Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Tuesday, May 31, 2022


 "Le Specialite de M. Duclos" by Oliver La Farge (first published in The New Yorker, April 29, 1950; later reprinted in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, in La Farge's collection A Pause in the Desert, 1957; in John Creasey Mystery Magazine, May 1958 (as "The Specialty of M. Duclos"); in Ellery Queen's Anthology #10, 1966; and in Murder on the Menu, edited by Peter Haining, 1991)

The French are passionate about many things, one of which is le haute cuisine francaise.

M. Duclos is a master chef who ran a restaurant in Connecticut, providing superb dining for unsophisticated American palates.  Ever creative, one day he came up with a new sauce blanche, one which surpassed all others and would make Duclos's name legendary in culinary circles, ensuring his successful return to France.  He invited a number of his best customers to try the new recipe at his restaurant, among them a man named Hathaway, an uncouth but monied and influential individual who (horrors!) said that oleo-margarine was the equal of butter in cooking.  Anyway, everyone at the dinner raved about the new sauce.  Hathaway, however, snuck into the kitchen to where Duclos had prepared the sauce; there on the shelf above were all the ingredients for Hathaway to memorize.  Duclos saw that Hathaway had discovered his secret recipe, although not the proportions of each ingredient used.

What to do?  Certainly Hathaway will fumble along, experimenting with the ingredients over the coming weeks, although such a man could never get the proportions right.  Also as certain, Hathaway will put forward his best effort to recreate the sauce blanche Duclos and it will be a mockery of what the great chef had created.  This counterfeit will put Duclos to shame and will become a slur on le haute cuisine francaise.  This insult could not stand!  So Duclos stabbed a knife into Hathaway's heart.

Duclos then made his way to Mexico and then back to France, where he once again assumed his true name.  Authorities in Connecticut demanded that Duclos be returned to America for trial.  A mere formality for that would be the approval of a French tribunal -- something that appeared to be a given.

Enter Maitre Bechamil, one of France's greatest lawyers, who surprised the legal world by taking up Duclos's case.  Bechamil was a Norman and Duclos was am Auvergnat and Bechamil hated Auvergnats -- for one thing, they used too much garlic.  Bechamil you see was a gourmet and the secret to the sauce blanche Duclos could not be lost to the Americans.  The hearing was scheduled for the winter session but Bechamil managed to get it postponed to the spring session -- the presiding judge of the winter session was a man who would sprinkle vinegar upon rogones saures madere, while the presiding judge of the spring session was the president of the Societe Gastronomique des Legistes, perhaps the most important and influential legal association there is. The judge's two associates were also members.

You can see where this is going.  Bechamil had his client prepare his magnificent recipe for the court, using the secret ingredients from three unmarked phials, disposing the phials after using them.  Thee judge and his associates were greatly impressed.  Perhaps bending all sorts of laws and defending the name of France and its cuisine, they ruled that the could be considered nothing more than self-defense.

After the trial Duclos stated that he would be going to Auvergnat for a month, readying himself to return to Paris and open a restaurant.  Bechamil was glad because this would give him a month to come as close to Duclos's recipe for sauce blanche Duclos as possible -- he had pocketed the three empty vials you see and had determined their contents.  He doubted he could ever get the exact recipe, but with a month to experiment and believing that the presiding judge's memory of the exact taste of the sauce might have faded just a little in that time, Bechamil might have a very good chance of being accepted into the Societe Gasstronomique des Legistes.

As Bechamil is experimenting with the ingredients there is a knock on the door.  It is Duclos, who said he had something to show Bechamil before going to Auvergnat, a new purchase.  Seeing what Bechamil was trying to do, Duclos said that one of the three vials he had tossed away during the trial was a red herring and contained an ingredient that was not used in his recipe.  He then opened up a package to show the lawyer what he had bought.  A sharp knife, exactly the same as that he had lost when he killed Hathaway...

The author of this short, satirical tale, Oliver La Farge (1901-1963) was a noted anthropologist and writer, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his 1929 novel Laughing Boy, as well as four other novels and a number of short stories in The Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, The New Yorker, Cosmopolitan, and The Atlantic Monthly.  He wrote fourteen non-fiction books, mostly about American Indians of the Southwest, a subject also reflected in much of his fiction.  As an anthropologist he explored the early Olmec sites in Mexico and other sites in Central America and the American Southwest.  He rediscovered San Martin Pajapan Monument 1 and the ruins of La Venta, a major Olmec center.

He was closed to the Navajo people and learned their language.  In turn, they called him "Anast'harzi Nez." of "Tall Cliff-Dweller."

His oldest son, Peter La Farge (1931-1965), a former rodeo cowboy, was a popular folk singer in the 50s and 60s.


  1. I've been surprisingly sparse in my reading of La Farge stories over the years, though I've enjoyed what I have read. Now I'm curious as to why father and particularly son both died relatively young, though folk-singing could help that along almost as readily as rodeo performance (or pro writing).

    1. Todd, Oliver La Farge died at age 61 from unspecified causes. His son, born Oliver Albee La Farge, became alienated from his father and changed his name to Peter La Farge sometime after his parent divorced; the estrangement was so bitter that Peter would falsely claim that he was adopted and that was actually a member of the Narragansett tribe. Peter die at age 34 supposedly from a stroke but more probably from an overdose of Thorazine, a drug that his friend Johnny Cash apparently introduced to him. Singer Liam Clancy, who lived next door to Peter, was rumored to have said Peter was a suicide, slitting his wrists while in the shower -- something that went against police reports, contemporary news coverage, and family testimony. Several online biographies of Peter have blindly accepted Peter's claims of his origins, as well as various theories concerning his death.

    2. Well, A Good Story is great fun for lazy writers-of-sorts and Those Seeking Inside Dope. Both father and son were fascinated with native nations, as you note...