Showing posts with label Mary Roberts Rinehart. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mary Roberts Rinehart. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

The Circular Staircase

I recently became fascinated with the American mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart. She wrote several novels and short stories between 1908 and 1952. Much of it has been reprinted dozens of times over the years. In the 1960s and 1970s, Dell reprinted her novels to appeal to the flourishing Gothic market. These books traditionally featured women escaping large mansions or walking down dark corridors and stairs. Such is the case with Rinehart's very first novel, The Circular Staircase. It was originally published over the course of five issues of All-Story beginning in November 1907. It was then reprinted as a book by Bobbs-Merrill in 1908. It was reprinted and commercialized like a Gothic paperback by Dell in 1968.

Rachel Innes is a wealthy spinster who has raised her orphaned niece, 24-yr old Gertrude, and her nephew, 20-yr old Halsey. After hiring a team of contractors to renovate her home, Rachel decides to rent a big manor called Summerside for the trio to spend their summer vacation. Arriving early, Rachel and her servant Liddy decide to spend the night at home until Gertrude and Halsey arrive the following day. The duo experience what appears to be a supernatural haunting with loud foot stomps down the house's long and winding staircase. In addition, a man appeared to be outside in the shadows of the stable. The explanation for all of this comes from the butler who cautions the duo by explaining that things have happened inside that are not natural.

Later, Gertrude and Halsey arrive home with a friend and head off to the local country club. That night, the house is awoken by the noise of a gunshot. Stumbling into the card room, Rachel discovers the corpse of Paul Armstrong, the homeowner's son. By the time the detectives get here, there's every indication that Halsey is the prime suspect in Armstrong's murder.

Rinehart's story is written in what was then thought to be an innovative style. In the first pages of the book, Rachel tells readers what happened to her and her family in Sunnyside. She does this in a method that introduces the "If I had only known then." This technique becomes a staple in mystery fiction with the protagonist cautioning readers about the events that happened and the things that he or she could have done to avoid it. This is like an NFL fan commenting Monday morning on his team's defeat the day before. It is made in a way that presents itself as a regret or a misfortune, but that sets up the central mystery of the book.

The Circular Staircase features a fascinating narrative that unfolds into 10 or 12 small mysteries that are all connected. Rachel's experience at Sunnyside is a harrowing journey, ripe with two murders, a local bank robbery, a mysterious orphaned child and a number of seeming unexplained occurrences within the house. A large hole appears in an upstairs wall, an unknown person (or entity) is discovered escaping through a laundry chute and various members of the family find themselves physically and mentally assaulted. Sometimes I found the plot really complicated and dense, but it wasn't enough to make it an unpleasant reading experience. Instead, I enjoyed the overwhelming mystery and was excited to discover how the author weaved it all together. 

Rinehart's novel was successfully adapted into the 1920 stage play The Bat. It ran 878 performances in New York before launching in Europe. It was filmed on three occasions: 1926, 1930 and 1959. Against Rinehart's wishes, a film company reprinted The Circular Staircase under the title of The Bat. In 1926, Rinehart allowed a novelization of The Bat in her name but ghostwritten by Stephen Vincent Benet. 

If you like the cozy mystery thrillers of the early twentieth century, The Circular Staircase is a must-read. Rinehart was a master of her craft and used a lot of the same techniques, atmosphere and locales write a number of other novels including 1925's The Red Lamp. You owe it to yourself to read a few of her books.

Buy a copy of this book HERE

Friday, June 18, 2021

The Case of Jennie Brice

Mary Roberts Rinehart wrote a number of mystery novels, short stories, plays and poetry during a writing career which lasted from 1908 to 1952. She was often referred to as the American version of Agatha Christie. I've recently discovered her work and was delighted with her 1925 novel The Red Lamp. Striking while the iron is hot, I soon decided to read another, The Case of Jennie Brice. It was initially printed as a hardback in 1913 and later reprinted by Dell as a paperback in 1960.

The novel is set in Rinehart's own hometown of Allegheny, Pennsylvania (part of Pittsburgh) and stars a widowed woman named Ms. Pittman. In a first-person account, Pittman explains to readers that she lives in Pittsburgh's flooded neighborhood and runs a boarding house for tenants. As an experienced riverside resident, Pittman began moving residents and property from the lower floor of the building to the second floor. Cleverly, she also ties a small boat to her staircase bannister so she can simply sail down the hall and out into the city when the waters rise. 

