The Doorbell Rang

The Doorbell Rang

Infobox Book |
name = The Doorbell Rang
title_orig =
translator =

image_caption =
author = Rex Stout
cover_artist = Bill English
country = United States
language = English
series = Nero Wolfe
genre = Detective fiction
publisher = Viking Press
release_date = October 8, 1965
media_type = Print (Hardcover)
pages = 186 pp. (first edition)
isbn = NA
preceded_by = A Right to Die
followed_by = Death of a Doxy

"The Doorbell Rang" is a Nero Wolfe detective novel by Rex Stout, first published by the Viking Press in 1965.

Plot introduction

quotation|An hour later we were having a pleasant evening. The three guests and I were in the front room, in a tight game of pinochle, and Wolfe was in his one and only chair in the office, reading a book. The book was "The FBI Nobody Knows". He was either gloating or doing research, I didn't know which.
Archie Goodwin writing in "The Doorbell Rang", chapter 12

Nero Wolfe is hired to force the FBI to stop wiretapping, tailing and otherwise harassing a woman who gave away 10,000 copies of a book that is critical of the Bureau and its director, J. Edgar Hoover.

"The Doorbell Rang" generated controversy when it was published, due largely to its unflattering portrayal of the FBI, its director and agents. [See Rex Stout for more on this issue.] It was published at a time that the public's attitude toward the FBI was turning critical, not long after Robert F. Kennedy and J. Edgar Hoover clashed and the Bureau was coming under fire for its investigations of Martin Luther King. Some critics did not care for the book: one called it the "most overrated Wolfe." [Dilys Wynn in "Murder Ink", quoted [ here] ] But Clifton Fadiman, quoted in a Viking Press advertisement for "The Doorbell Rang", thought it was "… the best of all Nero Wolfe stories."

The FBI and "The FBI Nobody Knows"

The backdrop to "The Doorbell Rang" is supplied by J. Edgar Hoover's redirection of the FBI's resources away from its role in criminal investigation and toward its director's own political and ideological ends.

In 1964, American investigative journalist Fred J. Cook published "The FBI Nobody Knows" [Cook, Fred J., "The FBI Nobody Knows", 1964, The McMillan Company] — collecting in book form several of his articles on FBI abuses that had previously appeared in "The Nation". Cook's writings affected Stout profoundly – to the degree that he wrote "The Doorbell Rang" largely in reaction to "The FBI Nobody Knows" and the direction that Hoover had taken the FBI. Stout had not before used a Wolfe book to air his own political views so extensively, and it didn't happen again until 1975's "A Family Affair".

Plot summary

". Goodbye." [ McAleer, John, "Rex Stout: A Biography" (1977, Little, Brown and Company; ISBN 0316553409); p. 461] ]

Mrs. Rachel Bruner inherited a large real estate investment business from her husband, and has run it successfully for some time. She has read "The FBI Nobody Knows" and thinks it should get a wider distribution than it has so far. Mrs. Bruner has attracted the Bureau's attention by buying 10,000 copies of the book [Mrs. Bruner says she bought the books at a 40% discount. Publishers routinely offer resellers 50% discounts, and a single buy of 10,000 units would normally be discounted even further. (This is documented at a variety of publishers' web sites.)] and sending them to persons of influence, including cabinet members, Supreme Court justices, members of Congress, various state legislators, heads of corporations and banks, and so on.

Mrs. Bruner believes that, in retaliation, the FBI is following her and her family, that it has tapped her phones, and that it has questioned some of her employees. She blames the Bureau's director, J. Edgar Hoover, and she wants Wolfe to stop him.

Wolfe accepts the job, over Archie's objections. Archie believes that the task is an impossible one and that taking it on will make a powerful enemy of the FBI. But Mrs. Bruner has offered a $100,000 retainer, and will pay both expenses and a fee to be determined by Wolfe, contingent on a successful outcome. Wolfe will not return the retainer. To do so would be to imply that he is afraid of what he terms a "bully."

