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Title: Too Many Cooks
Series: Nero Wolfe #5
Author: Rex Stout
Rating: 4 of 5 Stars
Nero Wolfe accepts an invitation to address Les Quinze Maîtres (“The Fifteen Masters”), an international group of master chefs, on the subject of American contributions to fine cuisine. The group is meeting at the Kanawha Spa resort in West Virginia (possibly based on the famous actual resort The Greenbrier.) To attend, Wolfe must suppress his loathing of travel and trains on the 14-hour train ride from New York City. As a courtesy to Wolfe, Archie has been invited to the gathering by Marko Vukcic, Wolfe’s oldest friend and one of Les Quinze Maîtres, so that he can accompany Wolfe.
During the trip, Vukcic introduces Wolfe to another member of Les Quinze Maîtres, Jerome Berin, the originator of saucisse minuit. Wolfe tasted the sausage once and has coveted Berin’s closely guarded recipe for years. Berin is flattered, but scorns Wolfe’s offer of $3,000 for the private use of the recipe. In the course of this discussion, Berin angrily denounces Philip Laszio, another Maître, who serves an inferior substitute for saucisse minuit in his restaurant. Laszio also stole Vukcic’s ex-wife Dina from him and the position of Head Chef at New York’s Hotel Churchill from Leon Blanc, another Maître. His passion inflamed, Berin threatens to kill Laszio.
The next night, at a welcoming dinner for Les Quinze Maîtres, Philip Laszio insults the host, Louis Servan, another Maître, and his head chef when he criticises the cooking. Tensions are further increased when Blanc refuses to tolerate Laszio’s company and Vukcic begins to succumb to the charms of his ex-wife, who appears to be seducing him. After the dinner, a tasting test is held, based on a challenge made to Laszio. Laszio prepares nine numbered dishes of Sauce Printemps, with each dish missing a different vital ingredient. The other nine Maîtres present, and Wolfe, are challenged to taste each dish, and write down the missing ingredients.
Wolfe is the last contestant to taste the dishes, but halfway through he summons Archie into the private dining room where the tasting is taking place; Philip Laszio has been murdered, stabbed in the back and hidden behind a room divider. The authorities are called, led by Barry Tolman, a local prosecutor who happened to arrive on the train with Wolfe and Goodwin. At Wolfe’s suggestion, Tolman examines the results of the taste testing, on the theory that the murderer, either tense before committing murder or shaken afterwards, would be unable to determine accurately the missing ingredients. Jerome Berin has the lowest score and, based on Wolfe’s theory, he is subsequently charged with murder. This drives a wedge between Tolman and Constanza Berin, Jerome’s daughter, who have been developing a romantic attachment.
The next morning, Wolfe receives a visit from Laszio’s employer at the Churchill, Raymond Liggett, and Laszio’s assistant Alberto Malfi. They want Wolfe’s help in securing a replacement for Laszio at the Churchill. Although Wolfe is scornful of Liggett’s request and refuses his employment, when Berin is arrested he is skeptical that Berin could be the murderer and sees an opportunity to get the master chef into his debt. Wolfe decides to investigate Laszio’s murder and exonerate Berin. Wolfe learns from Lio Coyne, the wife of one of the guests, that she saw two men in waiter’s uniforms in the dining room around the time of the murder, with one of them hushing another.
Consequently, Wolfe gathers together the African-American kitchen and serving staff and questions them. In contrast to the racist and abusive attitudes of the local authorities, Wolfe is courteous, respectful, and civil to the men, but they are nevertheless skeptical and uncooperative until he appeals to their sense of equity and justice. He argues that if they shield the murderer solely because of his skin colour then they are “rendering your race a serious disservice” and are “helping to perpetuate and aggravate the very exclusions which you justly resent.” Impressed by the speech, Paul Whipple—a waiter and college student—admits that he was one of the men in the dining room that night. But the other man was not African-American; he was wearing blackface. It is also revealed that Laszio himself had switched around the sauce dishes before Berin’s turn, to humiliate him; this explains Berin’s low score.
This information is sufficient to get Berin released from custody. Having accomplished his objective — to put Berin in his debt – Wolfe turns his attention to the speech he is to give. While rehearsing the speech in his room, however, Wolfe is shot through an open window. Wolfe is only grazed by the bullet but is enraged. He returns his attention to Laszio’s murder: clearly, the same person who killed Laszio tried to kill Wolfe, and Wolfe intends to deliver the murderer to Tolman. He initiates further inquiries, carried out mainly by Saul Panzer and Inspector Cramer in New York, and later presides over a dinner for the remaining members of Les Quinze Maîtres, composed exclusively of American cuisine. The Maîtres are very impressed by the quality of the dinner, and Wolfe has the chefs responsible brought to the room to be applauded by the diners — all are black men.
After the meal and despite the handicap of the facial wound, Wolfe delivers his speech on American cuisine, and — to the surprise of the gathered masters — continues by delivering the evidence that will convict Laszio’s murderer and Wolfe’s assailant. He reveals that the murderer was Raymond Liggett, who secretly flew into West Virginia the night of the murder, disguised himself as one of the wait staff, and murdered Laszio. He attempted to hire Wolfe to cover his tracks and to bribe Wolfe subtly not to interfere. When Wolfe secured Berin’s release, he panicked and shot him. Liggett was aided by Dina Laszio, whom he coveted; she betrays him and confesses her part in order to prevent arrest.
The same night, Wolfe and Archie depart for New York, once again on the same train as Berin, Constanza, and Tolman. While Archie helps Constanza and Tolman mend their fractured relationship, Wolfe reminds Berin that Berin is in his debt, demanding the recipe for saucisse minuit as payment. Berin is outraged, but is eventually shamed into providing the recipe.
I think this was the most enjoyable Nero Wolfe book yet. There are several possibilities as to the “why” and I am not sure if I can decide which factor had the upper hand. Maybe writing this down will help my subconscious to slip my conscious mind a secret note. It’s happened before after all!
First, there’s the fact that this is dealing with cooking and food. The murder is just an annoying by-product in Wolfe’s opinion. I’m no gourmand, not at all but I do like food and I like reading about it in conjunction with another subject. I was reading this on a Friday night and 10pm rolled around and I was so hungry from reading this that I made myself a couple of hebrew national hotdogs in potato buns with ketchup, mustard and dill relish. Oh, that hit the spot!
Second, Nero Wolfe has to travel. Call me a sadist, but watching someone else suffer, especially someone who thinks they are better than everyone else, is rather carthartic. It is a real ordeal for Wolfe to be outside of his brownstone house and while I was cackling with glee and rubbing my hands at his misery, a small part of me also understood it. If I was well enough to never need to leave my house again, I wouldn’t mind it one bit. I’ve been on the hermit side since my late teens and I suspect it will only deepen as I get older. But I did get a thrill from watching Wolfe suffer and I must admit, it felt good 😀
Thirdly, Archie Goodwin and his little romantic asides were at an absolute minimum. That man just needs to get married and settle down. He jokes in this book about his wife and 7 children, but that should be the reality, not just as a joke.
Looking at that, it’s definitely the food. Hands down.