The Father Hunt by Rex Stout

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?

Mysteries That Influenced My Writing

Since I began my blog, I’ve written about the mysteries that influenced my writing. Although I’m still on the hunt for good mysteries, I find the ones I discovered in my teens and twenties have had the most impact and not just because I was more impressionable when I first discovered them. When I reread my favorites, I still learn techniques I can use in my storytelling.

My First Mysteries

In the seventies, my mystery education started with Scooby Doo and continued with Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, Trixie Belden, and the Three Investigators. In seventh grade, I read my first adult book, which was a mystery written in 1975 by Dorothy Gilman, entitled A Nun in the Closet. Balancing mystery and humor, the novel relates the investigation of Sister John and Sister Hyacinth into a mysterious bequest to their abbey.

It had to be shortly after that that I plowed my way through every Agatha Christie story I could get my hands on. Now I reread her books first, for fun, and second, to learn plotting techniques. That was always Mrs. Christie’s strength. Although her detectives Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple have achieved immortality, in many books, her other characters aren’t as well-developed. Death on the Nile and A Holiday for Murder are my favorite novels because the rest of the characters are more complicated and more human, and therefore, more interesting.

At seventeen, I discovered Sherlock Holmes and there was no stopping me. I read all 60 of Sir Arthur’s stories and have read a huge amount of pastiches written by contemporary authors. The lesson I learned: my detective must be a character people want to spend time with. For more about my love for the Sherlock Holmes canon, click here.

When I was in college, I took a class called “Detective Film and Fiction.” (When you’re an English major, you can take classes like that and earn credit). I was assigned to read Too Many Cooks by Rex Stout and couldn’t get enough of the world Mr. Stout created for Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Although Nero Wolfe is the detective, it was Archie’s unique voice that hooked me. The lesson I learned: the Watson character can be as interesting and more relatable than the detective character. For more on Archie Goodwin, click here.

Mysteries in Middle Age

I was twenty-one when I tried a collection of Father Brown short stories and didn’t like them at all. They weren’t fair-play mysteries. In some cases, they didn’t seem like mysteries at all. Fast forward twenty years. I tried them again, and they lit up my mind like few stories ever have. I realized that Mr. Chesterton wasn’t trying to write realistic fiction, although his stories highlight realities of life.

His favorite device is paradox, like in the short story, “The Strange Crime of John Boulnois.” When Sir Claude Champion is found stabbed to death, the police assume the killer is John Boulnois because Sir Claude was pursuing his wife. But Mrs. Boulnois insists her husband is innocent. He was never jealous of Sir Claude, a childhood friend, although Sir Claude was wealthy, aristocratic, accomplished, and celebrated. Father Brown understands and quotes from the book of Esther. “And Haman began to tell them … of all the things wherein the king had honored him; and he said: ‘All these things profit me nothing while I see Mordecait the Jew sitting in the gate.”

I learned that if I can make a character, clue, or plot point appear one way but then reveal that it indicates the exact opposite, it surprises the reader and gives that part of my story greater weight.

Around this same point in my life, I dove into the mysteries featuring the detective Uncle Abner. These short stories, set in West Virginia before the Civil War, have some of the best descriptions of settings I’ve read. I feel like I’ve entered the world that existed in the Appalachian mountains more than 150 years ago. For more on the Uncle Abner mysteries, click here. I learned not to overlook my setting. Settings can perform certain literary tasks, like setting the mood, much more easily than character or plot.

Now it’s your turn. What stories have influenced your writing? Or what stories have stayed with your through the years?

The Urban Setting Thesaurus

Nothing beats visiting a setting in person. But if that’s not possible, grab a copy of The Urban Setting Thesaurus: a Writer’s Guide to City Spaces by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

This reference book lists over 100 different settings found in an urban environment. For each setting, the authors list ways to evoke all five senses, possible sources of conflict, usual inhabitants, other related settings, notes and tips, and an example of how to work the setting into a story.

I wished I could have consulted this book last winter when I realized I had to write a brief scene in a pawn shop. The only time I’d visited one was in middle school. I don’t remember why, but my dad and I entered that pawn shop in Wheeling, West Virginia. My only memories are pretty vague, except for the piece of scrimshaw I found. I needed The Urban Setting Thesaurus to get the details right, even for a short scene.