Wolfe plans to get evidence of FBI malfeasance and use it to force the FBI to leave Mrs. Bruner alone. At first, Archie pursues various leads with little success, but then Doc Vollmer [Dr. Vollmer is a minor continuing character in the Wolfe corpus, appearing when Stout needs a medical doctor to advance the plot. Vollmer's house and office are down the block from Wolfe's brownstone.] conveys to Archie a message that calls him to a meeting in a hotel room, and that warns him to "… be sure you're loose." Although suspicious of being set up by the FBI, Archie goes to the hotel room, where he finds Inspector Cramer and a carton of milk.

Cramer has news, but he doesn't want it known that he's passed it along to Wolfe – hence the secret meeting. The FBI knows by now that Wolfe has accepted Mrs. Bruner's job and it has asked the state government to pull Wolfe's and Archie's licenses to do business as private investigators. In turn, the state has asked the Police Commissioner for whatever negative information he has on Wolfe, and the Commissioner has asked Cramer for a report. Cramer knows that Wolfe has already annoyed the FBI, but before he writes the report he wants the full picture. Archie surmises that Cramer brought the milk, Archie's beverage of choice, to show that he's not eager to cooperate with the FBI's plan to harass Wolfe.

Archie is at first undecided. Normally he would check with Wolfe before opening up to Cramer, but he can't – their phone's surely tapped. Archie's intelligence, guided by experience, tells him to empty the bag for Cramer, and he does so. Then Cramer completes his own agenda by giving Archie some unpublished information about the recent, unsolved murder of Morris Althaus, shot to death in his apartment.

Althaus was a free-lance magazine writer and it is known that he had been preparing an article on the FBI. However, neither a draft of an article nor background information was found in his apartment. (Not even the bullet that killed him was found, although evidence indicates that the bullet passed through his chest, hit the wall and fell to the floor.) Furthermore, an eyewitness saw men leaving the scene and got their car's license number, which Cramer says belongs to the FBI. Cramer's inference is that FBI agents entered Althaus' apartment for a search, that they were surprised to find him there, that Althaus threatened them with his own gun and that they shot him.

Cramer has tried to get the FBI's cooperation in his investigation, but its special agent in charge in New York, Richard Wragg, stonewalls him. With no evidence and no cooperation from the FBI, Cramer is both blocked and seriously angry.

Later, in conference with Wolfe, Archie conjectures that Cramer "… knew we had stung them somehow, and he had a murder he couldn't tag them for, and he decided to hand it to you." Archie and Wolfe agree that, even if they were able to establish that the FBI was responsible for Althaus' death, it wouldn't help them complete their job for Mrs. Bruner. The only leverage they would have would be to trade their silence about the murder for the FBI's agreement to stop harassing Mrs. Bruner. That's not Wolfe's style.

So Wolfe chooses to demonstrate instead that the FBI did "not" kill Althaus. But he still needs leverage, and he decides that the best way to obtain it is to entice the FBI into an illegal entry. Wolfe enlists the help of his old friend Lewis Hewitt, a millionaire orchid fancier with an estate on Long Island. Hewitt will host a dinner of the Ten for Aristology, a group of gourmets (one that also figures in "Poison à la Carte"). The publicity given the newspapers states that Wolfe and Archie will attend and that Fritz will prepare the dinner. Two actors who strongly resemble Wolfe and Archie in superficial physical respects go in their place, thereby giving any FBI agents who might be watching the brownstone the impression that it is unoccupied. In fact it is not: Wolfe and Archie remain hidden in the darkened house; also present are Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin and Orrie Cather, who were smuggled, along with the actors, into the house the day before.

Meantime, Archie, acting on his own, has located evidence pointing to the identity of Althaus' actual murderer. To secure the evidence, though, he has to leave it roughly where he found it. The situation preys on Archie's nerves: the timing of Wolfe's trap forces Archie to wait for a couple of days, and he worries that the murderer will decide to dispose of the evidence permanently.