Two of Pittman's tenants are a married couple, writer Philip Langley and actor Jennie Brice. As the dense rain descends on the city, Pittman begins to hear the couple arguing. The next morning, the boat is found cut and then re-attached to the bannister and there are bloodstains on the rope. In addition, Jennie Brice is missing. Did she leave Langly or was she murdered? When police locate a headless body near the river, the public consensus is that this is the body of Jennie Brice. 

As one can imagine, The Case of Jennie Brice ultimately became a complex murder mystery as well as a jury trial. Pittman teams up with a former NYC homicide detective named Howell to determine if Brice is really dead. Throughout their investigation, they learn that the couple were harboring a dark secret (for that time-period) and there may be suspicious grounds for Philip to kill his wife. A beautiful mistress, a mysterious guest, a wounded dog and Pittman's separated family all play roles in Rinehart's compelling story. 

The author's brilliant setting really enhanced this moody murder mystery. The very thought that the house is flooded and that Jennie Brice could be drowned in the den below was fascinating. There is also a disturbing tension throughout the house as Pittman begins to suspect other murderers inside. Rinehart creates an equally entertaining subplot with Pittman's relationship with her estranged siblings and niece. The two plots marry perfectly and are enhanced by the final act of the book, the inevitable courtroom drama.

I've never read anything like this before. With its wildly innovative story, the development of the propelling plot and captivating characters, I found it to be a better, although quite different, reading experience than The Red Lamp. Highly recommended. 

Buy a copy of this book HERE 

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

The Red Lamp

Often called the American Agatha Christie, Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958) wrote over 50 novels, most of which are considered traditional murder mysteries. She's often credited with inventing the “Had I but Known” mystery style where the chief protagonist conducts behavior that is connected with a crime, thus prolonging the action of the story. She's also noted for the phrase “The butler did it” from her 1930 mystery, The Door. My first experience with the author is her 1925 novel called The Red Lamp, also known as The Mystery Lamp.

Presented as a rather lengthy journal, The Red Lamp's premise is the haunting of an enormous mansion called Twin Hollows. The journal's author, William Porter, inherits this sprawling mansion in a rather mysterious way. His uncle Horace was found dead inside the mansion apparently in mid-sentence of a letter he was penning to someone. His death is suspected to be an accidental fall, but there's a sense that foul play could have been involved. William and his wife Jane decide to spend the summer residing in the mansion's guest house. They later rent the mansion to an elderly man named Bethel and his steward named Gordon.

This kick-starts a supernatural whirlwind of murder, intrigue, and deception.

During the initial weeks of both William and Jane living in the guest house, there is a mysterious outbreak of sheep murders. Later, strange signs are found painted around the house and surrounding areas depicting a circle with an inner triangle. The first deaths begin with a local cop investigating the slayings followed by more people with close ties to Porter. As the deaths, attacks and strange occurrences continue, the common denominator is the house itself. Porter and various caretakers and staff experience ghostly apparitions and noises that seem to be transfixed on a red lamp that casts a bloody hue on the house. Are these apparitions of a supernatural origin? Or, is this town and it's inhabitants spiraling into madness?

The Red Lamp is a hybrid of horror and mystery, never consuming either genre but lying somewhere in the fringes. The claustrophobic, paranoia aspects of Porter's mind saturates the narrative, again simply a diary in its presentation. Like Lovecraft, this cold, unsettling fear erodes the sanity of the book's central character. The unnatural nightly noises and the lamp's omnipresence captures the essence of a truly disturbing horror novel. However, Rinehart attempts to lighten the mood occasionally with Porter's sarcasm and self-parody of his own situation.

Whether the book is a dense, slowly evolving mystery or a horror tale is in the eye of the beholder. While I found the book longer than need be, I still found myself drawn to this eerie, freakishly compelling novel. At 250-pages of smaller print, it's a good workout for committed readers. My first Rinehart experience was rewarding enough to warrant the purchase of three more of her books – The Circular Staircase (1908), The Window at the White Cat (1910) and The After House (1914). In other words...look for more reviews of her work in the coming months.

Buy a copy of this book HERE