Even after my detective novel binge in 2010, I hadn’t heard of Rex Stout or his famous detective Nero Wolfe until my senior year of college, when I took a class on mystery novels. Turns out, they’re Kind of a Big Deal. As my professor put it: “Nero Wolfe’s fans are the detective fiction equivalent of Trekkies.” There are Nero Wolfe websites. Nero Wolfe fan clubs. Nero Wolfe cookbooks. He’s basically to America what Miss Marple and Poirot were to England, and just learning about the phenomenon was fascinating.
As for the book itself, it didn’t disappoint. It takes place in the ’30s in West Virginia, where the fifteen best chefs in the world (Les Quinze Maitres) have gathered for their annual meeting. One of these chefs is Laszio, who is despised by no less than three of the other guests present. Luckily, when Laszio is found dead with knife in his back, it just so happens that Nero Wolfe is also at the gathering, and somewhat reluctantly decides to find the killer. Along for the ride is Wolfe’s Watson, a snarky detective/bodyguard/secretary named Archie Goodwin. Archie is our narrator, and he is delightful. Wolfe is fantastic as well, but I should admit my own bias and say that any enormously fat man who overuses the exclamation “Confound you!” will always be on my good side.
Not that the book is perfect. Nero Wolfe doesn’t like women, and is quite upfront about it, but at least there’s one good female character in the story to prove that he’s probably wrong. I took off a star in my rating based purely on white guilt, because goddamn is this book racist. There’s a Chinese character, and everyone says that she’ll be suspected by the police because she’s Chinese; Archie throws around some slurs to describe the European chefs; and by the time I got through with this book the n-word barely even phased me anymore. The characters in this book are hella racist, which I guess is historically accurate, but here’s the good news: all the good character (Wolfe, Archie) are at least aware of their own prejudices and try to overcome them. Wolfe has a great speech, right before he starts interviewing all the (African-American) waiters at the hotel that basically goes, “I’ve already made assumptions about all of you based on your race, and you’ve all made assumptions about me based on my race, so what we’re going to have to do is just put our prejudices aside for one night and cooperate with each other so I can figure out who killed Laszio.” It’s not going to win any tolerance awards, but it’s a welcome relief from Philip “Fag Party” Marlowe.
Verdict: four out of five stars