Since it’s NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), I’m featuring one of my favorite novels. One surprising pleasure of getting older is finding new enjoyment in books I originally didn’t like. The summer I was twenty, I tried the Father Brown mysteries and didn’t like them at all. Twenty years later, I read them and couldn’t get enough of them. I wrote about that in my blog post last month about my favorite mysteries. The same thing happened with The Father Hunt by Rex Stout.
I discovered the Nero Wolfe series when I was a junior in college and slowly built up my personal library of these mysteries. Somewhere along the line, I acquired a copy of The Father Hunt. The first reading didn’t impress me because when I decided to pack it for a trip to the beach last summer, I didn’t remember anything about it. But I took it on vacation, and the novel hooked me.
Maybe I love it now because it’s not your typical Nero Wolfe mystery. It was written late in the series, and perhaps Mr. Stout was trying a different kind of mystery with a different structure.
Amy Denovo, a twenty-two-year-old college graduate, hires Nero Wolfe and his bodyguard and legman Archie Goodwin to find out who her father is. Her mother Elinor, who recently died in a hit-and run, never breathed a word about him or her own background. But on her death, Elinor left Amy a note, saying that her father sent her $1,000 every month since she was born. Elinor refused to spend it, so now it belongs to Amy–$264,000.
With nothing more to go on than the bank that issued the checks, Wolfe and Archie take the case.
Usually, in a Nero Wolfe mystery, a crime, most often murder, is committed and only a handful of people are possible suspects. Sometimes there’s a second or third murder, each providing more clues until the killer is caught. The Father Hunt begins with no crime, although seasoned mystery fans are instantly suspicious of any unsolved hit-and-run. What I like is how Archie investigates, following one lead after another, bringing his findings to Wolfe, who directs their strategy. Each time they think they reach a dead end, they find another path to follow, such as they uncover the man who wrote the checks but refuses to say why. He proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was in a hospital when Amy was conceived. So Wolfe and Archie begin digging into his relatives and associates.
The other thing I like is that the suspects and other people questioned are more fleshed out, seem more like real people. Many times in mysteries, the characters are just props to misdirect the reader. But these characters come alive when described by Archie Goodwin:
Cyrus M. Jarrett, the man who wrote the checks:
As he approached I noted that he looked his seventy-six, but he walked more like fifty-six. Then he got closer and sat and I saw the eyes and they looked a thousand and seventy-six.
Dorothy Sebor, a businesswoman in her fifties, who tells Archie she’s never worked for a man and never intends to. Because of her assistance, Archie says he’ll send her roses and asks what kind she would like.
“Green with black borders. If you sent me ten dozen roses I’d sell then to some customer. I’m a businesswoman.”
She certainly was.
Elinor Denovo. Aside from the fact that she never talked about her life before Amy was born to anyone, she also had no photos of herself. After Archie interviews Amy and goes over the apartment she shared with her mother, he reports to Wolfe.
“I’ll skip the details of the inspection unless you insist. As I said, no photographs, which is fantastic. The letters and other papers, a washout. If we fed them to a computer I would expect it to come up with something like SO WHAT or TELL IT TO THE MARINES.”
Because of rediscovering this gem, I reread other stories in the series, trying to find a new favorite among old books.
What about you? Have you fallen in love with a book on the second time around?