“But good heavens, if you know your phone is tapped—isn’t that illegal?”
“Sure, that’s why it’s fun.”
Wealthy businesswoman Rachel Bruner is used to buying whatever she wants. So when she reads an expose of the FBI’s abuses of power, she thinks nothing of buying 10,000 copies of the book to circulate to other leading citizens. Now Mrs. Bruner believes she’s under surveillance by federal agents, and she’s learning that peace of mind is one thing money can’t buy.
Nero Wolfe is another. Mrs. Bruner offers him the biggest payday of his career if he can stop the FBI harassment. The case doesn’t interest Wolfe, however…until he becomes a target himself. Nero Wolfe and his wisecracking assistant Archie Goodwin have never met a case they couldn’t crack, but until now they’ve never been up against the entire Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The Doorbell Rang is an audacious shaking-up of the Nero Wolfe formula. After a slow start, the plot hits its stride in a big way when Wolfe concocts an astonishing plan to play the FBI and NYPD off of one another, barely managing to keep on the right side of the law himself.
The book that Wolfe and Mrs. Bruner are so struck by, The FBI Nobody Knows by Fred J. Cook, is a real title published in 1964. This bombshell was a groundbreaking account of the abuses that had flourished for decades under J. Edgar Hoover’s leadership of the FBI. It’s easy to see how it caught the attention of Rex Stout, who had long been the subject of FBI surveillance due to his political activities. The idea of a mystery novel featuring the FBI itself as the villain must have been irresistible.
Due to its faceless, amorphous nature, however, it turns out that the FBI does not actually make a compelling antagonist. The early chapters are low on plot as Goodwin and Wolfe become increasingly paranoid and take elaborate precautions to avoid the surveillance they assume they’re under. Archie’s trademark wit is largely absent. (The one who really suffers is Wolfe’s live-in chef, Fritz. Since his basement apartment is deemed impervious to bugging, the two detectives start having all their conferences down there, often while poor Fritz is trying to watch TV.)
Since an unknown figure is trying to have their private investigator licenses revoked, time is of the essence, but Archie runs into one stone wall after another as he tries to get former victims of the FBI to speak on the record. Other than the anonymous complaint to the licensing board, it’s not clear whether any harassment is actually taking place. As Archie points out, however, “Going through a forest where you know there are snipers and one might be up any tree takes only guts and sharp eyes. But if you don’t know there are snipers but only that there could be, that’s different.”
Tensions are soon running high in Wolfe’s brownstone. The mixture of terror and boredom they experience is probably an accurate portrayal of how it would feel to suddenly find oneself on Hoover’s enemies list, and was likely genuinely shocking for 1960s readers. The way it plays out on the page is less than compelling, however. Early on, Archie argues against taking Mrs. Bruner’s case:
You’ve read that book. We couldn’t even get started. The idea would be to work it so you could say to the FBI, “Lay off,” and make it stick. Nuts. Merely raising a stink wouldn’t do it. They would have to be actually cornered, the whole damn outfit. Out on a limb. All right, say we try to start. We pick up one of these affairs and make some kind of a stab at it. From then on, whenever I left the house I’d spend all my time ditching tails, and good ones. Everyone connected with that affair would be pegged. Our phone would be tapped. So would other phones…They have all the gimmicks there are, including some I have never heard of.
This is a spot-on description of the chapters that follow. Archie makes his dispirited rounds, explaining over and over again that he is being tailed and spied upon. It makes sense that these characters might be exhausted after a long siege by the FBI, but the energy leaks out of the book almost instantly, from the first day of the case.
Luckily, things grow much livelier when Inspector Cramer tips Archie off to an unsolved murder. Journalist Morris Althaus was working on a magazine article about the FBI’s strongarm tactics, but someone killed the story by shooting the writer. His research notes are missing. Could his death be part of a cover-up by government agents? Rachel Bruner’s secretary lives in the same building as Morris and witnessed federal agents leaving the building on the night of the murder. There are others with a motive to do away with the victim, however. His editor was in love with Morris’s fiancee, who may herself have grown suspicious of her intended’s womanizing ways. Furthermore, Morris had rejected his wealthy family to become a leftist writer, resulting in a tense relationship with his parents.
With a tangible murder and suspects, Wolfe is back in his own element at last. The Althaus murder gives him a bold idea for how to blackmail the FBI into stopping their harassment. He does indeed “take on the whole damn outfit,” with thrilling results. While this is not the most devious case Nero Wolfe has ever tackled, it’s solid enough and features some truly unusual, even bizarre, touches as he must find creative ways to work around the FBI surveillance. Compared to the turgid pace of the early chapters, it’s a breath of fresh air. This is what the reader wants—not a defeated Nero Wolfe, but the brilliant detective who loves a good, hard fight and will use all his ingenuity to win.
Writing The Doorbell Rang was probably Rex Stout’s equivalent of Mrs. Bruner sending all those books to strangers, an effort to expose an evil that needed to be more widely known. Though the seriousness of the threat to our heroes drags down the story early on, Wolfe and Goodwin regain their vitality to create a refreshingly different take on the traditional murder mystery.
FBI Special Agent M. A. Jones, internal memorandum from Rex Stout’s FBI file (quoted in Dangerous Dossiers: Exposing the Secret War Against America’s Greatest Authors by Herbert Mitgang)
The plot of the book is weak and it will probably have only limited public acceptance despite Stout’s use of the FBI in an apparent bid for sensationalism to improve sales. The false and distorted picture of the FBI which Stout sets forth is an obvious reflection of his leftist leanings as indicated in our files.
The Doorbell Rang is available in paperback, ebook, and audiobook editions from Bantam. It was also adapted for television in 2001 as the first episode of A&E’s Nero Wolfe Mysteries; the full episode is available on YouTube.