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Monday, July 11, 2011

The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rinehart

First edition cover

The Circular Staircase
Mary Roberts Rinehart
Bobbs-Merrill, September 1908

While browsing around Project Gutenberg, I came upon books by Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958).  Her name sounded vaguely familiar. Does it to you, too? Upon Googeling her name and seeing her accomplishments, I figured I had to have read about her in the past either through studying women writers or mystery writers.

Here are a few facts about Rinehart:
  • She was considered the American Agatha Christie
  • She created the Had-I-But-Know school of mystery writing
  • She's credited with creating the phrase "The butler did it"
  • She created a costumed super criminal called The Bat which became Bob Kane's inspiration for Batman
You can read more about Rinehart here at Wikipedia or check out Mike Grost's more detailed assessment of her writing here.

The Circular Staircase is a good story and a good mystery. I thought I had it figured it out a few times but then I didn't. Even when I did, it didn't play out exactly like I'd thought it would.

When reading "old" novels, I'm sometimes more interested in the historical tidbits and cultural artifacts which are mentioned. In this book my favorite was Wrinkle Eliminators: 


1905 ad for Wrinkle Eradicators. Image source click here.
I can often over-look stilted language or simplistic plots in older novels. In the case of The Circular Staircase I feel like I got the best of everything. The novel was published in 1908 and I thought the main character's voice --Rachel Innes, through whose perspective we get the story--was fresh and consistent through out.  Rachel Innes, or Aunt Ray as her niece and nephew call her, is a filthy rich society lady who rents a house outside of the city for six months while her home is being remodeled.  Strange things have been going on at the house she rents and rumor are starting. Reading this so soon after The Haunting of Hill House, I was, like Eleanor, susceptible to suggestion. Some of the servants fear the place is haunted. 

The house belongs to a Mr. Armstrong, owner of a local back who has left for California with his wife, step-daughter, and his doctor. Strange noises are heard in the house at night, a figure is seen standing outside in the dark, and scrape marks are found on the stairs. Armstrong's son is then shot dead in the house, the blast awakens the entire household and the mystery is off in high gear. Why didn't Armstrong use a key? Who was in the house that would want him dead? The niece and nephew start acting weird, the Armstrong bank fails, and the niece's fiancé is implicated. The strange noises continue. More strange figures are seen around the house. Servants come and go.

Rinehart
I didn't read any criticism before reading the novel and I'm glad I didn't. Some reviews make Rinehart's books sound simplistic and dated, but, like I said, that wasn't my experience. Yes, there are some attitudes and references that may repel contemporary readers. Most glaring is referring to African Americans as "darkys."  But keeping the time period in mind, the main black character, Thomas the butler, was a slave in his younger years. The Civil War had ended just about 40 years before this novel was written. I have no idea what Rinehart's personal racial views were, but she seems to use racial attitudes to complicate the plot. Thomas is found with nearly $100 in his wallet (which was a lot of dough in 1908). Mr Jamieson, the detective, says, "Almost two month's wages--and yet those darkies seldom have a penny. Well--what Thomas knew will be buried with him" (83). I did not get the impression that Jamieson is racist. Is he just using the current lingo and stating a socio-economic assumption of the time period?  Or is Rinehart using readers' racial attitudes (if they're racist) to throw them off from solving the murder?

If you like classic mysteries, check it out. There are several sites from which you may download a free digital edition. I got mine from Project Gutenberg here.


 

2 comments:

  1. Nice review! I'm reading this novel right now and am surprised at how "modern" it seems except of course for the glaring racist attitude with respect to describing the African American. So many unanswered questions! They are piling up a bit high at this point but I'm glad your review didn't give away the ending. I feel like the plot is a just bit unrealistic that with so much violence and danger about "Aunt Ray" would choose to adamently stay at the rental despite the wish of the owners that she leave. Nonetheless, I love the small details of life in those times. The descriptions of motor cars and servant duties, etc. Thanks again!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Vick the Chick! I love reading novels from earlier time periods for all those little details, too. I had planned to read more of her novels, but haven't yet. I hear The Bat is good.

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