The Man in Lower Ten and The Circular Staircase | The Window at the White Cat | Comic Stories and Nurse Fiction | The Case of Jennie Brice | The Afterhouse | Miss Pinkerton: The Novellas | The Curve of the Catenary | Mainstream Fiction | The Bat | Later Tish stories | Return to Mystery Fiction 1930-1939 | The Door | Series Detectives | Miss Pinkerton | The Squad Car short stories | The Inside Story | Politics | The Album | The Wall | The Great Mistake | Episode of the Wandering Knife | The Yellow Room | The Swimming Pool | The Early 1940's Mystery Fiction: 1942-1945 | The Burned Chair | Recommended Reading
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
The Circular Staircase (1907) (available on-line at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/434)
Affinities (available on-line at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/41408)
Tish (available on-line at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/3464)
Sight Unseen and The Confession
Miss Pinkerton (1932)
The Album (1933) (Chapters 1 - 7, 13, 15, 18, 33 - 36, 48-49)
The Great Mistake (1940)
Alibi For Isabel
The Frightened Wife
The above is not a complete list of Rinehart's novels and short stories; it just contains my favorite Rinehart works, those I enjoyed reading, and recommend to others. The lists under the collections do not include all the short stories in the book, just the ones I recommend.
Rinehart was highly influential on later mystery writers. Please see articles which discuss such writers in detail:
The Man in Lower Ten (1906) and The Circular Staircase (1907) are the earliest works by any American author to be still in print as works of entertainment, not as "classics" or "literature". These novels, which combine mystery and adventure, show Rinehart's tremendously vivid powers as a storyteller.
Rinehart has been much and unfairly criticized for scenes in which her heroines wander alone in strange buildings at night. It is not only her women who do this, however: the male lawyer protagonist of The Man in Lower Ten also explores in the dark in that book's finale. What Rinehart was alive to was the poetic possibilities of the night and the dark. The night is always full of discoveries in Rinehart's work. The Man in Lower Ten is also one of the first novels to mention the unconscious.
The settings of these novels can be read as Freudian symbols as well: the train and steel mills of The Man in Lower Ten seem like male symbols, while the house with its circular staircase at its center symbolizes the female body. The two novels have male and female protagonists, respectively.
The mystery plot depends on some unfair coincidences. SPOILERS. A subplot looks throughout the novel as if it were closely related to the main mystery puzzle. At the end, the subplot turns out to be entirely unrelated: just a coincidence that happened at the same time.
Rinehart achieved success on Broadway and as a novelist almost simultaneously; for the next 45 years she would remain one of America's most popular authors. The immediate effect on her was a swerve into comic fiction for the next five years (1908-1913). She stopped appearing in the low paying pulps, and started to write for the commercially premier magazines. Much of her fiction during this period was in the form of long short stories. Her first sale to the Saturday Evening Post was "The Borrowed House" (1909), a long comic story about the wild adventures of some British suffragettes. Rinehart was a feminist, and marched for women's suffrage during this era.
The next year she created Tish, a middle aged spinster who would be the center of a series of comic long short stories for the next 30 years. Tish and her friends Aggie and Lizzie do all the things largely forbidden to the women of their time, race motor cars, pilot dirigibles, drive ambulances in World War I France, do stunt work in silent pictures and hunt for sharks and grizzly bears. Underneath the delightful comic surface of these tales is a brilliant feminist vision, and the series of five Tish books is a masterpiece of humor. Many of the finest Tish stories have been collected in an omnibus aptly titled The Best of Tish (1955). In fact, except for "My Country Tish of Thee -" (1916), most of the really good Tish stories are in this collection.
None of the stories in the first Tish collection, The Amazing Adventures of Letitia Carberry, made it into The Best of Tish, and in truth they are not as good as the later Tish tales. This book opens with a long novella, which combines three strands of Rinehart's writing: it has a hospital and nursing background, it is a comic tale of Tish, and it also has mystery elements throughout. This mystery plot is atypical of the Tish stories, most of which are not constructed as mysteries. It is an interesting curiosity, but not one of Rinehart's better mystery works, with some unexplained coincidences in the solution. It is perhaps noteworthy as an early example of a mystery involving a hospital and nurses, later a favorite setting of the Sarah Keate novels by Rinehart's follower Mignon G. Eberhart, and like them, full of spooky events at night. This story is untitled in the collection, but apparently it is the same as a magazine serial, "The Amazing Adventure of Letitia Carberry" (1911). The plot has some affinities to Rinehart's novel, The Afterhouse (1913).
