The Doorbell Rang

The Doorbell Rang
Author Rex Stout
Cover artist Bill English
Country United States
Language English
Series Nero Wolfe
Genre Detective fiction
Publisher Viking Press
Publication date
October 8, 1965
Media type Print (Hardcover)
Pages 186 pp. (first edition)
OCLC 1617370
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

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. It was published at a time when 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 dismissed the book: National Observer described it as "little more than an anti-FBI diatribe," and Nero Wolfe fan John Wayne wrote Rex Stout a terse note of goodbye after reading the condensed magazine version.[1]:461 But Clifton Fadiman, quoted in a Viking Press advertisement for The Doorbell Rang, thought it was "… the best of all Nero Wolfe stories."

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in 1961

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[2] — collecting in book form several of his articles on FBI abuses that had previously appeared in The Nation. Although Stout considered Hoover a "megalomaniac" and "one of the most objectionable people in our country," he maintained that he had targeted Hoover's FBI almost randomly in search of a new organizational antagonist for his detective duo which would make a good story, as a break from the NYC homicide detectives and the Westchester district attorney's office. Stout's biographer states that Stout hit on the idea of the FBI while reading Cook's exposé; Stout sent Cook an autographed copy of The Doorbell Rang, thanking him for "priming my pump."[3][4] Stout had not before used a Wolfe book to air his own political views so extensively, and did not do so again until 1975's A Family Affair.

Plot summary

After reading the condensed magazine version of The Doorbell Rang, John Wayne wrote Rex Stout: "Have always enjoyed your Nero and Archie, but I read your story in the April issue of Argosy. Goodbye."[1]:461

Rachel Bruner, a wealthy Manhattan widow, has recently incurred the wrath of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. After reading The FBI Nobody Knows, a prominent critique of the many unethical practices of the Bureau, she has mailed 10,000 copies of it to prominent figures across the country. Having endured several incidents of harassment and prying, she offers to hire Wolfe to persuade the FBI to leave her alone. Although initially hesitant of making a powerful enemy, Wolfe is persuaded over Archie’s objections when Bruner offers a $50,000 retainer and then doubles it, on top of any expenses he may incur. He is also sympathetic to both Bruner’s plight and the arguments made in the book, and decides not to withdraw in the face of what he sees as heavy-handed opposition tactics.

As the FBI put Wolfe and Archie under surveillance, Wolfe plans to gain examples of FBI malfeasance and use it to persuade the FBI to back down. Archie’s initial investigations prove fruitless, but he soon receives an anonymous message from Dr. Vollmer, Wolfe’s physician, asking for a clandestine meeting. Although initially suspecting an FBI trap, Archie is astonished to learn that the message is from Inspector Cramer. Cramer reveals that the FBI are attempting to have Wolfe and Archie’s private investigator licenses revoked. He also reveals that he suspects that FBI agents may be involved in the murder of Morris Althaus, a freelance journalist who was researching an article critical of the Bureau, two months earlier. Althaus was found shot to death in his apartment, but the fatal bullet was never recovered; in addition, his research notes were also missing. Cramer, who is opposed to the FBI’s efforts to sabotage Wolfe and stonewall the police's homicide investigation, offers to write a report favourable to Wolfe and Archie if Wolfe proves that the FBI are responsible for the murder of Althaus.

Wolfe instead decides that it would serve his purposes better to prove that the FBI had no part in the murder. He also devises a plan to trap the FBI. Acting on the suspicion that the FBI have secretly bugged Wolfe’s office, Wolfe gathers the key suspects in his office and publicly claims that he is gathering proof that FBI agents murdered Althaus and are covering it up, while directing Archie to conduct his own investigation.

Archie discovers that Sarah Dacos, Bruner’s secretary, lives in the same apartment building as Althaus and claimed to have seen FBI agents leaving the apartment on the night of the murder. When Wolfe and Archie question her, Dacos claims only a casual acquaintance with Althaus, but Archie remains suspicious of her. Acting on a hunch, he breaks into Dacos’s apartment, where he discovers proof that Dacos and Althaus were having an affair. He also discovers the gun that was used to kill Althaus. Archie realises that Dacos murdered Althaus after he broke off their relationship to marry another woman, and that he needs to leave the gun behind. He moves it to a new hiding place, but worries that Dacos will dispose of it before Wolfe and Archie can prove her guilt.

