To Philosophize is to Learn How to Solve a Murder Mystery

E. John Winner

I think the detective story is by far the best upholder of the democratic doctrine in literature. I mean, there couldn’t have been detective stories until there were democracies, because the very foundation of the detective story is the thesis that if you’re guilty you’ll get it in the neck and if you’re innocent you can’t possibly be harmed. No matter who you are.

– Rex Stout [1]

I. I confess that in recent days I have been suffering from a bout of despair. Politics and economics have conspired to darken the world into some landscape from a dystopic film.  When such moods overcame him, Melville’s Ishmael took to the sea.  I read the Nero Wolfe detective mysteries by Rex Stout.

History has not been kind to Stout.  Once among the most popular of mystery novelists, and still admired by a cult of readers, Stout is largely forgotten today.  Around 2002, there was a cable television series based on some of his Nero Wolfe stories, well-mounted and well-acted.  It only lasted two seasons.  During its run, Bantam Books reprinted a handful of these stories, a printing that is still available in some book stores.  By and large, however, Stout’s novels can be considered out of print (albeit digitized ‘e-books’ are available for several them).  This is because Stout wrote in a very particular genre, the ‘puzzle book,’ or ‘who-dun-it,’ that became passé by the 1980’s.  This genre survives in niche variants, like the ‘cozy,’ or the cooking mystery, or those execrable books with cat detectives (no, literally); or in soap operatic series with mystical overtones or undertones, like the novels of Tony Hillerman or the Longmire stories.  On television and film, it has largely been replaced by the police procedural, which began to overtake it as early as the 1950’s with the popularity of Dragnet and the Untouchables.  The explanation for this would probably be very complex.  Most whodunit novels hinge on highly intricate — and thus wholly improbable — plot devices.  But so do a lot of science fiction stories.  I suggest that the real reason readers generally lost interest in the whodunit is because it emphasized the triumph of reason.  That was as true for The Maltese Falcon, a truly great novel, as it was for the pot-boilers Conan Doyle wrote for The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes.  But although the retreat from rationality that now achieves dominance among large swaths of the population (Right or Left) in the era of Donald Trump has become painfully obvious on the Internet — and especially in politics — we still have not yet confronted it properly. To confront it would be to learn how to live with it, and so far, I have not figured out how.   But without hope for the triumph of rationality, the whodunit as a genre is defunct.

Politics also has undone Rex Stout historically.  Stout, once a sailor on the Presidential yacht under Teddy Roosevelt, reached his prime in the 1930’s and ‘40s, when it was possible to have strong discussions on differing political views, predicated on the assumption that if we could find common ground, we could make the world a better place.  To the left of the New Deal, which he actively supported, he was a strident anti-Communist (and later supported the war in Vietnam).  Even before World War II, he helped organize a writers group engaged in anti-Nazi propaganda, and after the war, he supported world government efforts and the civil rights movement.  But late in life he was crushed by the events surrounding the Watergate break-in, and this response informed his last and darkest novel, A Family Affair, in which Nero Wolfe is betrayed by a trusted employee.  He was thus of an era in which politics was vital to a thinking person and offered hope for the future.  He was brought to ground at the end of his life in an era when corruption at the highest levels of government began to close the door on much of that hope. [2] Heaven knows what he would make of the current scene.

This brief political commentary is here because it has something to do with our present discussion.  I want to discuss a novel that could not be published today because it makes generous use of the ‘n-word.’  Yet it does so with a subtle — and subversive — aim to discredit racism.  It is also not only one of Stout’s best whodunit detective mysteries (the plot-twist is improbable but believable), it is also possibly his finest achievement as a prose writer.  The novel is Too Many Cooks, from 1938. [3]