The story has a nice discussion of Conan Doyle's mystery technique (Chapter 4), one of the few homages in Rinehart's work to another mystery author. Later on, there are references to Poe. Tales by Poe and Doyle are also referred to in The Curve of the Catenary.
Rinehart wrote mysteries and hospital fiction as well in this period.
Love Stories includes five fine stories dealing with nurses and hospital life, reflecting Rinehart's own training as a nurse. "Jane" is fairly comic, but most of the other tales are serious looks at nursing. Although most of the tales involve romance, they are not sappy, instead concentrating on the serious side of nursing as a profession.
The flood affects buildings, both inside and out. Rinehart's description of the flood is thus architectural, a favorite Rinehart interest. The flood description combines this with water, another major Rinehart subject.
Victor Kalin did two excellent cover paintings, for two different American paperback editions of The Case of Jennie Brice. Both show the flood. They are atmospheric and architectural.
The landlady sets up a temporary kitchen on a higher floor, because her real kitchen is flooded. This anticipates scenes in The Yellow Room (Chapter 2), where the heroine and servants try to get the kitchen going again in the house shut-down by wartime and its rationing. Both have resourceful women trying to reestablish a cooking routine, in the midst of very difficult circumstances.
Sleuths. The rival sleuths, amateur Mr. Holcombe and newsman Mr. Howell, recall the rivalry between detectives Mr. Barnes and Robert Leroy Mitchel in Rodrigues Ottolengui.
Mystery Plot. The Case of Jennie Brice contains an archetypal mystery situation: when a wife in a bickering couple disappears, allegedly gone away on a visit, a neighbor suspects that the husband has actually murdered her. This is the "Rear Window" plot, made famous in that 1942 tale by Cornell Woolrich. In The Case of Jennie Brice, the suspicious person is the landlady who runs the boarding house where the couple stays.
SPOILERS. The solution to The Case of Jennie Brice has both comic and tragic aspects. The comic aspects (Chapter 15) recall the comic solution to the disappearance subplot in The Window at the White Cat. However, the solution in The Case of Jennie Brice has spectacular features that go far beyond anything in The Window at the White Cat.
Periscope. The periscope is a fascinating development (Chapters 7, 8, 10). It anticipates the mirror surveillance device in the movie serial Judex (Louis Feuillade, 1916).
The periscope is perhaps loosely linked to the way the heroine of The Door can survey her house through "lines of sight" (Chapter 1) and a mirror (Chapter 2).
Links to The Door. Versions of characters in The Case of Jennie Brice will return in The Door (1930) - although they have different names and are not technically the same characters:
Society and Class. The landlady heroine, her boarders and friends are mainly people without much money. They certainly seem poor. However, few of them seem to be typical members of the working class, such as factory workers, dock laborers or office clerks. Instead, they seem to be be more "white collar people in low-paying professions": the theatrical people who are the main denizens of her boarding house, a young reporter, a schoolteacher. These are (very) lower middle class, rather than the proletariat.
Consequently, The Case of Jennie Brice does not really build up a portrait of the poor or the working class.
Two young women eventually make appearances, who are more working class: farm woman Eliza Schaeffer (Chapter 10) and stenographer Alice Murray (Chapter 13). Both are self-employed businesswomen, with very small businesses: Schaeffer sells chicks from her farm to poultry raisers, Murray is a self-employed stenographer who works from home and who takes on small jobs for customers. These are both working class, and proprietors of small businesses. Schaeffer also works as postmistress of her small town. And Timothy Senft has a very small business selling dishes from his shanty-boat (Chapter 8). The landlady herself is a poor woman running a small business, her boarding house.
Ellery Queen will later use a similar approach, with "typical working Americans" in his tales usually being lower middle class people with small businesses, rather than factory workers.
The Case of Jennie Brice opens with a brief description of the Pittsburgh "railroad riots" of 1877. The words "strike", "labor" and "union" are not mentioned, and no references to unions occur in The Case of Jennie Brice. And although Pittsburgh is a major center of industry, we do not see railroad workers or factory employees in the novel.