Meanwhile, Wolfe has been preparing his trap for the FBI. Publicly arranging a dinner with his old friend and fellow orchid lover Lewis Hewitt, he privately hires two actors resembling himself and Archie and has them smuggled into the brownstone, along with his operatives Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin and Orrie Cather. The actors are sent to Hewitt’s dinner posing as Wolfe and Archie, while Wolfe, Archie and the operatives secretly remain in the brownstone. Having spread his public suspicions of the FBI and his plans for the house to be empty, Wolfe suspects that the FBI will use the opportunity to break in and steal any evidence he has that FBI agents murdered Althaus.

Two agents break into the house that night, only to be held at gunpoint by Archie and the operatives. Wolfe confiscates their credentials, having obtained conclusive proof of the FBI's harassment of a private citizen. The next day, Wolfe meets with senior FBI official Richard Wragg and offers a deal, with Bruner watching through the office peephole. Wolfe refuses to return the credentials, but offers to abstain from pressing charges and publicly embarrassing the FBI, in exchange for the FBI ceasing all surveillance and harassment of Bruner and those connected to her, including Archie and himself. He adds that he can prove that FBI agents were not responsible for Althaus' murder.

After Wragg agrees to Wolfe’s terms, Archie approaches Inspector Cramer and gives him a lead on Dacos. After the police search her apartment and find the gun, Dacos is arrested for the murder. Wolfe then gathers Wragg and Cramer in his office and negotiates a deal between them. In exchange for Wragg handing over the missing bullet that will prove Dacos' guilt, taken by the FBI along with Althaus' research notes, Cramer will conceal any involvement on the part of the FBI. Wragg and Cramer reluctantly agree to Wolfe’s deal.

The novel ends with Wolfe and Archie receiving an unidentified but important visitor, implied to be J. Edgar Hoover. Speculating that he has come in person to collect the FBI credentials, Wolfe refuses to let him into the house, leaving the visitor to keep ringing the doorbell.

Cast of characters

The unfamiliar word

"Nero Wolfe talks in a way that no human being on the face of the earth has ever spoken, with the possible exception of Rex Stout after he had a gin and tonic," said Michael Jaffe, executive producer of the A&E TV series, A Nero Wolfe Mystery.[5]

"Like all of us, Wolfe has his favorite words, phrases, and sayings," wrote William S. Baring-Gould. "Among the words, many are unusual and some are abstruse."[6]

The Doorbell Rang includes these examples:

Reviews and commentary

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 ...[15]

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.[16]


A Nero Wolfe Mystery (A&E Network)

Executive producer Michael Jaffe adapted The Doorbell Rang 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 (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), James Tolkan (Richard Wragg), and Nicky Guadagni (Ivana Althaus).

"The Doorbell Rang" was filmed in Toronto, with select Manhattan exteriors.[17][18] Composer Michael Small wrote the jazzy score, including the title music and series theme, "Boss Boogie." The soundtrack also includes music by Ib Glindemann, Alan Moorhouse, Bill Novick and Paul Lenart, and Giuseppe Verdi.[19]

In North America, A Nero Wolfe Mystery is available on Region 1 DVD from A&E Home Video (ISBN 076708893X). "The Doorbell Rang" is one of the Nero Wolfe episodes released on Region 4 DVD in Australia in 2008, under license by FremantleMedia Enterprises.[20] In 2009 the film was released on Region 2 DVD in the Netherlands, by Just Entertainment.[21] All of these DVD releases present "The Doorbell Rang" in 4:3 pan and scan rather than its 16:9 aspect ratio for widescreen viewing.

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).

Publication history

In his limited-edition pamphlet, Collecting Mystery Fiction #10, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe Part II, Otto Penzler describes the first edition of The Doorbell Rang: "Reddish marbleized boards, black cloth spine; front and rear covers blank; spine printed with red and white. Issued in a mainly gold-colored dust wrapper."[23]
In April 2006, Firsts: The Book Collector's Magazine estimated that the first edition of A Right to Die had a value of between $100 and $200. The estimate is for a copy in very good to fine condition in a like dustjacket.[24]
The far less valuable Viking book club edition may be distinguished from the first edition in three ways:
  • The dust jacket has "Book Club Edition" printed on the inside front flap, and the price is absent (first editions may be price clipped if they were given as gifts).
  • Book club editions are sometimes thinner and always taller (usually a quarter of an inch) than first editions.
  • Book club editions are bound in cardboard, and first editions are bound in cloth (or have at least a cloth spine).[25]

