Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Old Bestseller: The Fortune Hunter, by Louis Joseph Vance

Old Bestseller: The Fortune Hunter, by Louis Joseph Vance

a review by Rich Horton

Here again a "novelization" of a popular play. The Fortune Hunter, by Winchell Smith, was a big Broadway hit in 1909. (Smith (1871-1933) was an actor, director, and producer, of both plays and films, as well as a writer, and ironically his most famous play might be Brewster's Millions (1906) which was first a novel (published in 1902 by George Barr McCutcheon, originally as by "Richard Greave")). Vance's novelization of The Fortune Hunter appeared from Grosset & Dunlap in 1910, with illustrations by Arthur William Brown.

Louis Joseph Vance (1879-1933) was a successful writer as well. He was best known for creating the Lone Wolf (Michael Lanyard), the protagonist of eight of his novels, who also appeared in plays, many movies, and in radio and TV adaptations. His novels The Brass Bowl (1907) and The Black Bag (1908) appeared on Publishers' Weekly's list of the bestselling novels of those years.
(cover by Arthur William Brown)

The Fortune Teller opens with the hapless Nat Duncan getting fired again. Duncan had grown up rich, and so was unable to cope when his father lost his family's fortune shortly after he (Nat) graduated from college. Only the intervention of a successful college friend, Harry Kellogg, has kept him from complete disaster -- Harry's recommendation has led to several jobs, but he's lost them all after only a few months. Now he's determined to refuse further aid from his old friend, but Kellogg insists he try one last thing -- to marry a rich woman. Kellogg's scheme is that Duncan move to a country town, and find the wealthiest marriagable woman there, and impress her by his city ways, not to mention that fact that the most ambitious young men from those towns will have headed to the big city. Kellogg will bankroll Nat -- and he insists on some rules: no drinking, no smoking, no slang or vulgar language, weekly church attendance, and wait for the woman to propose. They agree to try this for a year.

This introductory section, I suspect, is one of Vance's additions. After this point the third person narrative is dropped, and the rest of the story is told by Homer Littlejohn, an aging and somewhat cynical newspaperman in Radville, PA. The exciting news of the day is the arrival of a Mysterious Stranger from New York. This of course is Nat Duncan, who quickly takes rooms.

Nat follows Kellogg's rules carefully, and after a couple of weeks is bored stiff. He finds that he actually wants to work, and starts looking for a job. He ends up somehow offering to work for Sam Graham, a widower who runs a drugstore with the help of his daughter. Sam is a very nice man, but a completely hopeless businessman. He only wants to tinker away at his inventions. And of course he has no money to actually pay Nat.

Despite the resentment of young Betty Graham, Nat is soon effecting unexpected improvements in the store, at first simply by tidying it; then by spending some of Harry Kellogg's money to buy some much needed supplies. His person attracts some custom from the curious young ladies in town -- but before long the real improvements in the store lead to some money being made. Meanwhile Nat has become the target of the richest girl in town, Josie Lockwood, also regarded as the prettiest. Alas, she's rather annoying, and her father isn't a nice man (he is about ready to foreclose on Sam Graham when Duncan fortuitously turns the store's fortunes around). But Kellogg's rules are strict -- so Duncan plays along, getting closer and closer to the inevitable engagement.

Meanwhile Roland Barnette, the young man who thought he was Josie's intended, is very jealous of Duncan, and is looking for a way to oust his rival. And one of Sam Graham's inventions appears to actually be very valuable -- and only Nat's quick thinking prevents Sam from all but giving it away to a sharp operator. And Betty, relieved of the drudgery of trying to save her father's failing business, and given a chance to go to school, blossoms into a beautiful young woman. It's obvious where this will lead -- Duncan is forced into accepting Josie's offer of marriage (it was part of Kellogg's rules that he promised to follow, after all) -- even though he is ironically a success on his own merits now (and has more than made Harry's money back by giving him a tip about investing (on fair terms) in Graham's invention). Worse, Duncan realizes he is truly in love with Betty. But he can hardly throw over Josie! Luckily, Roland's schemes bear fruit -- and he accuses Nat Duncan of being an escaped criminal. False identification of course -- but Josie is quick to break the engagement, so all is well ... (And Nat, of course, realizes that he actually likes going to church, and doesn't like drinking or smoking any more ...)

It's obviously frothy and implausible as all get out, not to mention predictable. As with the previous play to novel I reviewed (Bayard Veiller's Within the Law) I suspect it worked better as a play. The long introduction too firmly establishes Nat as a hopeless (if pleasant and honest) loser, and so his sudden transformation into a maven of the drugstore business simply can't convince. But despite all that it's pleasantly enough presented, with some reasonably comic moments, so I enjoyed it enough to pass the time.


  1. Entertaining review, Rich, but I think I'll wait for the play to come to Gloucester. ;)

  2. I have owned this book more than fifty years, and read it numerous times. I have always thought the cover photo of Nat Duncan could have been played by Clark Gable in a movie. But Gable was nine years old when the book was published.