I am not trying to condemn The Case of Jennie Brice. I enjoyed reading about these theater people, newsmen and "poor entrepreneurs without money" like Schaeffer, Murray and Senft that populate the book. They are a colorful bunch. Perhaps Rinehart thought they were more entertaining than the typical working poor. Still, we do not see steel mill workers, men in railroad yards, office clerks or cleaning ladies scrubbing floors in The Case of Jennie Brice: the actual bulk of the working poor of Pittsburgh.
Much sympathy is expressed in The Case of Jennie Brice for people from "good families" who have declined into poor-paying jobs, such as the landlady and reporter Mr. Howell. Little sympathy is expressed for life-long members of the working class or the poor.
Herbert Spencer. The right-wing philosopher Herbert Spencer is mentioned (end of Chapter 7). However, it is not his views on politics that are cited, but on cause-and-effect.
Mr. Holcombe is typical of the self-taught amateur intellectuals who were especially attracted to Herbert Spencer's writings. Spencer was a huge best-seller in the 19th Century. He was perhaps already in decline with the public in 1912.
Mystery Plot. Among the biggest problems of The Afterhouse is the lack of mystery plot ingenuity. The Afterhouse is indeed a murder mystery: there is a killing by an unknown person, then at the book's end we learn whodunit. But there is very little more to the mystery puzzle, with few complicating features.
And there is little actual detective work. The Afterhouse lacks a strong detective figure. The hero takes a few simple precautions to protect evidence. But he never figures out much about the mystery.
Perhaps the lack of mystery plot features or detective work is deliberate. The Afterhouse might be designed more to be a suspense novel, rather than primarily a mystery.
Male Bonding. Among the most appealing aspects of The Afterhouse is the friendship between the hero and McWhirter (Chapters 1, 23, 24). This is a friendship between equals: both are the same age, both have just graduated from medical school, both are equally broke-but-industrious young men. Rinehart will return to idealized male bonding between the hero and friends in The Yellow Room.
Leaders?. Unfortunately, this friendship, while showing the virtue of loyalty, has a questionable aspect. The friend idolizes the hero, and thinks the hero should be a leader of men, especially in a military context (Chapter 1). Later, the hero is shown acclaimed by the working class ship-crew as a natural leader, someone they want in charge of them (Chapter 7, middle of Chapter 9). This comes uncomfortably close to the leadership cults developed around sinister dictators like Hitler and Stalin. One also wonders if working class men like the crew "naturally" want men from middle class families like the hero bossing them. Especially as they are experienced seamen and he is not. Perhaps this is just propaganda for class hierarchies.
Racism. The Afterhouse is blatantly racist in its treatment of the black butler on-board ship. And dubious and questionable in its portrait of a Jewish lawyer. These are major flaws, that cause me not to recommend it.
Rinehart's Miss Pinkerton nurse detective has affinities with the scientific detectives of Freeman and Arthur B. Reeve, then at the height of their popularity. Both of these stories deal with medical subjects.
"The Buckled Bag" and "Locked Doors" were included in a large Rinehart collection in 1925. This made them widely available in book form. One suspects they might have influenced the nurse-detective tales Mignon G. Eberhart wrote starting in the later 1920's. The two tales are also included in an omnibus entitled Miss Pinkerton (1959), the easiest place to find them today.
SPOILERS. The strange apparition of a hand on the staircase in "The Buckled Bag" (near the start of Chapter 3) will return in:
Society. It also has some strong left-wing criticism of social organization, with a depiction of the exploitation of the working class, and their appalling living conditions. This is quite unusual for the normally Republican Rinehart.
The story looks at the somewhat wild social life of the upper classes, which are beginning to resemble the Jazz Age to come, in the 1920's. In this it resembles the title story of Arthur B. Reeve's The Social Gangster (1915).
Like "The Sixth Sense" (1915) in Reeve's collection, Rinehart's story offers a vivid look at the period in which American life was increasing bound up with the war raging in Europe, even though America was still neutral in the conflict.
