The Doorbell Rang by Rex Stout
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Rex Stout was born in Noblesville, IN and grew up in Kansas. Though never active himself, he was raised by Quaker parents. He was a brilliant child - he read by the time he was four and won a state spelling Bee when he was 13. He must have been somewhat influenced by his families' Quaker activism: He served on the original board of the American Civil Liberties Union and helped start the magazine The New Masses. At the time of the Depression, he was an enthusiastic supporter of the New Deal. During World War II, he worked with the advocacy group, Friends of Democracy. The group was the forerunner of today’s watchdog organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center that track hate groups. When the paranoid anti-Communist era of the late 1940s and 1950s began, Stout ignored a subpoena from the House Un-American Activities Committee at the height of the McCarthy era witch-hunts. Though active in causes on the left, Stout was rabidly anti-communist and the irony of his subpoena is that he probably would have supported McCarthy's goal of finding "Commies" in the US Government, if it had actually been about that.
This book, more than any of his other books, is Stout blatantly airing his dirty laundry of grievances. In other books he showed Archie as pretty darn anti-communist, he had Wolfe say some very unflattering things about Germans and he let his hawkish stance on the War in Vietnam show. But this was the first time that he used the entire premise of a book to go after a political enemy, in this case, The FBI and J. Edgar Hoover.
Stout was closely watched by Hoover's FBI. Hoover considered him an enemy of the bureau and either a Communist or a tool of Communist-dominated groups. Which just pissed off Stout to no end. As Stout said himself, he was a socialist who rabidly hated Communism.
In The Doorbell Rang, 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 publication of The Doorbell Rang generated controversy. It was published not long after Robert F. Kennedy and J. Edgar Hoover clashed and the Bureau was coming under fire for its investigations of Dr. King.
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, but after The Doorbell Rang, got the full spotlight of the FBI. About a third of Stout's FBI file is devoted to this book. In its 1976 report, the Church Committee found that The Doorbell Rang is ths reason that Rex Stout's name was one of 332 placed on the FBI's "not to contact list," which it cited as evidence of the FBI's political abuse of intelligence information.
It's not a great mystery but it is passionately written, and is now part of the history of that era.
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