The Doorbell Rang
Book by Rex Stout
Review by Thom Hartmann, originally published at buzzflash.com on January 5, 2006.
I confess. I'm a Nero Wolfe junkie, and have been for over 30 years. And, like Nero Wolfe's creator, Rex Stout (1886-1975), I have an extensive FBI file, having been considered a "troublemaker" back in my late-1960s SDS days in East Lansing, Michigan and San Francisco, California, just as he was when he agitated against the Republican establishment in the early 1940s in favor of stopping fascism in Europe. Both of us faced the Executive Branch of government before it was restrained in the post-Watergate era.
Rex Stout - who'd had a varied enough career to qualify for the label of ADD (from being an officer on Teddy Roosevelt's boat to starting a school banking system that made him rich) - created, in 1939, the character Nero Wolfe, one of history's most famous private detectives. Wolfe weighs "a seventh of a ton"; lives in a brownstone in Manhattan populated by himself, his number-two Archie Goodwin, his private chef Fritz Brenner, and Theodore Horstmann, who takes care of the 10,000 orchids in the greenhouse on the top floor; and never leaves his house on business (and rarely for any other reason). He's brilliant, eccentric, and a character that only American pop literature could produce.
One of the most widely published authors of the era from 1940 to 1990 (and still in print in who knows how many languages), Rex Stout finally reached a breaking point in his private war with J. Edgar Hoover in the 1960s. Every year literally millions of Americans awaited the publication of the next Nero Wolfe novel, and in 1965 he didn't disappoint, with "The Doorbell Rang," my recommended book this month. In this novel, Stout did the unthinkable in 1965 - he tweaked J. Edgar Hoover's nose and made fools of the FBI. He also shows us today what life was like in America before Executive Branch power was restrained by the post-Watergate Church Committee investigations and the legislation that followed to reign it in.
When Dick Cheney said, a week or so ago, that all Bush was trying to do by ignoring the law requiring a warrant for wiretaps, was to recover some of the rightful power that the Executive Branch lost during the post-Nixon era, he was talking about the exact behaviors examined in this novel. What Rex Stout does in "The Doorbell Rang" is show what life was like when such unrestrained executive and police power was the rule, not the illegal exception.
It also gives us a glimpse into the United States when the top marginal tax rate was 70 percent for millionaires, a category that Nero Wolfe usually hit, being the world's most famous and expensive private detective. Thus, when a client shows up at his door asking for his help in stopping the FBI from harassing her - a job Wolfe finds intriguing but also "impossible" - and puts a check for $100,000 on his desk as a non-refundable down-payment (over $600,000 in today's money), Wolfe was faced with a dilemma. He hated to work, but had to pay for the house and the other three men who lived in it. And it was January, so the income wouldn't be heavily taxed - and could keep the household afloat well into the summer.
And then there was the job. When Wolfe asked the prospective client - a very wealthy middle-aged widow - if Hoover was actually hurting her, she replied:
"No. He's merely annoying me. Some of my associates and personal friends are being questioned - discreetly, of course, careful excuses, of course. It started about two weeks ago. I think my phones were tapped about ten days ago. My lawyers say there is probably no way to stop it, but they are considering it. They are one of the biggest and best firms in New York, and even they are afraid of the FBI! They disapprove; they say it was 'ill-advised' and 'quixotic,' my sending the books [that were critical of J. Edgar Hoover, to over 10,000 politicians and newspapers from coast to coast]…." She curled her fingers over the chair arms. "Now he's annoying me and I want him stopped. I want you to stop him."
Wolfe shook his head. "Preposterous."
She reached to the stand at her elbow for her brown leather bag, opened it, took out a checkfold and a pen, opened the fold on the stand, no hurry, and wrote, the stub first, with care. Methodical. She tore the check out, got up and put it on Wolfe's desk, and returned to the chair. "That fifty thousand dollars," she said, "is only a retainer. I said there would be no limit."
