Thursday Lit: Calling Nero Wolfe!

During the really hot weather, I like to read Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe stories. There’s something about the writing that I can enjoy over and over again.

I’ve been re-reading one of Stout’s most famous books, The Doorbell Rang (1965), and it seems surprisingly relevant in these post-Snowden-revelation days.

In case you haven’t heard of The Doorbell Rang***, here’s an excerpt that succinctly sums up the basics.

First a note on characters: Nero Wolfe is to the 1940s-era New York what Sherlock Holmes was to late 19th century London. Archie Goodwin is his 20-something assistant with a fine outlook on life, and he’s always the narrator of these stories. Fritz, from Switzerland, is their cook and housekeeper.

As I went to the little table by the wall where I eat breakfast I asked Fritz if there was anything stirring.

“Yes,” he said, “and you are to tell what it is.”

“Oh, didn’t he [Wolfe] tell you?”

“No. He said only that the doors are to be bolted and the windows locked at all times, that I am to be – what does ‘circumspect’ mean?”

“It means watch your step. Say nothing to anyone on the phone that you wouldn’t want to see in the paper. When you go out, do nothing that you wouldn’t want to see on TV. For instance, girl friends. Stay away. Swear off. Suspect all strangers.”

Fritz wouldn’t, and didn’t, talk, while [pan]cakes were getting to just the right shade of brown. When they were before me, the first two, and the sausage, and were being buttered, he said, “I want to know, Archie, and I have a right to know. He said you would explain. Bien. I demand it.”

I picked up the fork. “You know what the FBI is.”

“But certainly. Mr. Hoover.”

“That’s what he thinks. On behalf of a client [a rich woman who did the 1950s equivalent of posting something critical of the government online and turned to Wolfe when she got into trouble for it] we’re going to push his nose in. Just a routine chore, but he’s touchy and will try to stop us. So futile.” I put a bite of cake where it belonged.

“But he – he’s a great man. Yes?”

“Sure. But I suppose you’ve seen pictures of him.”


“What do you think of his nose?”

“Not good. Not exactly épaté, but broad. Not bien fait.

“Then it should be pushed.” I forked sausage.

So he was at ease when I finished and went to the office. The meals would be okay, at least for today. [Because Fritz has seen that Archie wasn’t fazed – actually, Archie is indeed seriously fazed but determined to go through with it.]

It's hard to see his nose in this picture of J. Edgar Hoover in a crowd of admirers, four years before The Doorbell Rang came out.  (Library of Congress)

John Wayne wasn’t the only fan of the “great American.” It’s hard to see Hoover’s nose in this picture, taken four years before The Doorbell Rang came out. (Library of Congress)

The nonfictional J. Edgar Hoover – who served under Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon and who wouldn’t leave the FBI until 1972 – was not amused.

It was later revealed that Stout was put on an FBI list for this book. He lost John Wayne as a fan. The “counterculture” and liberals of the day loved it.

Anyway, while re-reading this in our own time, it occurred to me that things are just as scary now, in terms of American civil rights as a whole, as they were back in the Fifties and early Sixties.

Fritz isn’t the one who said this: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

We could use someone like Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin again, these days.


*** For Wolfe fans – Saucisse Minuit.

Categories: fiction, Thursday Lit

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