Review by Ian G. Wilson
I have heard that Rex Stout never plotted his novels in advance, simply sitting at his typewriter at the start and moving linearly ahead to the end. Sounds like a recipe for disaster for a mystery book, but Stout produced some 33 very popular Nero Wolfe novels using this method. Personally, I’m amazed at the quality of the twists and turns in his 1965 Viking Press release, The Doorbell Rang.
Having read some four or five Nero Wolfe books recently, I can say that The Doorbell Rang is the best of a good lot. Any Nero Wolfe is a treat, but it is particularly delicious to see the corpulent Wolfe tackle none other than the FBI. As is the case with many of the books, the story starts in a roundabout way, with rich and somewhat impulsive heiress Rachel Bruner, who is so impressed by a tell-all book called The FBI Nobody Knows, that she sends 10,000 copies to politicians and other influential individuals around the United States. The FBI has gotten wind of this and has begun surveillance on Bruner, who wants them to leave her alone. She views the Bureau’s response to her actions as proof that they are up to dirty tricks.
But are they in fact on her tail, or is there more to what the federal agents are doing? A body turns up, that of a journalist who was working on a scoop about the FBI, and it’s unclear whether the killer was an FBI agent or a private citizen. Wolfe’s house is under surveillance, with government men keeping tabs on him and his friends, and it is up to the great detective to figure out how to protect Mrs. Bruner and himself from the long grasp of the government.
The story is set in New York in the 1950’s and J. Edgar Hoover was on a lot of people’s minds. He is mentioned specifically in the book, and Stout doesn’t pull any punches. I’m not sure if he viewed the novel as anything more than a good mystery, but he did have a history of speaking up when he felt injustice was being done (he hosted anti-Nazi radio broadcasts during the war for the allies and was later active in the ACLU). It isn’t inconceivable that this is a very personal work for an author who normally seems to clothe his feelings with the eccentricities of his characters.
Wolfe is a brain. At 278 pounds, he finds it hard to get around and insists on working his mind rather than his body. He has interesting personality quirks (he has his days specifically scheduled out with hours allotted to work, food—he’s quite the gourmand—and time with his precious orchids). Here he is considering the check that Mrs. Bruner has given him as a retainer:
“He leaned forward to reach for the check, gave it a good look, put it down, leaned back, and closed his eyes. Knowing him, I knew what he was considering. Not the job; as he had said, it was preposterous; he was looking at the beautiful fact that with a hundred grand in the till on January fifth he would need, and accept, no jobs at all until the end of the winter, and the spring, and even into the summer. He could read a hundred books and propagate a thousand orchids. Paradise. A corner of his mouth twisted up: for him that was a broad grin. He was wallowing. That was okay for half a minute, a man has a right to dream, but when it got to a full minute I coughed, loud.”
It is, in fact a crew of street savvy assistants who do all the legwork. Chief of these is Archie Goodwin, who narrates all the books and is Wolfe’s confidante and fellow sleuth. Goodwin is courageous and bright, and can talk himself out of a difficult situation. Here are his breezy comments as he makes his way home from Mrs. Bruner’s apartment:
“In the foyer, the maid came and wanted to hold my coat, and not to hurt her feelings, I let her. Down in the lobby, from the look the doorman gave me as he opened the door, I deduced that the hallman had told him what I was, and to be in character, I met the look with a sharp and wary eye. Outside some snowflakes were doing stunts. In the taxi, headed downtown, again I ignored the rear. I figured that if they were on to me, which was highly likely, maybe one cent of each ten grand of Wolfe’s income tax, and one mil of each ten grand of mine, would go to pay government employees to keep me company uninvited, which didn’t seem right.”
We see Wolfe through Archie’s eyes, and he is a shrewd and not always serious observer of Wolfe’s peculiar behaviors. I assume he admires Wolfe’s cleverness and deductive powers, and the money is good. However, he does seem to do an inordinate share of the active work while Wolfe operates from the comfortable chair in his office.
Nero Wolfe is one of the best known American detectives from the 1930’s to the 1970’s, and Stout’s books are a combination of hard-boiled private eye fiction and classic whodunit—but always somewhat tongue in cheek. Like Hercule Poirot, Wolfe is an eccentric, fond of his food, his beer and his orchids, but you get flashes of Hammett or Chandler in Archie’s narration. Archie is a wisecracker and addicted to milk, which is an interesting habit, and makes a change from Sam Spade slugging back whiskey every time he gets a chance.
No less an authority on detective novels than Stuart Kaminsky, in an introduction to The Doorbell Rang, goes so far as to say that the Nero Wolfe books are actually Archie Goodwin books, and there is some truth to this as Wolfe’s appearances, though frequent, are usually reserved for interviewing suspects or making plans (as with all good mysteries, the plan is a secret until the end of the book, though we see the elements of it falling into place throughout). The combination of the cerebral and physical, of which Wolfe and Archie are perfect archetypes, makes for entertaining reading.
Rex Stout, the writer with a distinctive scruffy beard, was born in 1886 in Indiana. His first Nero Wolfe novel, Fer-de-Lance, was published in 1934, and his last, A Family Affair, in 1975. A collection of previously unpublished Wolfe stories was released posthumously in 1985. The Wolfe books were (and continue to be) very popular, garnering a nomination for best mystery series of the century at Bouchercon XXXI, a huge international mystery conference. He was an early proponent of world government and a president of the Authors Guild, a position held at other times by notables such as Pearl S. Buck and Madeleine L’Engle.
The Doorbell Rang is one of four Nero Wolfe mysteries available at Greenville Public Library, any of which will please mystery fans. If you get a chance to check out the Italian television series, it’s also worth a look, just to see the creative ways in which the producers and writers have transferred the novels to Rome.