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Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Doorbell Rang by Rex Stout

Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries usually blend the comfortable remoteness of English Golden Age puzzle mysteries (locked rooms, country estates, manservants) with the wisecracking prose of the American hard-boiled variety (with its dames, G-men, and crooked coppers and so on.) It achieves this effect through the wonderfully realized partnership between the staid Nero Wolfe, a portly gourmand who detests leaving his house and seems to care more about orchids than murder, and his employee Archie Goodwin, a fast-talking ladies’ man who seems to be having the most fun when he’s withholding evidence from the police.

The plot is set in motion when a rich widow places a check for $100,000 on Wolfe’s desk. That’s just his retainer. The problem is, she’s asking for something impossible. She wants Nero Wolfe to get the FBI to stop harassing her. The Doorbell Rang was written and set during the heyday of J. Edgar Hoover’s dictatorial control of the bureau, when he was using it to conduct espionage on private citizens, often outside the boundaries of the law.

Though The Doorbell Rang contains many of the little touches that make the series so reliably familiar, it stands out for this concentration on political events. The novel was even conceived as a way to promote a non-fiction book called The FBI Nobody Knows, which Stout had read and wanted others to read. The book is integral to the plot of the novel. Wolfe’s client is being spied on because she used her wealth to buy 10,000 copies and send them to important people all over the country. Wolfe is depicted as reading the book and agreeing with many of its arguments. In perhaps the best demonstration of the guts it took to write this way of the FBI, Rex Stout himself became the target of FBI surveillance because of The Doorbell Rang.

So the novel does have a fascinating backstory, but what about, you know, the actual story? There, I am afraid, the novel does rather disappoint. Wolfe and Archie are their usual entertaining selves, and the prose is as lively as ever, but the plot of this short novel is not complex enough to sustain interest, and there is a decided lack of suspense. It seems as though with his focus on the political events of the day, Rex Stout may have neglected his typically sharp plotting.

Though the client’s job seems impossible, Wolfe methodically lays a course to accomplish the task. He wants to catch the FBI red-handed at malfeasance and use it to blackmail them into leaving the widow alone. With that in mind he and Archie start investigating a murder that may have been committed by agents of the bureau.

Too many of the breakthroughs in this murder investigation are either implausible coincidences or things that would have come to light much sooner in a professional investigation. Neither Wolfe nor Goodwin seems like the genius they are elsewhere portrayed to be. The case also develops in a very straightforward manner, with little to thrill the reader or leave him guessing. Perhaps it was controversial enough to attract attention at its time, but with the distance of years that hullabaloo has faded, whereas strong plotting would not have. All in all, an interesting curiosity but an unappealing mystery.

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