The first thirty pages consist of articles offering advice on how to get maximum effect from your settings, such as “The Setting as a Vehicle for Delivering Backstory” and “Common Setting Snags”. One article I found very informative was “Urban World Building: The Pros and Cons of Choosing a Real-Life Location.”

Even better are the appendices in the back, which include the emotional value tool and setting checklist. If you have a scene that isn’t working or won’t behave, analyze it through this checklist. The authors have provided a pdf for the setting checklist here.

What if you’re writing a story with a rural setting? Never fear. Ms. Ackerman and Ms. Puglisi have thoughtfully published The Rural Setting Thesaurus: a Writer’s Guide to Personal and Natural Places.

For my review of another writing book on settings, click here. I’ve also reviewed another book by Ms. Ackerman and Ms. Puglisi, The Emotion Thesaurus.

What book you’ve read has an amazing urban setting?

Where the Lilies Bloom by Bill and Vera Cleaver

This month I’m celebrating YA fiction with posts, prompts, and guest bloggers all dealing with the genre I write. I had a tough time picking a book to highlight, and then I remembered Where the Lilies Bloom by Bill and Vera Cleaver.

As a child, I was first introduced to the story through the 1974 movie that was made from the novel. I only saw the last quarter of it, but I was drawn to the story about four siblings trying to hold their family together in the North Carolina mountains after their widowed father dies. I know what attracted me was the setting and people looking and speaking like my relatives. Appalachian stories have always snagged my attention, especially when I was a kid because it often seemed to me that everyone lived in cities, and that environment was alien to me.

At my first library job, I found the novel and read it. The story is told from the POV of fourteen-year-old Mary Call. She takes over her family when her father dies because her eighteen-year-old sister Devola is “cloudy-headed”. Her biggest help comes from her brother Romey, who is twelve. They also have to look after their five-year-old sister.

A Heroine You Can Root For

One thing I love about the novel is the character of Mary Call. She is an inferno of determination. Following their father’s instructions, Mary Call and Romey bury him in an unmarked grave in the mountains and then try to keep up the pretense that he’s alive they won’t get separated. But Mary Call also comes across as a realistic fourteen-year-old, who doesn’t understand much of the adult world. The kids’ lives go from bad to worse before Mary Call realizes that she can’t keep the promises she made to her father, but she hangs on as long as she can, like the loyal daugher she is.

A Setting You Can Live In

Another great quality of the novel is the setting. I feel like I’m experiencing life in the Appalachian mountains. To make money, the kids resort to wildcrafting, the science and art of collecting wild plants for medicine, as their mother had done. So the setting is more than just a backdrop to signal the poverty the kids lives in.

If you get a chance to see the movie version of Where the Lilies Bloom, you won’t regret it. It’s an excellent adaptation of a book, sticking closely to the novel and capturing its tone. According to Wikipedia, it was filmed in North Carolina and local residents were used in small parts. I love it when a movie uses authentic locations. Several years ago, the History Channel made about the Hatfield and McCoy feud, which took place in West Virginia and Kentucky. They filmed it in Romania. Huh?

If you’d like to read about another one of my favorite YA novels, click here for my review of The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton.

What are your favorite YA novels?

The Elements of Style by Strunk and White

Every writer should own a copy of The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. Yes, that E.B. White. I bought my copy when a professor required it for a class. I’d forgotten how essential it is until author Edwina Perkins recommended it in a workshop I took at the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference. The reason why I forgot is that this book teaches the very basics in good writing, going over rules I now know instinctively but forgot how I knew them. Those rules are so important to any kind of writing that I’m perusing the book. I can’t read it cover to cover or my brain will pop. But I’m finding it so helpful to review chapters as I tackle the edit of my WIP novel.

I own the third edition There’s a fourth available, but aside from a forward, I couldn’t find any differences. I studied the table of contents are identical in both volumes. But be sure to get the latest edition. Writing style does change over time and it might contain a few, small differences.

Including the index, my copy isn’t even a hundred pages long. But it has so much to offer. I’m eager to reread chapter four, “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused”, such as the substitution of “utilize” for “use” and the explanation that there are no degrees of unique. Unique means “without like or equal.” So if I’m describing a book, it can only be “unique”. The book can’t be “very unique” or “more unique”. I love seeing a pet peeve of mine upheld. Chapter five, “An Approach to Style”, lists twenty-one tips to make our writing understandable.

What books do you recommend for editing?

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