Wolfe didn't even give the check a glance. "Madam," he said, "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. Probably another has already arrived to start surveillance of this house; if not it will be started the instant there is any indication that I have been ass enough to take the job." His head turned. "Archie. How many agents have they in New York?"
"Oh…" I pursed my lips. "I don't know, maybe two hundred. They come and go."
He went back to her. "I have one. Mr. Goodwin. I never leave my house on business. It would --"
"You have Saul Panzer and Fred Durkin and Orrie Cather."
Ordinarily it would have touched him, her rattling off their names like that, but not then. "I wouldn't ask them to take the risk," he said. "I wouldn't expect Mr. Goodwin to take it. Anyway, it would be futile and fatuous. You say 'stop him.' You mean, I take it, compel the FBI to stop annoying you?"
"I don't know."
"Nor do I." He shook his head. "No, madam. You invited it, and you have it. I don't say that I disapprove of your sending the books, but I agree with the lawyers that it was quixotic. The don endured afflictions; so must you. They won't keep it up forever, and, as you say, you're not a congressman or a drudge with a job to lose. But don't send any more books."
She was biting her lip. "I thought you were afraid of nobody and nothing."
"Afraid? I can dodge folly without backing into fear."
"I said no other man alive could do it."
"Then you're in a box."
She got her bag and opened it, took out the checkfold and pen, wrote again, the stub first as before, stepped to his desk and picked up the first check and replaced it with the new one, and returned to the chair.
"That hundred thousand dollars," she said, "is merely a retainer. I will pay all expenses. If you succeed, your fee, determined by you, will be in addition to the retainer. If you fail, you will have the hundred thousand."
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 would accept, no jobs at all for the rest 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 it 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.
Thus begins part of the first chapter of "The Doorbell Rang."
Rex Stout was an early advocate for Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, and for an early entry into WWII to stop fascism in Europe. In 1941, he started a radio program, "Speaking of Liberty," in which he promoted the idea of world peace - after Hitler was stopped.
In 1942, Stout even published a collection of mostly-Republican speeches by members of the House and Senate, each arguing that we should "leave Hitler alone" and "stay out of the problems of Europe." This book, titled "The Illustrious Dunderheads" because it so clearly showed the idiocy (and, often, the fascistic and/or anti-Semitic leanings) of that day's mostly Republican legislators, is now a collectors item and out of print. Combined with Stout's later support for the United Nations, it earned him the harassment of the FBI and the hatred of its boss, J. Edgar Hoover, who went so far as to put Stout on his "private enemies list."
Stout assumed the presidency of "The Society of the Prevention of World War II" and was chairman - for over 20 years - of the "Writer's Board For World Government," which convinced Hoover that he must be an enemy of capitalism and all things American.
But with the singular exception of this one 1965 novel, Stout never carried his politics into his fiction - instead he relentlessly entertained millions of readers who enjoy a good murder mystery.
Sometimes we all need to take a break and just be entertained. To be entertained and informed is doubly fun.
If you hate fiction, pick up a copy of Kevin Phillips nonfiction masterpiece "Wealth and Democracy" and have at it.
But if you're looking for a few hours of escape, and want to discover a character who will illuminate for you life in New York from the late 1930s through the mid-1970s (the books paint brilliant portraits of their respective times - the city ages, but the characters never do), start your Nero Wolfe odyssey with "The Doorbell Rang" today. If you like it, there are over 50 other Nero Wolfe stories to keep you going…
PS. When you're done reading the Wolfe books, pick up John D. MacDonald's "Travis McGee" series. He carries on the vision - in a very different way - of an America where you can still be eccentric and nonconformist without being considered an enemy of the state. When you finish those, go for James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux series. Stout and MacDonald are both dead, but Burke is probably the finest fiction writer alive in America today, and his politics are every bit as progressive as were Stout's and MacDonald's.