As a series goes on, the fiction accumulates and matures until it takes on almost the nature of reality. Although they never age, Wolfe and Archie acquire more of a past with each volume. Myriad details of their relationship, their routines, their methods, and their connections with others become so well-established that they function as facts. Thus, although Stout claimed that he never revised or even reread anything he wrote, he had ever-increasing intertextual resources at his disposal, and he knew how to use them. Most of what appears in The Doorbell Rang has a familiar flavor; the few genuinely new features have a heightened effect. Rex Stout has exploited the potential of the series more felicitously perhaps than any other author of popular fiction. The Doorbell Rang may or may not be his best Nero Wolfe novel, but as one of the latest it exists in a rich context. It can be read with pleasure on its own, but the more preceding volumes one knows, the greater the pleasure.
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Although The Doorbell Rang was published thirty years ago, the events of the intervening decades have not made it irrelevant, but rather even more suitable for discussion. In his very last novel (A Family Affair, 1975), Stout shows Wolfe beside himself with excitement at the possibility that he might get a crack at the Watergate investigation. Wolfe is ever-alert when it comes to abuses of trust by elected or appointed officials of the government, and his words and deeds have lost none of their punch.
Aficionados of the detective novel will enjoy talking about this unusual example of the genre, in which the inevitable murder and exposure of the culprit are incidental to the real conflicts. Purists may find it stimulating to argue about whether this is, strictly speaking, a murder mystery.
1. Does Stout assign a definite and plausible motive to Rachel Bruner? Does he expect us to approve of her sending out the ten thousand copies of the book — a gesture Wolfe calls "quixotic"?
2. Does Stout attack the FBI as an institution, or rather the "megalomaniac" J. Edgar Hoover? Does he ever state or imply what the proper functions and procedures of the Bureau should be?
3. Stout does without the painstakingly- researched details that fill more recent novels about the covert operations of government agencies. Does he succeed in creating a credible tale without such background?
4. Do the humorous touches...
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The Doorbell Rang begins with "a private citizen who thinks the FBI is getting too big for its britches." Rachel Bruner, a very wealthy widow, having read The FBI Nobody Knows by Fred Cook, responds with a spectacular gesture of public-spirited indignation: She buys ten thousand copies of the book and sends them, to important people all over the country. The Bureau reacts by subjecting her, and those close to her, to intensive surveillance and investigation. Her lawyers and her influential friends shrug helplessly when she asks them to do something about this persecution, so she hires Nero Wolfe.
Even Wolfe is not so arrogant as to take on the FBI lightly. Archie Goodwin, ever intrepid and willing to tweak the nose of institutions, assumes that they will refuse the job. But Wolfe perceives the real issue at stake; looking past the common sense of Archie's objections, he points out what his advice amounts to: "I should decline it, not because it would be difficult and perhaps impossible — I have taken many jobs that seemed impossible — but because it would give offense to a certain man and his organization and he would retaliate." Wolfe will never let himself be bullied, not even by the government. Rachel Bruner has committed no crime, and yet she is being hounded. Wolfe believes that not even the FBI is above the law, and so he undertakes to curb J. Edgar Hoover and his minions.
By writing and publishing the novel, Stout...
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The Doorbell Rang has distant ancestors in the classic detective novel and in whistle-blowing fiction. The lone detective against the corrupt official force is a staple of crime writing; the rebellion against overweening government is standard fare. By this point in his career, however, Stout was following precedents he had set himself. He may have considered The Maltese Falcon "the best detective story...written in this century," as Baring-Gould claimed, but Stout was fiercely independent in all matters, and by 1965 was writing like no one but Rex Stout.
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The Doorbell Rang has its closest counterparts in the novella "Before I Die" (in Trouble in Triplicate, 1949) and the novel In the Best Families (1950). In both cases, Wolfe contends with formidable overlords of organized crime; in the second, he finally declares war on his Moriarty, Arnold Zeck. As in The Doorbell Rang, Wolfe defies an organization that even brave men say cannot be beaten. He refuses to be intimidated, and resorts to the most unorthodox measures of his career to emerge unscathed and victorious. The differences between the megalomaniacs of the underworld and those in Washington, as Stout portrays them, are negligible: He mistrusts any power not limited by law.
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Stout despised film and never authorized any cinematic or televised versions of Nero Wolfe.
For a television series, there was a two-hour pilot episode, loosely based on The Doorbell Rang, starring Thayer David as Nero Wolfe and Tom Mason as Archie Goodwin. Written and directed by Frank Gilroy, it was shown on ABC on December 18, 1979. The series eventually ran for one season on NBC: thirteen episodes, January 16, 1981 to August 25, 1981, with William Conrad as Wolfe and Lee Horsley as Archie.
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