Wolfe's plan to trap the FBI works as intended, and Wolfe catches two of its agents inside his house, with witnesses who can testify that they broke in. He allows the agents to leave, but only after appropriating their credentials, which FBI agents are permitted to display but not to relinquish. When Archie later describes this scene to Inspector Cramer, he sees a rare and broad smile crease the Inspector's face.

The credentials provide the leverage Wolfe needs to complete his job for Mrs Bruner. Wragg comes to Wolfe's office. Wolfe engages to leave the credentials in a safe deposit box and take no action against the FBI, if the harassment of Mrs. Bruner, her family and her employees stops. Wragg agrees. And as to the murder, Archie is at last able to tell Cramer that the FBI did not in fact kill Althaus, and where the evidence identifying Althaus' murderer can be found.

Cast of characters

*Nero Wolfe – The private investigator
*Archie Goodwin – Wolfe's assistant (and the narrator of all Wolfe stories)
*Rachel Bruner – Wolfe's client, a wealthy business owner who, along with her family and employees, is being harassed by the FBI
*Sarah Dacos – Mrs. Bruner's secretary
*Morris Althaus – A writer whose murder is somehow connected to the FBI's activities in Manhattan
*Ivana Althaus – Morris's mother, who quotes both Leviticus and Aristotle on the subject of vengeance
*Richard Wragg – Special agent in charge of the FBI's New York office
*Ashley Jarvis and Dale Kirby – Stand-ins for Wolfe and Goodwin, respectively
*Inspector Cramer – Representing Manhattan Homicide.

The unfamiliar word

In most Nero Wolfe novels and novellas, there is at least one unfamiliar word, usually spoken by Wolfe. "The Doorbell Rang" contains these three:
* Thaumaturge. Chapter 1.
* Twaddling. Chapter 4.
* Rodomontade. Chapter 7.


The FBI and "The Doorbell Rang"

Researching his book "Dangerous Dossiers: Exposing the Secret War Against America's Greatest Authors" (1988), journalist Herbert Mitgang discovered that Stout had been under FBI surveillance since the beginning of his writing career. Most of the heavily censored pages he was allowed to obtain from Stout's FBI dossier concerned "The Doorbell Rang":

:About one hundred pages in Stout's file are devoted to the novel, the FBI's panicky response to it and the attempt to retaliate against the author for writing it. The FBI's internal memorandum for its special agents told them that "the bureau desires to contribute in no manner to the sales of this book by helping to make it the topic of publicity." Orders came from headquarters in Washington that any questions concerning the book should be forwarded to the Crime Records Division, thereby putting book and author in a criminal category.

:An internal memorandum by Special Agent M.A. Jones (name surprisingly not censored) summarized the novel and went on to write a critique for the FBI's top command — a rare "literary" honor accorded to few books in its files ... Following the review came a series of recommendations — first, Stout was designated as a person "not to be contacted" without prior approval by FBI headquarters in Washington ... [Mitgang, Herbert, "Dangerous Dossiers: Exposing the Secret War Against America's Greatest Authors"; 1988, Donald I. Fine, Inc.; Hardcover ISBN 1556110774, pp. 227–228]

In April 1976, the Church Committee found that "The Doorbell Rang" is a reason Rex Stout's name was placed on the FBI's "not to contact list," which it cited as evidence of the FBI's political abuse of intelligence information. ["Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans, Book II", Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, United States Senate; April 26, 1976. [ E. Political Abuse of Intelligence Information] , Subfinding c, Footnote 91.]