Hidden Situation. Some of Rinehart's scientific mysteries, such as "Locked Doors", the late Miss Pinkerton novella "The Secret", and The Curve of the Catenary, share a common structural approach. In these, something strange and mysterious is going on - but what? The reader is challenged to figure out some underlying situation that is hidden from view. In these stories, the situation has a scientific basis. There are also non-scientific Rinehart puzzlers, such as The Circular Staircase and The Swimming Pool, which also center around hidden situations, although in these novels, the situations are not science-oriented. In all of these mysteries, the hidden situation is more important than who did the crime, or alibis or clues pointing to some culprit. There are also some hidden situations, less central, but still playing a role in their novel's plot mix, in such works as The Album and The Great Mistake.
This "hidden situation" approach has some consequences. One the one hand, the stories are built around genuine mysteries, with the reader constantly being challenged to figure out the mysterious situation behind the tale's events. On the other hand, it removes Rinehart from the type of mystery story practiced by Chesterton, Christie, Carr and Queen, in which individual suspects and their ability to commit a crime are paramount. This structural difference between Rinehart and more mainstream authors of detective fiction is at least as significant in defining Rinehart's approach, as are the Had I But Known aspects of Rinehart's writing.
The hidden situation also enables some unusual treatment of characters not found in other authors. Since many Rinehart books are built around a Big Secret, it is possible to define characters in terms of their relationship to the secret. Did they cause the secret situation? Did they learn about it, and are now trying to cover it up to protect someone? Have they discovered some secret clue to the hidden situation, and are now trying to track down the truth? Characters have all these sorts of secret knowledge of the hidden situation in Rinehart. The narrator soon realizes that the characters are concealing something - but what they are concealing does not come out till the end of the tale, or at least, the second half of the story.
Blackout. The failure of the electrical power grid, plunging the city into blackout, recalls the way the electric company turns out the power after a curfew time in The Circular Staircase. Both situations cause characters to wander around in darkness: a favorite Rinehart situation.
Source. The sole easily available source today of The Curve of the Catenary is a 1939 anthology, The Mystery Book. One suspects that Rinehart might have revised this version, from the original magazine appearance (which I have not seen).
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. It is not pleasant reading, but has brilliant atmosphere and mise-en-scène.
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.
Rinehart and Hopwood's play can be found in the anthology Famous Plays of Crime and Detection (1946), edited by Van H. Cartmell and Bennett Cerf, along with other outstanding plays of its era. (This book also contains good plays by Roi Cooper Megrue, Elmer Rice, George M. Cohan, and John Willard.) In 1926, a novelization of The Bat appeared, apparently written by poet Stephen Vincent Benét with little input from Rinehart. This novel version usually appears in paperback under Rinehart's name, without any mention of Hopwood or Benét. I read this novelized version first, and confess I prefer it to the script of the play itself.
Film director Roland West made two versions of the play, a silent film The Bat (1926), and a sound film The Bat Whispers (1930). The link leads to a discussion of West's film techniques.
Other Tish stories of the Twenties are memorable, especially "Tish Plays The Game" (1921) and "The Baby Blimp" (1922), which get the ladies involved in athletics and Hollywood stunt work, respectively. Tish had previously encountered the film industry in "My Country Tish of Thee -" (1916), where a crew is filming in Glacier Park at the same time Tish is taking a vacation there. Tish expresses strong reservations about the moral character of 1916 motion pictures, in a way that eerily echoes today's anti-film moralists.
"Hijack and the Game" (1925) involves our heroines in bootleg booze smuggling, and is not as good. But the passages dealing with life on the water are surrealistically inventive, like the opening flood sequences of The Case of Jennie Brice (1912).
"Hijack and the Game" reflects Rinehart's real life enthusiasm for wilderness vacations. This story recycles to good effect some ideas Rinehart first used in a less successful earlier Tish tale, "Tish's Spy" (1915). Both stories:
Rinehart is inventive contrasting the maiden ladies with the young Flapper; the comparisons are often unexpected. It is a sort of woman's inside point of view on both roles. Both women have different kinds of freedoms. The Flapper can defy Victorian taboos. But the maiden ladies often can ignore conventions of gender, and dress in gender neutral clothes and do as they please, something that the femininity-obsessed Flapper cannot. There are feminist opportunities in both roles, and Rinehart enjoys seeing women take advantage of both.
Rinehart published her last Tish stories in 1936-1937. The best is "Strange Journey", whose ocean setting once again unleashes a surrealistic streak in Rinehart's imagination.
