up on the Wade Miley-Carson Smith trade and the Hisashi Iwakuma contract. My latest boardgame review over at Paste covers 7 Wonders Duel, the new two-player game that uses the theme and some mechanics from the outstanding original 7 Wonders.
I don’t normally post on books in series, since part of any series’ appeal is the familiarity you get from title to title, but Rex Stout’s Too Many Cooks, the fifth of what would eventually be his thirty-three novels starring the corpulent detective Nero Wolfe and his milk-swigging sidekick Archie Goodwin. (I’ve now read thirteen of them, plus four books of short stories or novellas.) But this book merited some comment for two reasons, or perhaps two and a half if you consider the new meaning of the book’s title:
The story itself is one of the few that has Wolfe leave his famous brownstone, from which he solves most of the cases that come to him, usually in a climactic scene where all of the suspects gather in his parlor for the Big Reveal. In Too Many Cooks, Wolfe and Goodwin travel to a spa/resort in West Virginia for the festivities of the Quinze Maîtres, a collection of chefs (fifteen in name, with only twelve attending due to the deaths of three since the previous meeting) from around the world who gather every five years for enormous meals, presentations on food, and, in this case, murder. When one of the twelve is killed during a tasting experiment he’s running, Wolfe first has to clear the chef who invited him to the shindig, and eventually solves the murder when the killer takes a shot at Wolfe himself.
Wolfe’s view of the world always involves food and drink (usually cold beer), as he employs a full-time chef, Fritz, and cooks frequently himself, but Stout outdoes himself in the descriptions of the dinners the Maîtres enjoy, as well as the sauce printemps that’s used in the tasting test during which the murder occurs. I found it fascinating to see how different haute cuisine – or, I guess, what Stout considered haute cuisine – looked in 1938, when the book was published, from what it has become now. The sumptuous meals in Too Many Cooks are almost entirely derived from French cuisine, directly or through some translation on the American side of the ocean, with nothing from outside of Europe, and the overemphasis on animal proteins is almost embarrassing to an educated eater today. The test in question is clever, although I wonder how feasible it would be in practice: One chef prepares the same sauce nine different ways, each time omitting one critical ingredient, and the other chefs must taste each sauce once and fill out a card indicating which batch was missing which ingredient. The test is tangential to the main plot, more red herring than essential element, but I also inferred that Stout was having a little fun with his fascination with food.
On the flip side, however, of all of the Nero Wolfe works I’ve read, I don’t think any used the n-word as frequently as Too Many Cooks does, even though most of the time it’s used it comes from the mouth of one of the southern whites in the book – such as the redneck local sheriff who shows up to investigate the murder. This prompted a question in my mind that I’ll pose to the group. In general, I don’t support the idea of bowdlerizing older works of art – film, literature, etc. – to remove language that was in the common vernacular of the time but has since become objectionable or effectively prohibited. This is how people talked and acted, and removing those words or actions (such as the awful blackface scene in Holiday Inn) not only reduces the works’ historical accuracy but has the possibly unintended effect of allowing us to pretend that this crap never happened. At the resort in Too Many Cooks, the kitchen staff members are mostly black, and everyone but Wolfe refers to them in derogatory terms, liberally sprinkled with that odious epithet. In reality, you could clean this text up, removing most of those uses of the term and replacing with less offensive words that still express the racism of the speakers, without materially impacting the text. Failing to replace those words makes the book much less enjoyable to read, and I would guess many if not most African-American readers today would find it unreadable. (Don’t even get me started on Gone With the Wind.) So what would you prefer: Leave these works as they are, as I believe we should, as testaments to our history, or “edit” them to be more culturally sensitive?
Next up: Stephanie Kallos’ 2015 novel Language Arts.