I continue my mostly chronological journey though the Nero Wolfe canon with Rex Stout's Too Many Cooks and The Red Box, the fifth and fourth Wolfe books, respectively. (Read out of order because I didn't realize I owned a copy of Box until I was almost finished with Cooks. My hardcovers are on shelves, but the paperbacks are still mostly in boxes in the attic, alas.) The two books are an interesting contrast given that they were written one after the other.
The Red Box (along with the other early books) is much like watching the unaired Buffy pilot with Not!Willow. The basic rules of the Wolfeverse have been outlined, but there is still quite a bit of variation from what would become the norm. The relationship between Cramer and Wolfe is much more a partnership early in the book, with Cramer appearing grateful for the help. However, later events in the book sour the relationship, especially from Cramer's perspective, and seem to be the genesis of his animosity towards Wolfe that is a staple in later books. Wolfe is clearly not himself yet, either, stating on the subject of restaurants that, "I know nothing of restaurants; short of compulsion, I would not eat in one were Vatel himself the chef," which is utter nonsense given events in both Fer-de-Lance and Too Many Cooks, along with his association with Rusterman's (which is apparently first mentioned in the Cooks). He also deliberately sends Archie on an errand that he knows will cause Archie to miss lunch at the brownstone out of spite. The later Wolfe would never, ever do that.
Meanwhile, Archie is keeping shorthand notes to record his conversations with the suspects, rather than using his remarkable memory to report conversations verbatim as he would in future cases. Fritz is still acting more like a butler than just a cook, Cramer is having suspects beaten by police interrogators, Stebbins still seems to be Archie's pal, and Lon Cohen still hasn't made an appearance. The chairs in the office are still just chairs, although the one closest to Wolfe's desk does get a mention. There are also several references to the first three books, something I once said Stout hardly ever did. D'oh!
The mystery involves several poisonings, and starts out well enough, but it soon becomes obvious what the big secret must be, and once you figure that out, the murderer's identity is pretty obvious, too. Stout then hits two of my annoyance buttons. One of them is Wolfe not only allowing the murderer to commit suicide (right in front of Cramer), but going so far as to provide the means to do it. The other is that Stout flubs his chemistry of toxic substances, ascribing a level of toxicity to nitrobenzene that it just doesn't have. Now, nitrobenzene is toxic, but just because it smells like almonds doesn't mean it's as toxic and fast acting as the cyanide he uses earlier in the book. The book also introduces the bizarre tri-cornered hat that Wolfe is seen wearing while out of the house in several episodes of the TV series. This is the only mention of it I've ever seen in the canon so far, so I can only surmise that Archie (as narrator) made it up in a fit of pique to make Wolfe look ridiculous to Archie's readers.
Too Many Cooks is where the series really starts to roll along. Some consider it to be the best of all the books, but at the same time it's problematic because Archie is clearly characterized as a bigot, quite a shock if you've come to the book long after Archie became one of your heroes. The mystery is a good one. The greatest chefs in the world gather in a resort in the West Virginia mountains to cook and to eat, and Wolfe is invited along to speak. He's there partly as a favor to his oldest friend, Marko Vukcik, but mostly for his own reasons as he tries to obtain the recipe for saucisse minuit, the finest sausages in the entire world, from their creator. Naturally, one of the chefs ends up dead, and Wolfe must solve the case.
Stout plays fair with the reader. It had been a long time since I first read the book, so I'd forgotten whodunnit. I figured the wrong guy for the right reason, but all the clues were in plain sight, so I have no beefs. What I did remember from my first reading was Archie's bigotry.
"It was as narrow as a bigot's mind..."
The irony is that Archie uses the above line to describe a dirt road he has to drive along in The Red Box, a line that implies that he doesn't think of himself as a bigot. But he certainly is in Cooks. The resort is in the South, and the majority of the service workers and kitchen staff are black. Archie isn't as bad as the locals he encounters, but he uses slurs and tries to convince Wolfe that you can't deal with "those people" as Wolfe would with his normal clientele. It is deliberate characterization rather than just an authorial blind spot, because Wolfe is just as clearly not a bigot. He succeeds (where the locals failed) in gathering information from the kitchen staff by treating them in exactly the same manner he would any other person he interviews. Immediately afterward, when Archie argues with Wolfe about how to deal with the local sheriff, Wolfe rebukes Archie, "Archie. Please. You tried to instruct me how to handle colored men. Will you try it with white men too?"
As I said, it all comes as a bit of a shock to someone who knows Archie from the later books. I'd like to think he learned from the experience, but it could also be that most of Wolfe's clients over the years are rich white folk, and that's why it never seems to come up again. There is one novel, A Right to Die, in which the civil rights movement is a backdrop, and it features one of the black characters from Cooks. I've never read it, but now I'm curious.
As far as canon goes, Cooks contains the first look at Wolfe's background. He tells a story about a mission he once carried out as an agent for the Austro-Hungarian empire. Vukcik makes his first appearance, and Rusterman's is mentioned for the first time. And then there are the saucisse minuit, which also appear in later books. I have to admit, I spent most of my first read of the book wondering about what they tasted like, given Wolfe's effusive praise. Later on, I stumbled across a copy of Stout's The Nero Wolfe Cookbook, which contains a recipe (of sorts). I still have no idea what it tastes like. I never seem to have the required leftover roast pheasant in my fridge.
There is also one bit of editing weirdness about the book. The word "tomorrow" is consistently spelled "to-morrow" in my mid-80's paperback edition. (In my mid-60's paperback of The Red Box, it's spelled "tomorrow.") My 1953 edition of Webster's New Collegiate does list "to-morrow" as an alternate spelling, but it just looks weird. Shrug.