REX STOUT. The Doorbell Rang (1965).

24 May

Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are timeless. Across the 41 years that span their corpus of published cases, they age not a whit. Yet their world, or at any rate the part of it that exists outside their brownstone fortress on West 35th Street in New York, does change. The great storm of 20th-century history leaves behind bits of flotsam and jetsam that occasionally drift into their lives (in this book, there’s a pair of references to Barry Goldwater, and even a stray reference to the Beatles), and it brings in business as well. DoorbellRang.jpgIn 1965, the mighty and unchecked power of the FBI wasn’t new, but it was newly salient in the minds of civil libertarians, partly because of the recent publication of an exposé titled The FBI Nobody Knows. Among those liberty-loving Americans were the real Rex Stout, the fictional Nero Wolfe, and a fictional client of Wolfe’s, Rachel Bruner, a wealthy businesswoman who hires the legendary detective to stop the Bureau from harassing her. Recently, Mrs. Bruner tells Wolfe, she bought a thousand copies of that exposé and sent them hither and yon to prominent citizens of the Republic, only to discover that the FBI doesn’t take kindly to that sort of unsolicited publicity. What can Wolfe, a mere private sleuth, do to make the Fibbies leave her alone? To find a point of leverage against the otherwise untouchable minions of J. Edgar Hoover, he directs Archie to look into some open cases on which the FBI is known to be working, and one case—the unsolved murder of a writer named Morris Althaus—catches their attention.

The murder inquiry proves to be a lean affair. Archie chats up a few friends and associates of Althaus, scouts out the victim’s Greenwich Village apartment, and puts the pieces together (what few of them there are) without requiring much help from Wolfe. More central to this adventure are the machinations that surround that investigation; the real action involves the jousting and trickery that the two detectives bring to their interaction with suspects, witnesses, police officers, and assorted G-men. Shenanigans of that type are a recurring element in the annals of Wolfe and his entourage, but the feats of subterfuge by which they foil the FBI make this entry in the saga stand apart from all others. It closes with a justly famous scene in which an illustrious (or notorious) visitor rings the doorbell on the old brownstone, and then waits. For the reader, meanwhile, it’s a little sad to be leaving this never-changing yet ever-amusing realm where the doorbell—that humble symbol of fate—looms in perpetuity, ready to be rung.


Posted by on May 24, 2012 in American, Novel


8 responses to “REX STOUT. The Doorbell Rang (1965).

  1. Skywatcher

    May 24, 2012 at 11:05 AM

    I read this one a few years back, and although I can remember practically nothing about who did what to whom and why, I can still recall several scenes, not to mention the final page of the book. Enormous fun.

  2. Carol Novak

    May 24, 2012 at 2:07 PM

    It is sad there are only 73 stories! It is wonderful fun visiting the brownstone. Thanks for a great summary of this “visit.”

  3. lesblatt

    May 24, 2012 at 2:18 PM

    This remains my favorite Nero Wolfe book – although I would argue it’s atypical, in that – as you say – the murder investigation really is secondary to the main thrust of the plot. And I agree – the last line is absolutely perfect. And delicious.

    Les Blatt

  4. Mike

    May 24, 2012 at 4:14 PM

    Thanks to you all for your comments. This book, I know, is one that a lot of people like. (My post might or might not be included in this week’s FFB roundup, but I certainly can’t claim that the book in question is “forgotten.”) Anyway, at some point I simply let go of the expectation that the Wolfe/Archie books would deliver much in the way of mystery-plot goodness–and once I did, I discovered how much else there was to enjoy in them.

  5. Cavershamragu

    May 25, 2012 at 7:07 AM

    Nice review Mike and a book well worth celebrating. Stout wa sof course a highly idiosyncratic man, who could challenge Hoover openly and then theng o and support the war in Vietnam at the same time! The books are great fun and this, of the later ones, is certainly one of the most memorable – it also made for very good TV in the version starring Timothy Hutton as Archie and the late Maury Chaykin as Nero (Hutton also directed incidentally).

  6. layson

    May 25, 2012 at 7:21 AM

    This was the first Wolfe/Archie book I read and is still my favorite, along with Some Buried Caesar. Great review.
    I might argue though that Stout has been mostly forgotten among the general reading public.

  7. Patrick

    May 25, 2012 at 10:28 AM

    I like this book a lot. Stout got mad at the FBI and that sparked off some real creativity in the writing and plotting of this book. The standoff with the FBI agents and that final scene at the brownstone– just perfect!

  8. Mike

    May 25, 2012 at 3:40 PM

    Stout’s (and, I suppose, Wolfe’s) political views deserve a full-dress treatment all by themselves. And no doubt some grad student has written a thesis on that subject. I have, indeed, seen the Chaykiin-Hutton-A&E series, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. The two-part “Doorbell” episode was the best of the lot, I thought–and it was the best precisely because the novel, while it doesn’t have a terribly compelling plot, is full of wonderful, film-worthy scenes. (Not just that final scene, either. I love the scenes in which Wolfe must huddle like a refugee in his own basement, as well as the whole sequence involving the Wolfe and Archie decoys.)

    And, yes, Stout is “mostly forgotten among the general reading public.” Only a few of his titles are in print right now, and his whole style of upper-middle-brow entertainment–and his politics, too, one might add–are out of fashion.


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