Reviews and commentary

* Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor, "A Catalogue of Crime" — The plot is transparent and the detection is fairly simple, but one or two of the dodges practiced here by Wolfe are new (for him). The scene in which the New York head of the FBI is "rated" in Wolfe's office and told he can't have a set of credentials belonging to one of his own men is rich. The anti-"bugging" scheme is also amusing.Barzun, Jacques and Taylor, Wendell Hertig. "A Catalogue of Crime". New York: Harper & Row. 1971, revised and enlarged edition 1989. ISBN 0-06-015796-8]

* "Harper's", Books in Brief (December 1965) — One always feels that Mr. Stout is having fun with his Nero Wolfe and Archie, but never has it been more apparent than in this complicated but easily followed tale. It's a story of sleuthing, harassment, murder, the FBI — very especially the FBI — and the police, with the usual delicious decor of orchids, fine foods, and happily unconventional and pungent dialogue. Almost everybody's role is unexpectedly askew and you don't see how they can all possibly get their deserts, but they do, convincingly and rather hilariously. [Jackson, Katherine Gauss, Books in Brief: Novels for the Holidays; "Harper's", December 1965, pp. 133–134]

* Nancy Pearl, "Book Lust" — When Stout is on top of his game, which is most of the time, his diabolically clever plotting and his storytelling ability exceed that of any other mystery writer you can name, including Agatha Christie, who invented her own eccentric genius detective Hercule Poirot. Although in the years since Stout's death I find myself going back and rereading his entire oeuvre every year or two, I return with particular pleasure to these five novels: "The Doorbell Rang"; "Plot It Yourself"; "Murder by the Book"; "Champagne for One"; and "Gambit". [Pearl, Nancy, "Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment, and Reason" (Seattle, Washington: Sasquatch Books, 2003, ISBN 1570613818); p. 226]

* "Time", "The Grand Race" (book review) [,8816,901814,00.html] (November 5, 1965) — Stout once said all that he thinks is important to say. A good mystery writer, he wrote, merely tells the reader: "Let's run a race. Here goes my mind, I'm off, see if you can catch me." In "Doorbell", even FBI fans will have to admire his agility.


"A Nero Wolfe Mystery" (A&E Network)

"The Doorbell Rang" was adapted for the series premiere of "A Nero Wolfe Mystery" (2001–2002), a Jaffe/Braunstein Films coproduction with the A&E Network. The first of four "Nero Wolfe" episodes directed by executive producer and star Timothy Hutton, "The Doorbell Rang" made its debut April 22, 2001, on A&E.

Timothy Hutton is Archie Goodwin; Maury Chaykin is Nero Wolfe. Other members of the cast are Debra Monk (Mrs. Rachel Bruner), Francie Swift (Sarah Dacos), Colin Fox (Fritz Brenner), Saul Rubinek (Lon Cohen), Conrad Dunn (Saul Panzer), Fulvio Cecere (Fred Durkin), Trent McMullen (Orrie Cather), Bill Smitrovich (Inspector Cramer), R.D. Reid (Sergeant Purley Stebbins) and James Tolkan (Richard Wragg).

"The Doorbell Rang" was filmed in Toronto, with select Manhattan exteriors. Executive producer Michael Jaffe wrote the screenplay; composer Michael Small ("Klute") contributed the jazzy score. The two-hour movie and the one-hour weekly series that followed are available on DVD from A&E Home Video. ISBN 076708893X

"Nero Wolfe" (Paramount Television)

In 1977, Thayer David filmed "Nero Wolfe", a Paramount Television production based on the novel "The Doorbell Rang". Written and directed by Frank D. Gilroy, the film costarred Tom Mason [] (Archie Goodwin), Brooke Adams (Sarah Dacos), Biff McGuire (Inspector Cramer), John Randolph (Lon Cohen), Anne Baxter (Mrs. Bruner), David Hurst (Fritz Brenner), John O'Leary (Theodore Horstmann) and Sarah Cunningham (Mrs. Althaus). Intended as the pilot for a TV series, the made-for-TV movie was shelved due to Thayer David's death in July 1978. "Nero Wolfe" was finally broadcast December 18–19, 1979, as an ABC TV late show.

