Regular visitors to this blog know that Rex Stout is one of my favorite authors. I love the books, featuring the sedentary genius, Nero Wolfe, and his right-hand assistant, Archie Goodwin; a check of the blog's backlist page will show that I've reviewed a great many of those novels and novella collections over the past decade. One of the first ones to be reviewed here was The Doorbell Rang, and it remains one of my all-time favorites. In it, Wolfe and Archie take on J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI. Here's what I had to say about it in my original podcast review.
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The year was 1965. The American public, for the most part, still had a deep respect bordering on hero-worship for the FBI. While public attitudes were starting to change, it was still very much the agency of, say, “The Untouchables,” the 1959 TV series about Elliot Ness and a heroic group of agents who took on gangster Al Capone. The director of the agency was J. Edgar Hoover, and, at the time, he was still very much an untouchable, even if questions were beginning to be asked about the bureau’s methods and Hoover’s autocratic style.
But he was no untouchable to Rex Stout. And certainly not to Stout’s detective character, Nero Wolfe, who took on Hoover’s FBI in the delightful mystery, The Doorbell Rang.
Here’s the situation: a very wealthy woman comes to Wolfe’s office on West 35th Street in New York. She has read an unflattering book about the FBI, and has bought 10 thousand copies of it and sent them to friends, government officials, and others whom she believed should read the book. As a result, she says, she has been harassed by the FBI. She believes they have tapped her telephone, spied on her movements, and generally made her life miserable. She wants to hire Wolfe to stop the FBI.
It takes some persuading. Neither Wolfe nor his assistant, Archie Goodwin, is a fool. They know that if they do get involved, the FBI will shift its harassment to them. They could wind up losing their licenses as private detectives.
But Wolfe’s ego – and Archie’s too – make them accept the case, even though Wolfe doesn’t have any immediate answer to the question: how do you persuade the entire FBI organization – not to mention its boss – to stop doing what they won’t even admit they are doing.
But Archie Goodwin can put it much better than I can. When Wolfe tells Archie that he has decided to take the case – and asks Archie for his opinion – here’s how Archie answers him:
"I would say that you should sell the house and contents and go live in a nursing home, since you’re obviously cracked. Unless you intend to gyp her, just sit on it?"
"Then you’re cracked. You’ve read that book. We couldn’t even get started. The idea would be to work it so you could say to the FBI, ‘Lay off,’ and make it stick. Nuts. Merely raising a stink wouldn’t do it. They would have to be actually cornered, the whole damn outfit. Out on a limb.”
But Wolfe decides to do it – as he says, “I will not return that check for one hundred thousand dollars because I am afraid of a bully. My self-esteem won’t let me.”
And so battle is joined. Wolfe comes up with a plan, all right, and it’s one of the most delightful, daring and ingenious charades he has ever created. Along the way to finding an answer to his problem, he solves a murder which the New York City police have, in effect, been told by the FBI not to solve. It’s not often that Wolfe finds his old nemesis, New York City homicide detective Inspector Cramer, cheering him on…but that’s one of the many odd developments in this case.
By the way, the unflattering book about the FBI which acts as the centerpiece for this novel was a very real book – The FBI Nobody Knows, by Fred J. Cook, an investigative journalist who had published a series of articles in “The Nation” unflattering to both Hoover and the FBI. Rex Stout quite clearly admired the book, and The Doorbell Rang was his reaction to it.
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As I said, there IS a murder in the book, but - to be honest - that's treated as almost a side issue. The book is really about that clash between the FBI and Nero Wolfe - and how Wolfe goes about earning his fee. I have additional quotes and information in the original podcast, which you can listen to by clicking here.
Next week: Swan Song, by Edmund Crispin.