As I have posted my thoughts about Rex Stout and Might as Well be Dead on the podcast this week, perhaps this is a good time to bring back my review of another of my favorite Nero Wolfe books.
There have been many great American mystery authors who write (or at least wrote) in the grand traditions of the Golden Age - writers such as S. S. Van Dine, Ellery Queen, Craig Rice, Elizabeth Daly...the list goes on for quite some time. Among them all, though, I'd have to put the Nero Wolfe novels at (or at least very near) the top. His mysteries manage to combine elements of the Private Investigator novel with the best of the classic puzzle-oriented tradition, not to mention the fine stable of regular characters who populate the novels, from Fer-de-Lance to A Family Affair. Another of Stout's books that I've always enjoyed is The Father Hunt, originally published in 1968. I reviewed it on the podcast nearly a decade ago. Here, with minor editorial changes, is what I said about it:
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Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin help a young woman find the father she has never known. And, in doing so they discover a serious problem: it seems that her father has murdered her mother. That’s the mystery at the heart of Rex Stout’s The Father Hunt.
Before we talk about The Father Hunt, let’s agree on a couple of things about Nero Wolfe. Great detective though he may be, he has to be one of the most annoying and basically unlovable characters in all of detective fiction. He is smug, grossly overweight, hates women, is habitually rude, and expects the world to revolve around him. Why on earth do we, as readers, put up with him?
The answer is simple: Archie Goodwin. He is more than Nero Wolfe’s eyes, ears, arms and legs. He is also our guide through Wolfe’s world. And as Archie is so likable in his own right, and, at the same time, so tolerant of Wolfe’s faults and protective of his boss, we accept Wolfe. Let Wolfe come into the story, apply his genius, work his lips in and out while coming up with a plan of action – Archie approves, and so do we.
And let’s also agree that the constant cast of characters around Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin contains some fascinating people. There is the cook and housekeeper, Fritz Brenner, Wolfe’s orchid specialist, Theodore Horstmann, Inspector Cramer and Cramer’s sidekick, Sergeant Purley Stubbins, Wolfe’s lawyer, Nathaniel Parker, and the three private detectives most frequently used by Wolfe to do some of the routine legwork on these cases, Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin and Orrie Cather.
I mention all these names because they are all part of The Father Hunt. It’s one of the reason why I like this book so much. We visit Wolfe and tolerate him because of these people around him. Even Archie has people whom he sees regularly and who are a part of this book. There is Lily Rowan, for example, the young woman who first appears in Archie’s life much earlier in the Wolfe saga, in the book Some Buried Caesar, and becomes a regular. In fact, The Father Hunt opens with a paragraph which really sets out Archie’s relationship with Lily quite clearly, in only a few lines:
It happens once or twice a week. Lily Rowan and I, returning from a show or party or hockey game, leave the elevator and approach the door of her penthouse on top of the apartment building on Sixty-third Street, between Madison and Park, and there is the key question. Mine is, Do I stay back and let her do it? Hers is, Does she stay back and let me do it? We have never discussed it, and it is always handled the same way. When she gets out her key as we leave the elevator she gives me a smile which means, “Yes, you have one, but it’s my door,” and I smile back and follow her to it. It is understood that mine is for situations that seldom arise.
I think that’s very typical of Archie’s narration – and of Rex Stout’s writing. Look how much information is conveyed – and at all the things left unsaid – in that one brief paragraph. I find this kind of writing delightful, and it’s one of the things I like about The Father Hunt.
In an introduction to one of the paperback editions of The Father Hunt, Donald E. Westlake – a fine mystery writer in his own right – points out that one doesn’t really read the Nero Wolfe stories for the plots, which are not always top-notch. There are a lot of coincidences, and there are times when the reasoning used to arrive at the solution is tenuous at best. The plot is really not the strongest point in The Father Hunt, but let me mention a couple of points which may intrigue you.
The book centers on a young woman – she is employed by Lily Rowan – who comes to Archie asking for help finding the father she never knew. Her mother refused to talk about him – in fact, her mother appears to have changed her name, and her daughter really doesn’t know who she is. The mother is now dead – the victim of a hit and run driver. And by the time Nero Wolfe gets involved, it appears that the hit and run was no accident, but murder – quite possibly by the unknown father.
Events in the book are pretty straightforward – there aren’t as many twists and turns as you might expect, and a great deal of the information needed to solve the mystery turns up through routine detective work. But along the way, as I said, most of the Nero Wolfe regulars become involved, and it is the interplay among those characters that make this book so worthwhile. Sometimes, it’s practically a throwaway. When Archie calls Wolfe’s three regular backup detectives in to the office to help them, he simply notes, "Saul Panzer (ten dollars an hour and worth double that), Fred Durkin (eight dollars an hour and worth it), and Orrie Cather (eight dollars an hour and usually worth it.)." That sets up the hierarchy pretty nicely, doesn’t it?
And along the way, there are always the orchids to be seen, and Wolfe’s gourmet meals to be eaten and savored.
I admit it – Rex Stout is one of my favorite authors. I find his books, more than the works of many other writers, stand up particularly well over time, and I re-read them every year or two for the sheer pleasure of seeing how well Stout used the English language. It is worth reminding ourselves – particularly those of us who start to feel our age catching up with us – that Rex Stout didn’t begin writing the Nero Wolfe novels until he was nearly 48 years old. The first story, Fer-de-Lance, appeared in 1934, and was followed by at least one Wolfe story a year until Stout’s death in 1975. That’s pretty impressive – even more so when you realize that Stout rarely or never rewrote his books – his first draft was usually the final version.
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If you haven’t read any of the Nero Wolfe novels, do yourself a favor. Your favorite mystery bookstore or local dealer can help you find The Father Hunt, or any of the other Nero Wolfe mysteries by Rex Stout They're available in e-book formats, and there seem to be a lot of both paperbacks and hardbacks available online. I know I enjoy them over and over again, and I suspect that you will too.
To listen to the original podcast, please click here.
Next: Arsène Lupin, Gentleman Thief, by Maurice Leblanc