The Wall and The Yellow Room, while imperfect, are considerably better than The Door. They benefit from:
Architecture. The opening gives an interesting look at the architecture of the house (Chapters 1, end of 2, 3, 4). Like The Album to come, the architecture has a 3D quality, with the vertical dimension being stressed, along with the two horizontal ones. See: the well over the lavatory, the staircase. The landscape outside the house also has vertical dimensions, with a ravine located behind the house.
Like The Wall, the grounds surrounding the house play key roles in the mystery. In The Wall, these surrounding areas are aquatic. In The Door they are dry land.
The opening of The Door stresses lines of sight: what one can see in the house from certain points of view. These "lines of sight" are closely linked to the architecture. These "lines of sight" fascinated me, when I first read The Door as a child.
There is some ingenuity about the title door in the puzzle plot, too (Chapter 30). It shows Rinehart's architectural orientation as a plot creator.
The Mathematics of Shape. Rinehart uses the word "hypotenuse" to describe the triangular lot next to the mansion (near the start of Chapter 4). This recalls another mathematical term in Rinehart: the title of her story The Curve of the Catenary. Both of these geometric terms are used with mathematical accuracy.
Speaking Up. Annoyingly, if most of the victims had simply spoken up, the crimes could have been prevented. They could simply have told what they knew to the police, a lawyer or a clergyman. Rinehart herself points this out (start of Chapter 6).
A Mysterious Visitor: Working Class. In Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Door, Florence Gunther tries and fails to see the heroine (second half of Chapter 7). She is typical of a kind of character that sometimes appears in both Rinehart and her followers: a lower middle class, working class or poor person, who tries and fails to contact the upper class protagonists of the story. The person's purpose or errand is unknown, and becomes one of the story's mysteries.
In normal circumstances, there would be little social contact between rich and poor people. This makes such attempted visits all the more unusual and dramatic.
Examples are found in:
Freeman Wills Crofts had Mysterious Strangers in some novels. These are based in different approaches than those in Rinehart and her followers:
Detection. There are some brief episodes of real detection in The Door:
Reporter. Dick Carter, the young reporter, is a pleasing character. He talks elaborately and humorously, indicating a skill with words linked to his profession (Chapters: second half of 7, 8). He has no money, and is a working man. His most detailed portrait is in the section that also deals with Florence Gunther, an even poorer working woman. This section looks at the lives of working people in 1930.
Another sympathetic reporter will appear in The Yellow Room. His personality is quite different from Dick's.
Dick's humorous remark, "Give me the papers and take the child!" (Chapter 11) sounds as if it is a quotation, or a burlesque or parody of a famous quote. However, an Internet search has failed to turn up any source.
A Mystery Cliche. BIG SPOILERS. The solution of Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Door (1930) is notable for being one of only a few real-life examples known to me of an allegedly popular mystery cliché. In The Door, "the butler did it" - although Rinehart did not use this actual phrase. Other examples:
The Miss Pinkerton books were shorter than the enormous, over-stuffed non-series mystery novels Rinehart turned out in her later years, and this is all to the good.
Feeding as Moral Support. The opening describes the heroine at home, before she goes out on a case. It emphasizes how sane her home is. Some of the feeding imagery recalls The Case of Jennie Brice:
Architecture. The architecture of the house is set in forth in detail (early in Chapter 5). Even before this it is described (Chapters 2, 4).
The distinction between the upper class family's quarters, and the service wing, is sharply marked off in the architecture. The service wing contains rooms where the servants work, and on the floor above that, their sleeping quarters. The service wing connects to the family wing through a single locked and bolted door on the second floor, plus a first floor door. The two wings have separate staircases, a fact much emphasized by the novel's events.
By contrast, the grimmer toned "Code 31" has a murder mystery embedded in it. It also reflects Rinehart's feminist themes. Rinehart's detective keeps giving different interpretations to mysterious events here. First he will suggest that they are caused by one explanation. Then a clue he discovers will contradict this. He will then come up with a deeper, better explanation consistent with his new observation. But soon he will find another clue and come up with another explanation, starting the cycle over again. Each time, he gets closer and closer to the truth. Eventually he gets to the final answer. Rinehart's writing here is very economical. Each explanation takes up just a few sentences, maybe even a single sentence. The detective can come up with numerous explanations in just a single page. The progression of ideas from one interpretation to the next is completely logical, solidly based on clues and deduction. The explanations are quite rich and vivid. They almost seem like alternate realities, in a science fiction story.
