I’m the sort who, when reading a novel, looks for the title in the text.
Sometimes, it’s not there, but, often, I can find it. And, usually, its placement in the the book says something about what’s important in the story.
In Rex Stout’s 1965 Nero Wolfe-Archie Godwin novel The Doorbell Rang, the phrase appears twice.
The first time that the bell rings, it’s for a friend who is passing along a message from someone who wants to set up a meeting. That meeting is a turning point in the novel inasmuch as it ultimately enables Wolfe to earn a $100,000 retainer (worth nearly $900,000 in today’s dollars) as well as an undisclosed fee on top of that — and, coincidentally, to solve a murder that had seemed for political and bureaucratic reasons to be unsolvable.
The second time the bell rings, it’s the final sentence of the novel, and it’s a nifty punchline.
I used the word “bureaucratic” above because this is a novel that’s knee deep in the Federal Bureau of Investigation during what turned out to be the final years of J. Edgar Hoover’s near half-century atop the agency.
In his five decades as FBI chief, Hoover engaged in an extensive campaign of illegal spying on average citizens, activists and public officials in part to build up what became a huge wealth of power and influence. But his playing fast and loose with the nation’s laws was just starting to come to light, and one of the first of many exposes — The FBI Nobody Knows by Fred J. Cook, published in 1964 — is an essential element to the plot in The Doorbell Rang.
The novel starts when the rich widow Rachel Bruner comes to Wolfe to hire him to get the FBI to stop spying on and harassing her. Given the nature of the FBI of the time and of Hoover, this harassment isn’t surprising. After all, Bruner had read and liked Cook’s book so much that she bought 10,000 copies and mailed them to powerful people around the country.
When Wolfe accepts her retainer check and begins asking questions, he and his aides are subjected to the same illegal and unwanted attention from the G-men. They can’t be sure that the FBI has tapped their phones and bugged Wolfe’s office-home, but they know the agency has the skill to do that and has done that often enough in the past and is almost certainly doing that to them. So Archie ends up going out to a lot of phone books to set up meetings, and, whenever he and Wolfe need to talk about the case, they descend to the basement and turn the radio up very loud and whisper to each other.
Things get so bad that Wolfe even leaves his office on business!
The pleasure of Stout’s books
The Doorbell Rang is the 28th of Stout’s 33 novels featuring Wolfe and Goodwin, published from 1934 through 1975. Stout — who was 47 when the series began and who died at 88 in the same year the final one appeared — also wrote 39 novellas and short stories about the detecting team.
I read a lot of these novels in my 20s although I don’t remember reading The Doorbell Rang.
The pleasure of Stout’s books is the pairing of the massive Nero Wolfe — a gastronome and orchid lover with a murky European background — and the snappy-pattering, intelligent, physically agile, savvily knowing Archie Goodwin.
Wolfe and Archie
These books are sometimes called Nero Wolfe mysteries since it’s his name on the door — or would be if he had the usual office. But, really, Wolfe, by himself, isn’t all that interesting. A finicky, quirky fat man who sits back in his chair and moves his lips in and out as he thinks isn’t all that compelling.
He becomes a lot more interesting when Archie Goodwin is describing him do it or doing anything because, half the time, Archie’s making fun of his boss.
Similarly, Archie would have a hard time carrying a story himself. He’s smart and he’s clever, and he has an eye for the ladies. But, without Wolfe to joust with and to needle, he’s not going to sell many books.
Each character comes alive in his interaction with the other. The team is much better together than either would be on his own. (How many times has that turned out to the be case for a music group?)
So, yes, The Doorbell Rang has a suitably knotty problem to solve, and, yes, Wolfe and Goodwin do so. And, yes, there is that punchline at the end when someone gets his comeuppance.
But, more than all that, Archie and Wolfe get to work together and bedevil each other, and that’s always the best part of their stories.
Patrick T. Reardon