II. Since the novel is the fifth in a series concerning a detective and his assistant, we’ll need to introduce them before we get into the plot. Nero Wolfe is fat.  That is what Archie Goodwin, his assistant and the narrator of the story, insists we understand as not only a physical appearance, but a character determinant.  Wolfe is not just fat, he is so in certain ways and for certain reasons having to do with his experience of life.  He early had an unpleasant encounter with a woman in the mountains of his homeland of Montenegro; entered the Austrian secret service; deserted in World War I to fight for the independence of Montenegro, during which he was reduced to eating grass to survive.  After the war, he acted in some capacity as a private agent (doing we know not what); that earned him enough to move to America, where he at last established himself as a private detective in New York City.  As we can see, this is a man of considerable experience, much of it unpleasant.  Wolfe himself admits that he allowed himself to grow fat as insulation, partly from the buffeting of the world, partly from his own emotions.  But he is a man of considerable education and refined taste.  He did not grow fat eating potato chips.  He has a personal chef, and has earned such a reputation among the haute cuisine chefs of international renown for his trained palate that they are willing to listen to his opinion on their dishes, and on trends in haute cuisine per se.  Thus, Too Many Cooks finds him invited to a conference of Les Quinze Maîtres, the fifteen master chefs of the finest restaurants in Europe and New York, to occur at a wealthy resort hotel in West Virginia.  Although Wolfe’s adverse to travel (the opening train ride is a comic highlight), he accepts the invitation, hoping to acquire a recipe for saucisse minuit from one of the masters.

Traveling with him is Archie Goodwin.  About half Wolfe’s age, Archie comes from Ohio.  He apparently wanted to see the bright lights of the big city and wound up in New York.  He seems to have been some sort of security guard or body guard when he met Wolfe.  Not much is known of this encounter, but it seems that one of them saved the life of the other during some investigation that turned violent. At any rate Wolfe took on Goodwin as his assistant and helped him acquire a private detective’s license.  Since Wolfe rarely leaves his house, this means, first, that Goodwin must live with Wolfe to be at his beck and call; but also, that it is Goodwin who must do the foot work in any investigation Wolfe agrees to undertake (reluctantly – he hates working).  In the early novels of the series, we don’t hear much of Goodwin’s tastes.  He’s not nearly as well read as Wolfe and can get by with a popular magazine and a radio show.  He’s happy enough with a ham sandwich, although he is grateful for being fed by Wolfe’s skillful chef, Fritz Brenner, and can discern the differences between good cooking and bad.

The relationship between Wolfe and Archie is an odd one.  Unlike the admiring Watson to the eccentric Holmes, Archie frequently finds his employer a pain in the butt.  But he is fiercely loyal, despite offering to quit every other novel when Wolfe fails to keep him in the loop on his observations and plans.  He recognizes Wolfe’s genius (his word) and understands that Wolfe’s reasoning on a case usually far outpaces his.  But he does find Wolfe’s intentional eccentricities a bit much to bear at times; well, almost always.  For his part, Wolfe finds Archie frequently annoying.  But he relies on Archie’s memory, his attention to detail, his occasional audacity and perseverance.  Unlike Holmes and Watson, Wolfe and Archie are not the perfectly complementary partners; on the contrary, it is the imperfections of their relationship that make the pairing of the two believable and interesting.  And frequently amusing.

III. Wolfe fits in nicely with Les Quinze Maîtres at the Kanawha Spa: they are all eccentric egoists, too proud of their achievements and even of their backgrounds. Thus, for instance, a quarrel between two over the differences between French and Italian cuisine. Professional colleagues for years, they also have a history and not always a happy one.  Dina, the ex-wife of Wolfe’s best friend (actually, his only friend) Marko Vukcic, is now married to the much hated Philip Laszio, widely suspected of stealing recipes and other dubious conduct.  Stout paints Dina as a real femme fatale and does so beautifully.  The plot largely hinges on her ruthlessness.

During a tasting contest one evening, Laszio is found murdered.  “A pleasant holiday!” Wolfe remarks in disgust. [4] Of course, being a detective, we expect him to launch into an investigation.  But he’s Nero Wolfe!  He doesn’t like to work, especially where there’s no payment to be expected.   So much of what follows has to do with finding some excuse to impel Wolfe to action.  First is when Jerome Berin comes under suspicion by the police.  Berin happens to be the chef with the recipe for saucisse minuit Wolfe hungers for.  Wolfe thus feels impelled to discover enough about the crime to have Berin exonerated.  Having accomplished this, he again withdraws from the case.  However, the real murderer doesn’t know this and attempts to murder Wolfe, wounding him in the cheek.  Wolfe’s ego is such that he can always be brought into a case by offending his pride or his sense of dignity. With the help of colleagues from New York, he exposes the murderer, just in time to catch the midnight train to New York City.  Offered any reward he wants from Berin, for having exonerated him, Wolfe demands the recipe for saucisse minuit.  Thus, Wolfe accomplishes his real goal in undertaking the whole adventure in the first place.