A year later, Paramount produced "Nero Wolfe", a weekly series that ran January 16–August 25, 1981, on NBC TV. The second episode, "Death on the Doorstep," was an original story by Stephen Downing that also incorporated elements of the novel "The Doorbell Rang". William Conrad and Lee Horsley star as Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. Other members of the cast include George Voskovec (Fritz Brenner), Robert Coote (Theodore Horstmann), George Wyner (Saul Panzer) and Allan Miller (Inspector Cramer). Directed by George McCowan, "Death on the Doorstep" aired January 23, 1981.

"Il pesce più grosso" (Radiotelevisione Italiana)

"The Doorbell Rang" was adapted for a series of Nero Wolfe films produced by the Italian television network RAI (Radiotelevisione Italiana). Directed by Giuliana Berlinguer from a teleplay by Edoardo Anton, "Nero Wolfe: Il pesce più grosso" first aired March 11, 1969.

The series of black-and-white telemovies stars Tino Buazzelli (Nero Wolfe), Paolo Ferrari (Archie Goodwin), Pupo De Luca (Fritz Brenner), Renzo Palmer (Inspector Cramer), Roberto Pistone (Saul Panzer), Mario Righetti (Orrie Cather) and Gianfranco Varetto (Fred Durkin). Other members of the cast of "Il pesce più grosso" include Paola Borboni (Signora Bruner), Silvia Monelli (Signora Dacos), Enrico Luzi (Quayle), Lia Angeleri (Signorina Althaus), Bruno Smith (Jarvis), Simone Mattioli (Kirby) and Fernando Cajati (Wragg).

Of further interest

* Reading "The Doorbell Rang" may pique the reader's interest in the FBI. Fred Cook's book provides valuable historical perspective, but is out of print. A more recent book with a similar focus is "The Bureau: The Secret History of the FBI", by Ronald Kessler; 2002, St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0312304021

Publication history

*1965, New York: Viking, October 8, 1965, hardcover
*1965, New York: Viking (Mystery Guild), December 1965, hardcover
*1965, Toronto: Macmillan, 1965, hardcover
*1966, London: Collins Crime Club, January 3, 1966, hardcover
*1966, "Argosy", April 1966 (abridged)
*1966, New York: Bantam, October 1966, paperback
*1968, London: Fontana, 1968, paperback
*1976, London: Penguin, "The First Rex Stout Omnibus" ISBN 0140040323 (with "The Second Confession" and "More Deaths Than One") 1976, paperback
*1992, New York: Bantam Books ISBN 0553237217 June 1, 1992, paperback
*1997, Burlington, Ontario: Durkin Hayes Publishing, DH Audio ISBN 0886464439 August 1997, audio cassette (abridged, read by Saul Rubinek)
*2000, Pleasantville, New York: Reader's Digest Association, Inc. (ImPress) ISBN 076218857X 2000, hardcover


External links

*imdb title|id=0284064|title=A Nero Wolfe Mystery — "The Doorbell Rang"'
* Leonard, John, [ "Super Nero"] ; "New York Magazine", April 23, 2001
* Levesque, John, [ "Wolfe back on the case in jolly, stylish 'Doorbell Rang'"] ; "Seattle Post-Intelligencer", April 20, 2001
* Salamon, Julie, [ "A Sleuth Who Has Flair (And Maybe a Thesaurus)"] ; "The New York Times", April 20, 2001
* Urbani, Laura, [ "A&E's new series brings top talent to television"] ; "Pittsburgh Tribune-Review", April 22, 2001
* Moore, Frazier, [ "Nero Wolfe returns to A&E"] ; Associated Press, May 5, 2001
* [ Doorbells Ringing] , consultant Winnifred Louis' notes on the A&E TV series and "The Doorbell Rang" (September 2000)
* [ "A Nero Wolfe Mystery" — "The Doorbell Rang"] at The Wolfe Pack, official site of the Nero Wolfe Society
*imdb title|id=0076447|title=Nero Wolfe
*imdb title|id=0658786|title=Nero Wolfe — "Death on the Doorstep"'
*imdb title|id=0327062|title=Nero Wolfe: Il pesce più grosso

The unfamiliar word

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