West Virginia Book Festival

A murder story at The Greenbrier

OK, officially, the story isn’t set at The Greenbrier. But it is, in all but name. One of the most famous fictional detectives in American history solved a murder and barely escaped death himself in a setting that’s obviously modeled on the resort.

Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe made his first appearance in 1934’s “Fer-de-Lance.” For the next four decades, he appeared in a new novel about once a year. The Wolfe mysteries followed many conventions of the hard-boiled genre, but there were several differences – including Wolfe’s extreme reluctance to leave his home in New York City. He sent out his right-hand man, Archie Goodwin (who narrates the stories), and other operatives to gather information and bring people to him, and then usually solved the cases while sitting in his office chair in his brownstone on West 35th Street in Manhattan.

So it was a big deal in “Too Many Cooks,” the fifth Wolfe novel, published in 1938, when Wolfe gets on a train and heads to the Kanawha Spa, a world-famous resort in West Virginia.

Famous resort in West Virginia … hmmmmm.

One of the few things that can get Wolfe up and moving is the promise of a good meal. Call him a gourmand, or a gastronome, or an epicure. The fact is, Wolfe is fat. Really fat. He loves rich food, and usually drinks several bottles of beer a night. He employs a personal chef, Fritz Bremer, and refuses to interrupt his meals for business except in extreme emergencies.

But when Wolfe is invited to be the guest of honor at the annual meeting of Les Quinze Maitres, an association of the finest chefs in the world, he can’t decline. So, off he goes to West Virginia.

Stout places the Kanawha Spa in Marlin County, which of course doesn’t exist. Might he have gotten the name from Marlinton, the county seat of neighboring Pocahontas County?

Nero Wolfe fans are so confident that The Greenbrier was the model for the Kanawha Spa that the Wolfe Pack, a very serious Nero Wolfe appreciation society, spent a weekend in April 2007 at The Greenbrier. They talked about the book, of course, but also enjoyed a series of meals patterned on those in “Too Many Cooks,” including a breakfast featuring saucisse minuit – the mythical sausage dish that Wolfe lusts after throughout the story.

An interesting footnote, in light of this weekend’s golf tournament at The Greenbrier: “Too Many Cooks” was serialized in The American Magazine before it was released as a novel. As part of a promotional tour, the magazine sent Stout and golfer Gene Sarazen, along with other writers, actors, models, etc., on a promotional tour across the country. Ten years earlier, Sarazen had played a well-publicized exhibition match at The Greenbrier against another famous golfer of the era, Walter Hagen.

At each stop on the promotional tour, Sarazen and Stout would play a round of golf. According to John McAleer’s 1977 biography of Stout, they played 216 holes on the tour, and Stout won eight — and earned every one. “Gene made no concession to duffers,” McAleer wrote.

Another slight West Virginia connection for Stout, which doesn’t have much to do with anything, but I found it, so here you go:

In the early 1800s, one of his ancestors, Bathsheba Ambler Lanum, packed up her 10 children and traveled from Virginia to Ohio, “crossing Virginia and the western regions of the state through the Kanawah Route,” McAleer wrote. That route followed the course of the Kanawha River, ending at Point Pleasant on the Ohio border.

Bathsheba’s husband, Robert Lanum, urged her to get out of Virginia after his death, fearing that the issue of slavery would tear the country apart. Stout, who was born to Quaker parents in Indiana, was proud of several ancestors who worked on the Underground Railroad. In “Too Many Cooks,” Wolfe questions black staff members at the resort with respect and treats them with dignity, which was much noted in the book’s reviews.