IV. Exoneration of Jerome Berin involves a problem of skin color, in two ways. First is discovery of an eye-witness, the wife of one of the masters, who happens to be Chinese American.  “I was born in San Francisco and educated there, but I am Chinese, and we are never treated like Americans.  Never.”  [5] Hence her reluctance to talk to the police.  Her story reveals that the man she saw entering the crime scene was apparently a black man in a waiter’s uniform, and the waiters are all black.  So, they have not come forward with any information on this person, because they know the white law officers would not simply ‘not treat them like Americans,’ but do something even worse.  Interestingly, Stout has Archie give us the opinion of white legal authorities, after Wolfe decides he must interview the wait staff to see if he can convince them to cooperate: “Listen, Boss.  You’ve lost your sense of direction, honest you have.  Africans or blackbirds or whatever you like, they can’t be handled this way.  (…)  Are you expecting me to use a carpetbeater on the whole bunch?” [6]

Archie sarcastically imagines Wolfe giving a civics lecture, followed by a sermon on the Ten Commandments.  Instead, Wolfe’s argument to the black staff begins as a discourse on  the pragmatics of conflicting personal responsibilities and the possible consequences of differing choices; but then moves toward a higher plateau: clarification of social contract theory (with a Hobbesian flavor), but particularized to the experiences of the men he’s addressing:

The agreements of human society embrace not only protection against murder, but thousands of other things, and it is certainly true that in America –- not to mention other continents –- the whites have excluded the blacks from some of the benefits of those agreements.  (…)  That’s bad.  It’s deplorable, and I don’t blame black men for resenting it.  But you are confronted with a fact, not a theory, and how do you propose to change it?  I am talking to you who saw that man by the screen [at the crime scene].  If you shield him because he is dear to you, or for any valid personal reason, I have nothing to say, because I don’t like futile talk, and you’ll have to fight it out with the sheriff.  But if you shield him because he is your color, there is a great deal to say.  You are rendering your race a serious disservice.  You are helping to perpetuate and aggravate the very exclusions you justly resent.  The ideal human agreement is one in which distinctions of race and color and religion are totally disregarded; anyone helping to preserve those distinctions is postponing the ideal; and you are certainly helping to preserve them.  If in a question of murder you permit your action to be influenced by the complexion of the man who committed it, no matter whether you yourself are white or pink or black.

“You’re wrong!” interrupts Paul Whipple, the anthropology student from Howard University, finally clarifying: “He wasn’t a black man.  I saw him.  He was white.”  [7] That is, he was a white man in ‘black face,’ which re-directs the entire investigation.

I wish I could reproduce the whole speech.  It is a brilliant piece of writing, an enlightening exercise in the way reasoning that is philosophically informed  blends with practical rhetoric in a politically sensitive context. (We easily recognize that Wolfe knows his social contract theorists!) Even in the excerpt quoted, we find skillful appeals to senses of personal responsibility, group identity, political community, even higher ideals, offered not only with due respect to the group but with recognition of differing interests of the individuals.  There’s even the hint of a threat (recourse to “the sheriff’) but in such a way as to say, ‘that’s outside of my control.’  Coupled with the social contract reasoning, it’s a strong blend of argument and persuasion, and one that does indeed respect the intelligence of his audience, even while guiding them to a desired decision.  After all, although there’s no reason to doubt Wolfe believes in what he expounds, he is talking to these men because he wants something from them – and he gets it.

But there’s another interesting outcome of Wolfe’s address, hardly noticeable, because it’s an absence.  Throughout the text prior to this address, Archie, at least in dialogue, has freely peppered his speech with the n-word, and other such disparaging terms as “blackbird” and “smokes” to refer to the black employees of the Spa.  After Wolfe’s address, this casual racism simply disappears.  Apparently, Archie can learn something, even when not admitting it.

It should be noted that as the Wolfe novels unfolds as a series, Wolfe always tends to remain Wolfe, perhaps only growing more jaded and more cantankerous as time goes on.  But Archie demonstrates personality development over the years.  By the 1960’s, he can almost figure out ‘who done it’ nearly as quickly as Wolfe.  More importantly, certain tendencies toward lower tastes and lower attitudes disappear, and he is more a man of the world in the later novels than when we first meet him.  The Archie Goodwin who narrates A Right to Die (1964), concerning the murder of a civil rights worker, has the same voice as the narrator of Too Many Cooks; but he is recognizably a changed man where race is concerned.  (Notably, Wolfe’s client in that novel is none other than now Professor of Anthropology, Paul Whipple.)

