After the last book, I did promise that I would cleanse my palate with something truly classic and well-written. Well, one out of two isn’t bad. When I saw a Mary Roberts Rinehart’s novel on Net Galley, I couldn’t believe my luck. My mother introduced me to her books back in my pre-teen days – that is what passed as YA literature back then. I read a couple of her books in the past few years and enjoyed them for what they are – old-fashioned, demure, cozy mysteries with a likeable heroine narrating the story. This book, however, was just a little too too, if you know what I mean.
In case you aren’t familiar with Rinehart, she was born in 1876, in Pittsburgh and died in 1958. Her family experienced financial difficulties, which surprised me, as I’ll explain a little later.
Mary Roberts Rinehart was a well-known mystery and romance writer. Her stories combine adventure, love, ingenuity, and humor in a style that is distinctly her own. Most of her fiction included startling plot twists. Rinehart generally added realism in her depiction of contemporary life, with many different classes, corruption high and low, and a great diversity of characters. Her leading lady was inevitably a woman of a certain age with a comfortable income, with the notable exception of her Miss Pinkerton series. Rinehart’s stories appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, and she was also a published playwright.
Mary Roberts graduated from the Pittsburgh Training School for Nurses in 1896. That same year she married physician Stanley M. Rinehart. She and her husband started a family, and she took up writing in 1903 as a result of difficulties created by monetary losses. Her first story appeared in Munsey’s Magazine in 1903. The Circular Staircase (1908), her first book and first mystery, was an immediate success, and the following year The Man in Lower Ten, which had been serialized earlier, strengthened her popular success. Thereafter she wrote steadily, averaging about a book a year. A long series of comic tales about the redoubtable “Tish” (Letitia Carberry) appeared as serials in the Saturday Evening Post over a number of years and as a series of novels beginning with The Amazing Adventures of Letitia Carberry (1911).
Rinehart served as a war correspondent during World War I and later described her experiences in several books, particularly Kings, Queens and Pawns (1915). She wrote a number of romances and nine plays. Most of the plays were written in collaboration with Avery Hopwood; her greatest successes were Seven Days, produced in New York in 1909, and The Bat, derived from The Circular Staircase and produced in 1920. She followed this in 1926 in novel form.
In 1914, Rinehart’s writing and career drastically changed. Rinehart gave up mystery and humorous fiction, and turned to straight novels for most of the next 15 years. Her novels were commercially hugely successful, but critically slammed. While inoffensive morally, critics felt they represented lowbrow popular fiction. According to her biographer Jan Cohn, Rinehart often suffered horribly from depression during these years. Her husband Dr. Stanley Rinehart bitterly resented his wife’s commercial success. He seems to have used his medical degree and general intellectual skills as a weapon to demonstrate his mental superiority to his wife, the trashy author of popular fiction, and pushed her to write “serious literary works”. By contrast, Rinehart had a happy relationship with her three sons. Motherhood is always depicted in glowing terms in Rinehart’s fiction, although often shown to be very hard work, while marriage is an unmitigated horror story. Husbands are commonly depicted as misogynists who are cold hearted, philanderers, men intolerant of their wife’s career, who have to have their own ways in the smallest details. The best of these mainstream tales are from the 1930’s and in the collection Married People. Rinehart also wrote a number of powerful tales about wife beating long before it became a feminist issue in the 1980’s.
Rinehart did write some mystery and humorous fiction during these years. The crime story “The Confession” (1917) is a grim but powerful portrait of a woman’s guilt, depression and mental breakdown.
She also wrote two fusions of supernatural-psychical research fiction and mystery fiction, “Sight Unseen” (1916) and The Red Lamp (1925), which are among the author’s lesser works. As early as “The Amazing Adventure of Letitia Carberry” (1911), Rinehart was talking about spiritualism in her mysteries, but in that story it is just a red herring – no actual supernatural events occur.
Spiritualism is not found just in Rinehart, but in many other American authors of mystery fiction of the period, such as S.S. Van Dine, Ellery Queen, and John Dickson Carr. It makes their storytelling so interesting. The Bat uses spiritualism, but as mentioned above, it serves as a red herring.
In the early 1920s, the family moved to Washington, DC when Dr. Rinehart was appointed to a post in the Veterans Administration. He died in 1932, but she continued to live there until 1935, when she moved to New York City. There she helped her sons found the publishing house Farrar & Rinehart, serving as its director.
She remained best known as a writer of mysteries, and the growing popularity of mysteries after World War II led to frequent republication of her works. Her autobiography, My Story, appeared in 1931 and was revised in 1948. At Rinehart’s death her books had sold more than 10 million copies.
Sometimes real life can be stranger than fiction. Rinehart also maintained a vacation home in Bar Harbor, Maine, where, in 1947, her Filipino chef, who had worked for her for 25 years, fired a gun at her and then attempted to slash her with knives, until other servants rescued her. The chef committed suicide in his cell the next day.
Rinehart suffered from breast cancer, which led to a radical mastectomy. She eventually went public with her story, at a time when such matters were not openly discussed. The interview “I Had Cancer” was published in a 1947 issue of the Ladies’ Home Journal. Rinehart encouraged women to have breast examinations.
I had the feeling as I read this book that it would be easily adapted to the stage. Ninety plus of the story takes place in the living room, with characters coming in and out of various doors. Turned out I just really have a second sense (you think). As this story was originally a play, Rinehart might have used a little more creativity in rewriting it as a novel. It was also adapted for the movies in 1926, along with The Bat Whispers (1930), and a remake of The Bat in 1959. In 1933 RCA Victor released The Bat as one of the earliest talking book recordings. I would love to hear that. I wonder how many records it took to record and whether it was on 16 rpm or another speed.
Some believe that The Bat shows Rinehart at the height of her powers and is her greatest work. I can’t agree. There were too many characters, the butler was referred to as “the Jap” (although that might have as politically correct as you could get at the time), and Rinehart operates as uber-omniscient author. She is constantly telling us that a character is doing something that no one else notices. Subtlety is nowhere to be found. I don’t remember that style from her other books; perhaps it is because of its stage heredity that it is present here. Also, I was about 75% through the book when I realized who done it – I don’t appreciate that in a mystery.
Off, off topic:
When reading books from another era, you can pick up the most interesting pieces of trivia. At one point, Miss Van Gorder refers “Gillette as Holmes.” I wondered who Gillette was. I Widipediaed him. The following is from that source:
William Hooker Gillette (July 24, 1853 – April 29, 1937) was an American actor, playwright and stage-manager in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He is best remembered today for portraying Sherlock Holmes on stage and in a now lost 1916 silent film. His portrayal of Holmes helped create the modern image of the detective. His use of the deerstalker cap (which first appeared in some Strand Magazine illustrations by Sidney Paget) and the curved pipe became synonymous with the character. And it was in his play, not in Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, that Holmes first said “This is elementary, my dear fellow,” which subsequently became “Elementary, my dear Watson”. Gillette assumed the role onstage more than 1,300 times over thirty years, starred in a silent motion picture based on his Holmes play, and voiced the character twice on radio.
So, really, Gillette is responsible for the image we have today of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle created him, but Gillette gave him form.