The Doorbell Rang—Rex Stout–1966
There are a gazillion Rex Stout/Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin novels that are superb. I chose The Doorbell Rang because of its audacious subject and the ending, which I will not be revealing. I’m not alone in loving this particular title. It’s on the list provided by MWA–Mystery Writers of America of members assessment of the best 100 crime novels of all time. If for some reason you haven’t had the pleasure of reading a Nero Wolfe book, I envy you. Having an introduction to the somewhat outlandish and fascinating character of Wolfe is a real treat. The mysteries are clever, fun, and balanced. Nero Wolfe is a rotund thinking gentleman who is obsessed with his personal luxuries–well, luxuries to the rest of humanity, necessities to Wolfe. He has a brownstone in Manhattan complete with a personal chef and gardener, the latter responsible for the upper floor greenhouses full of orchids which Wolfe himself cares for at a specific time each day. Wolfe has epicurean tastes in food, and beer. He maintains this lifestyle by reluctantly taking clients on as a detective. However, he never leaves his brownstone. He does the thinking, his young partner, Archie, does the legwork, along with a couple of top operatives. Naturally, throughout the series, Wolfe is forced to travel beyond his comfort zone, and does it with grumbling irritation. A few years back, A&E had a marvelous series based on the books done quite nicely with Timothy Hutton as Archie Goodwin and a fantastic actor, Maury Chaykin, portraying Wolfe. Alas, they cancelled it after only a few episodes, but what else is new? Good writing never seems to stay too long and maybe a simple murder mystery can’t compete with the fantasy cop shows such as CSI.
Rex Stout, through The Doorbell Rang, takes on the entire FBI and in particular, J. Edgar Hoover, whom at the point this book was published, had not yet been discredited via women’s panties and odd sexual behavior. He was a very powerful individual and anyone taking him on was pretty darn audacious, and brave. Nero Wolfe is forced to take a case because it’s January and funds are always sort that time of the year. Enter a very rich woman who has mailed a book titled ‘The FBI Nobody Knows’ to over 10,000 individuals–congressmen, news reporters, governors, teachers, supreme court justices, district attorneys and police officers. Now she’s being followed, her phone tapped, her grown children watched, her business associates questioned. She wants to hire Wolfe–to stop the FBI harassment of her and her family. Wolfe’s response: “Preposterous!” She writes a check for 50,000, tears it up when Wolfe doesn’t bite, and writes another for 100,000–just a retainer–even if he doesn’t succeed in stoping Hoover, he can keep the money. As Wolfe pictures the rest of winter, spring and summer without the need to work, he is sorely tempted. He says to his potential client, “Madam, I am neither a thaumaturge nor a dunce. If you are being followed, you were followed here, and it will be assumed that you came to hire me.” Notice the word I doubt anyone ever saw in print before–thaumaturge. I had to look it up. It means a worker of miracles. Ha!
When Archie discloses witnessing a car following and almost hitting the possible client’s chauffeur driven car –Wolfe starts to sway towards taking on the insane case.
It’s how he goes about taking on Hoover and the FBI that makes this book as enjoyable and clever and amazing as it is. In the middle of the Cold War, the raging 60s full of political upheaval, the FBI was spying on everyone-including people such as Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy. If this sounds familiar–one only needs to read today’s headlines to see the connections. The country has spun out of control in terms of surveillance, and once again all intelligence agencies and their practices are being questioned. Maybe, Snowden, instead of releasing confidential info should have sent 10,000 The Doorbell Rang to various powers that be. He may have been able to remain on US soil, instead of hiding in the clutches of a supposedly defunct communist state!
A few footnotes–from what I’ve gathered from the internet–the FBI was quite unhappy with Stout’s book, as was the actor, John Wayne, who at the time was a fan, wrote a rather nasty letter to Stout declaring his intention to stop reading his work. There really was a book called ‘The FBI Nobody Knows” and it did stir up controversy. So did Stout’s crime novel. Some critics at the time dismissed the entire work as trivial and simply a diatribe on the part of Stout, others found it to be one of his best works. The well known librarian, Nancy Pearl counts it as one of her favorite Stout novels.
A quote from Wikipedia who quoted another source:
“Researching his book Dangerous Dossiers: Exposing the Secret War Against America’s Greatest Authors (1988), journalist Herbert Mitgang discovered that Stout had been under FBI surveillance since the beginning of his writing career. Most of the heavily censored pages he was allowed to obtain from Stout’s FBI dossier concerned The Doorbell Rang:
- About one hundred pages in Stout’s file are devoted to the novel, the FBI’s panicky response to it and the attempt to retaliate against the author for writing it. The FBI’s internal memorandum for its special agents told them that “the bureau desires to contribute in no manner to the sales of this book by helping to make it the topic of publicity.” Orders came from headquarters in Washington that any questions concerning the book should be forwarded to the Crime Records Division, thereby putting book and author in a criminal category.
- An internal memorandum by Special Agent M.A. Jones (name surprisingly not censored) summarized the novel and went on to write a critique for the FBI’s top command — a rare “literary” honor accorded to few books in its files … Following the review came a series of recommendations — first, Stout was designated as a person “not to be contacted” without prior approval by FBI headquarters in Washington ..”
- Sometimes a person may be paranoid, and really being spied upon!
- Best 100 Mysteries of All Time original post–check out the list