See also


  1. 1 2 McAleer, John, Rex Stout: A Biography. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1977, hardcover ISBN 0-316-55340-9
  2. Cook, Fred J., The FBI Nobody Knows, 1964, The McMillan Company
  3. "Rex Stout Writes Detective Stories, Makes Enemies of the FBI".
  4. McAleer, John. pp. 446-7
  5. Quoted in Vitaris, Paula, "Miracle on 35th Street: Nero Wolfe on Television," Scarlet Street, issue #45, 2002, p. 36
  6. Baring-Gould, William S., Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street. New York: Viking Press, 1969, hardcover, page 9
  7. 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
  8. Jackson, Katherine Gauss, Books in Brief: Novels for the Holidays; Harper's, December 1965, pp. 133–134
  9. "January 26, 2009". The Nation. 2009-01-26. Retrieved 2012-01-04.
  10. Lingeman, Richard R., and the editors of The Nation, The Nation Guide to The Nation (2008, Vintage Books; ISBN 978-0-307-38728-8), p. 62
  11. Pearl, Nancy, Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment, and Reason (Seattle, Washington: Sasquatch Books, 2003, ISBN 1-57061-381-8); p. 226
  12. "About Last Night:". 2009-01-12. Retrieved 2012-01-04.
  13. "Books: The Grand Race - Printout". TIME. 1965-11-05. Retrieved 2012-01-04.
  14. Winn, Dilys, Murder Ink: The Mystery Reader's Companion. (1977) New York: Workman Publishing Company, ISBN 0894800043, page 90
  15. Mitgang, Herbert, Dangerous Dossiers: Exposing the Secret War Against America's Greatest Authors; 1988, Donald I. Fine, Inc.; Hardcover ISBN 1-55611-077-4, pp. 227–228
  16. Final Report of the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (1976). "E. Political Abuse of Intelligence Information, subfinding c, footnote 91". Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans, Book II. U.S. Government Printing Office. p. 239.
  17. Landman Keil, Beth, "Timothy Hutton Directs, Traffic Stops". New York, October 30, 2000, page 14. "Hutton's new A&E series, Nero Wolfe … obtained permission to film on West 76th Street for Saturday, October 14, and Sunday, October 15."
  18. WireImage (image numbers 253302 – 253308) and Getty Images (image number 1302172) document the location photography directed by Timothy Hutton on October 15, 2000, also seen in the A&E documentary, "The Making of Nero Wolfe"
  19. Music cue sheet for "The Doorbell Rang." Ib Glindemann, "Little Jug" and "Cabaret Act"; Carlin Production Music CAR 202, Big Band / Jazz / Swing (tracks 14 and 41). Alan Moorhouse, "In the Swing"; KPM Music Ltd. KPM 91, Music of the 20s, 30s and 40s (track 20). Bill Novick and Paul Lenart, "Down in Harlem"; Sonoton SCD 319, The Roaring 20s - USA (track 32). Giuseppe Verdi, "La donna è mobile" from Rigoletto, arranged by Daryl Griffith; KPM Music Ltd. KPM 405, Opera – The Works 1 (track 4). Additional soundtrack details at the Internet Movie Database
  20. Nero Wolfe — Collection One, August 13, 2008 UPC 9316797427038. Three-disc set includes "The Golden Spiders," "The Doorbell Rang" and "Champagne for One." Each 90-minute film is presented with a single set of titles and credits. Screen format is 4:3 full frame. Rated M (mild crime themes and mild violence) by the Commonwealth of Australia. (Retrieved April 7, 2012)
  21. A Nero Wolfe Mystery — Serie 1, December 11, 2009; EAN 8717344739221. Three-disc set includes "The Golden Spiders," "The Doorbell Rang" and "Champagne for One." Each 90-minute film is presented with a single set of titles and credits. Screen format is 4:3 full frame; optional Dutch subtitles. Licensed by FremantleMedia Enterprises to Just Entertainment. (Retrieved January 1, 2011)
  22. Townsend, Guy M., Rex Stout: An Annotated Primary and Secondary Bibliography (1980, New York: Garland Publishing; ISBN 0-8240-9479-4), pp. 40–41. John McAleer, Judson Sapp and Arriean Schemer are associate editors of this definitive publication history.
  23. Penzler, Otto, Collecting Mystery Fiction #10, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe Part II (2001, New York: The Mysterious Bookshop, limited edition of 250 copies), p. 20
  24. Smiley, Robin H., "Rex Stout: A Checklist of Primary First Editions." Firsts: The Book Collector's Magazine (Volume 16, Number 4), April 2006, p. 35
  25. Penzler, Otto, Collecting Mystery Fiction #9, Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe Part I, pp. 19–20
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