Only Detect

REX STOUT. The Doorbell Rang (1965).

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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. In 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.

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