Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Doorbell Rang

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of The Doorbell Rang (Viking, 1965).

I had been waiting for this novel since I sat down with the first, Fer-de-Lance, in August of last year, and it created one set of disappointments while really knocking me on my backside at the same time. This story was actually my first exposure to Nero Wolfe - my wife and I watched the A&E adaptation of this and a couple of other stories - I think just Champagne for One and Prisoner's Base - before she decided against the Netflix subscription and I started reading the books.

The problem - and I want to clarify up front that the book itself doesn't have a problem at all - is that the TV series is set in sort of a nebulous, nostalgic, bright n' shiny postwar period. It wasn't designed anywhere nearly as well as Mad Men; it just sort of evoked a sunny, Eisenhower America. But the book was written in a dark, LBJ period. I'd love to study more about the way that noir literature, as well as Kennedy's assassination, started influencing all of the popular media of the day. What's unshakable is this: The Doorbell Rang, with its paranoid, tense distrust of the FBI and the government, comes from the same place as television's Route 66 and The Fugitive, and the TV adaptation doesn't reflect that at all.

I think you can trace the way Stout was being influenced by the nation's darker tone throughout his books in this period. In the previous novel, Archie's visits to the much smaller towns of Racine and Evansville take the focus out of the shiny New York City and occasional jaunts to nearby, upstate communities, in much the same way that television, particularly those two shows above, started exploring the breadth of our country for the first time. When you add the darker mood of the period to stories that move a little more freely outside the confines of the series' traditional venues, and then mix in some much meaner and bleaker stories - the ongoing narrative and bodycount of The Mother Hunt, the unforgettable climax of Gambit - any adaptation just cries out for a black and white presentation and a CBS logo. This book is as 1964 as fiction gets.

When I did my customary, cursory "research" after finishing this novel, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Stout's anti-government, anti-FBI stance had cost him one celebrated reader. Actor John Wayne, a noted conservative, sent Stout a curt "goodbye" after reading an abridged version of the novel in the anthology magazine Argosy. Wayne should have stuck around another forty years. These days, the way the right pillories the government, Wayne would have renewed his Argosy subscription and sent Stout flowers.

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