Monday, September 10, 2012

The Doorbell Rang, by Rex Stout


It is 1965, and J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI are hot topics in the public mind. Investigative journalist Fred J. Cook has just published The FBI Nobody Knows, and reader (and wealthy widow) Rachel Bruner is so incensed at its accounts of the Bureau's flagrant overreaching and abuses that she sends 10,000 copies of the controversial book to powerful people across the country. Of course, it's not long before Ms. Bruner notices that she has company everywhere she goes--federal company. The FBI is after her--following her, tapping her phones, and otherwise harassing her family and friends. There's only one man in the world who can help her now: corpulent genius and private detective Nero Wolfe. Assisted by his crackerjack second-in-command, decides to put the screws on The Man. Will he be able to protect his client from the most powerful enforcement agency in the country and, more importantly, earn the sizable fee being offered?

I was surprised to learn that the incendiary book that touches off Ms. Bruner's misadventures with the FBI is, in fact, a real book, published by a real investigative journalist. Apparently Stout read it and reacted by writing this novel (which is hardly complimentary to the FBI). And the FBI, in turn, allegedly attempted to retaliate against Stout for his unflattering portrayal of the Bureau. Dishy!

The book itself is a solid enough entry in the Nero Wolfe series. There are appearances by many well-known Wolfe-verse characters: Swiss chef Fritz; freelance P.I.'s Saul, Orrie, and Fred; Doc Vollmer; Archie's off-again-on-again lady friend Lily Rowan; newshound Lon Cohen; Inspector Cramer (in rare form as a temporary ally of Wolfe against the Big Bad FBI); and even orchid aficionado and gastronome Lewis Hewitt. The shenanigan Wolfe cooks up is among his most outlandish, but then again, as Archie himself notes in Mother Hunt, '[a]nybody can get a rabbit out of a hat, so he has to get a hat out of a rabbit.'

Which reminds me:  the notable vocabulary word introduced in this book? 'Thaumaturge.' It means 'magician' or 'worker of wonders.'

How appropriate.

If you enjoy Wolfe's antics, definitely give this book a read. There's a bit less Archie-Wolfe banter than I like, but it's still well worth reading. And at under 200 pages, it won't take you long. (Though if you're really short on time, the series premiere of A Nero Wolfe Mystery--the A&E television adaptation--tells the story in under an hour.)

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