V. One of the reasons I really like Nero Wolfe is exactly his ability to blend philosophically informed reasoning and practical rhetoric. (I should say, Stout’s ability to do this through his fictional creation.  But although Stout was an able public speaker, as a writer he never elsewhere accomplished such enduring creations as Wolfe and Archie.)  I suppose one might call this blend a kind of ‘bootleg Enlightenment,’ the way Ayn Rand referred to Spillane’s overly emotive Mike Hammer novels as “bootleg Romanticism.”  For the Enlightenment was never quite as cold as its critics sometimes make it out.  How could it be?  It was Hume who used reason to argue for the passions.  It was Voltaire who cried “Écrasez l’infâme!” in defense of the Philosophes.

Wolfe is not quite a ‘man of the Enlightenment.’  He sometimes refers to himself as “an incurable romantic,” although Archie likes to point out that many of his ‘romantic’ decisions lead to an increase in his bank account.  More importantly, we must remember his experiences in ‘the Great War,’ the ‘War to End all Wars’ (which was of course mere overture to the Second World War).  There is a darkness in Wolfe.  Once he gets his teeth sunk into a case, it’s impossible to make him let go until he’s solved it, and despite his love of fine food and beer, of orchids, of fine books, of good conversation with the well-educated, and of just sitting around thinking, but there’s a streak of true fatalism in his understanding of life.  It’s almost as if, rather than enjoying the things he does, he uses them to comfort himself in a world he must endure rather than embrace.

Each of us finds an activity he can tolerate. The manufacturer of baby carriages, caught himself in the system’s web and with no monopoly of greed, entraps his workers in the toils of his necessity. Dolichocephalic patriots and brachycephalic patriots kill each other, and the brains of both rot before their statues can get erected. A garbage man collects table refuse, while a senator collects evidence of the corruption of highly placed men — might one not prefer the garbage as less unsavory? Only the table scavenger gets less pay; that is the real point. I do not soil myself cheaply, I charge high fees. [8]

I suppose the greatest attraction Wolfe has always had for me is, that in my own darker days, I know exactly what he means by remarks like this.  The solution of a murder only solves a murder, and what of that?  Death is unpleasant no matter the means of arrival.  What we need is a solution for

the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,

and the only solution we have for that is living it.

Rex Stout was known as cheerful, gregarious, generous and kind – in many ways all the education and taste of Wolfe, all the attitude and humor of Archie Goodwin.  So, it’s not clear how he was able to capture this kind of darkness in Wolfe.  But I think he did a fair job of it.  Wolfe’s greatest attraction for me is that he has clearly, at some point of his invented life, despaired.  And yet he survives.

Notes

[1] https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Rex_Stout

[2] http://spartacus-educational.com/USAstout.htm

[3] An edition can be downloaded temporarily at the internet library available at the Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/toomanycooks00stou_0

[4] Chapter 3.

[5] Chapter 7.

[6] Chapter 8.

[7] Chapter 10.

[8] Chapter 1.

3 Comments »

  1. So I show my age when I say I think I might have read all the Nero Wolfe novels? You seem to suggest that era of mystery novels might go the same way as the Western. I don’t think Stout’s prose has aged badly. As well as the whodunnit element, Goodwin (and Wolfe too) offers a certain amount of overlap with say Dashiell Hammett and the “good” hard-boiled (not Spillane, or Ross MacDonald rather than John D. MacDonald). You highlight social criticism in Too Many Cooks, but that remains a staple of modern detective stories as well as some procedurals, in print but also TV and film. I’d like to think a Nero Wolfe-like archetype will be recognised in a 100 years, not as widely as Sherlock Holmes, but more so than Sexton Blake or Bulldog Drummond. Our local library has a lot of Sax Rohmer reprints which I presume are there because people read them – so maybe Stout will come around again in more like 20-30 years 😉

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    • “so maybe Stout will come around again in more like 20-30 years ” A Stout revival would be most welcome. All my copies of the books are pretty well worn out!

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  2. Enjoyed reading.

    I’ll be looking for the books, I didn’t realize there were more of them than there were TV episodes (which I’ve watched twice so far).

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