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?

Where Would You Go on a Literary Vacation?

Teachers and librarians have told us since we were in kindergarten that books transport us to new worlds. If you could choose any location in any story, where would you go on a literary vacation? I’ve always had the desire to check out Airbnb for hobbit holes that I could book for two weeks. I’d spend my time puttering around the Shire.

But then I think traveling 20,000 leagues under the sea in a luxury submarine might be better, as long as the captain wasn’t a revenge-seeking evil genius. The sub would stop at points of interests under the waves, the highlight being a day to suit up in scuba gear and explore the ruins of Atlantis.

Your turn. Where would you go on a literary vacation?

If you would like to see more bookish questions from this month, click here.

Three Ways Writers Can Reclaim Reading Joy

As I said at the beginning of the month, it’s difficult for me to read for pleasure because I read through my writer’s lens and evaluate a story as a writer, not as a reader. I still struggle with this problem but discovered three ways writers can reclaim reading joy.

Schedule Time to Read

That may not sound like fun. I have to schedule time to read like a dental appointment? But I’ve found that with a husband and kids, if I don’t schedule everything–even something as minor as my pleasure reading–I will never stumble across a free hour to sit down with a book. I have never stumbled across a free hour to do anything since my kids were born. Now I understand why my mother often took a book to the bathroom.

On Sundays, I don’t do any writing or anything related to publishing. I try to read just for the fun of it. I’m not always successful. I’m so wired to work that it’s hard to relax. But it’s nice to stretch out with a book other than at bedtime.

Read Dead Authors

A good piece of advice for writers pursuing publication is to become familiar with the books currently being published in their genre. The drawback of that advice is that writers constantly analyze those books, comparing them to their work in progress, robbing themselves of reading joy.

Reading great books from the past in my genre removes the need to dissect them. It also educates me in the history of my genre.

Read a Genre You Don’t Write

Reading a genre I have no intention of writing in helps silence, or at least muffles, my internal editor. I can more easily approach a book of historical fiction or sci-fi as a reader than as a writer.

That’s one reason I enjoy reading poetry. I know I’ll never publish anything I write, so reading it is simply fun.

Writers, how do you reclaim reading joy? Readers, what do you do when the joy drains out of reading?

What Are Your Comfort Books?

What are your comfort books? I define comfort books as the books I turn to again and again and enjoy each time I read them. Sometimes, I’m not in an adventurous mood and want to dive into a book that I know will have a good ending. Or I’m depressed and need to read the humorous stories that have made me smile and laugh In the past. Or I’m going on a trip and don’t want to be stuck with a new book I don’t like.

Some of the comfort books I depend on are:

Your turn. What are your comfort books?

Why I Love Short Stories

I don’t remember when I fell in love with short stories. Must have been early, in junior high or high school. As a mystery fan, I know mysteries have a long, proud short story tradition–the first mysteries were short stories written by Edgar Allan Poe. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote four novels featuring Sherlock Holmes but fifty-six short stories. I discovered Ray Bradbury short stories at my first library job. After so many years of reading this literary form, I can give you four reasons why I love short stories.

Quick Satisfaction

I read for pleasure at night to help me get sleepy. Short stories allow me to enjoy a complete story in one or two sitting. Since I’ve had kids, I find it much more difficult to finish a novel. If I really like it, I have to sneak in reading time at other points during the day besides bedtime, and ultimately, I grow frustrated.

Sampling New Authors and Genres

When I long for something new to read, I pick up anthologies. I can sample a variety of authors in a short amount of time. If I like a particular author’s story, I’ll seek out his other works, including novels. If I need a break from mysteries, I’m more willing to try a different genre in short story form because it’s less of a commitment. I enjoy reading fantasy and sci-fi in short stories because I don’t enjoy novel with world-building so complicated I need to take notes. Short stories allow me to dip into a fantasy world without drowning in details.

Immersive Reading

I find it easier to get lost in a short story than a novel. Maybe it’s because a short story often takes place in one setting and is told from one point of view. Novels can achieve this too. One of the reason that Watership Down is a favorite novel of mine is because author Richard Adams does such a marvelous job of making the English countryside come alive. But I think it’s harder to do this in novels because they have more plot to keep moving. The short length of short stories actually works in their favor by forcing writers to zero in on settings and characters and to make every word work double, triple, or quadruple duty.

Twist Endings

If there’s one literary technique short stories do better than novels, it’s the twist ending. Again, I think it has to do with the length. On April Fool’s Day, a person doesn’t mind being tricked for a few minutes. But if the joker keeps it up until the end of the day, the victim will feel stupid and conned. Finding a twist ending at the end of a short story seems appropriate after I invest only an hour to it. But if I spend days with a novel, only to have all my conceptions upended, I’ll most likely feel cheated.

Novels can do the twist ending well. Agatha Christie pulled it off in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I just think it’s much harder to keep the truth hidden from readers for hundreds of pages instead of fifty and not have them feel like they’ve been scammed.

Which do you prefer—short stories or novels and why?

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