"The Inside Story" is an unusual meld of the detective tale and the domestic drama of married life, Rinehart's chief interest in mainstream fiction at the time.
"The Inside Story" resembles somewhat Rinehart's earlier masterpiece, "The Buckled Bag" (1914). Both take place in a single household with mysterious goings on. Both have a young outsider as detective who is working in the household, but who is not of it: the nurse Miss Pinkerton in "The Buckled Bag", the young policeman in "The Inside Story". Both detectives are richly characterized. Both are working professionals. Both are of modest social status - this is the young policeman's first big break, and he has not really been asked along to do anything but be an extra cop on the case. Both do a lot of unobtrusive slinking around the huge house where the crimes take place. In both stories, the key to solving the crime is to understand the hidden relationships among the household. Solving the case is tantamount to penetrating all the social mysteries of the house. Both are very purely constructed detective stories, where determined sleuthing continually uncovers more and more details of the mystery, in a step by step, logical manner. Rinehart is good at opening surprising new vistas among her characters' lives. One does not suspect her new revelations, although they are consistent with was has been revealed before, and with hints dropped in the story.
"The Inside Story" is full of ideas about class and gender. The young working class policeman finds it much easier to approach the servants in the house, than the young upper class couple who are the chief suspects in the tale. The servants emerge as much more real people in the story. They have far more substance than the nominal hero and heroine of the tale. The servants all come across as rich, real personalities. They are working hard and taking responsibilities for things, while the wealthy couple are frivolous and throwing away their opportunities. There is a correspondence between the young policeman's social status, and his position as the lowest of subordinates on the force, and the status of the servants in the household. In both cases, we are seeing life from the bottom of the social hierarchy, and finding it substantial. Similarly, Rinehart introduces some of her sympathetic older women in the tale, reminding one of Rachel Innes and Tish, although the tone of "The Inside Story" is far less comic. These women too are social outsiders, being female in a male dominated society. They too have Rinehart's admiration. Rinehart finds people of lower social status to have more substance, even to be heroic, as the story eventually points out. There is a three way equivalency built up, between the young working class policeman, the servants and older women, all three being serious minded people of lower class and power in society.
Much of "The Inside Story" takes place on the upper floors of the big house. This is a favorite Rinehart location, showing up in The Circular Staircase, "The Amazing Adventure of Letitia Carberry", The Bat and Miss Pinkerton. It is full of emotionally resonant locations: servant's quarters, bedrooms, storage areas, nurseries - places where all of peoples' lives take place.
As Jan Cohn points out in her Rinehart biography, in her nonfiction writings such as "Looking For The Magic Word" (1934), Rinehart fervently denounced both Nazism and Communism, and advised her many readers to support American democratic traditions instead. Rinehart was a traditional Republican with little sympathy for Roosevelt's New Deal, but she had much less for Hitler and Stalin. Her strong democratic leanings make her a welcome contrast to many other writers of her era, who rushed to support totalitarian schemes of left or right.
Rinehart's "Mr. Cohen Takes A Walk" might have served as a model for Preston Sturges' film Sullivan's Travels (1941), which has a similar plot.
Ax Murder. The heroine wonders early on why the killer went to all the risk of committing a complex ax murder, while a simple shooting would have been much easier to pull off; this question is never answered. The ax murder does echo the ones in Rinehart's The Afterhouse (1913), and succeeds in being dramatic and emotionally effective.
Scientific Detective. Miss Pinkerton often solves medical mysteries, and is related to the scientific detectives of the Reeve tradition. The man who actually solves the mystery in The Album is a scientific criminologist, complete with crime lab. He works closely with the police, but functions more often as an amateur investigator: he was brought in the case by a friend who was a suspect, he lives undercover at the scene of the crime as a servant, and does much of his sleuthing by snooping around, just like Rinehart's spinsters. He also has a romance with the narrator heroine of the novel. Truth serum is also used in one section of the book.
Van Dine school. This sort of scientific detective is in the Reeve tradition. It also corresponds closely with the portrait of modern police scientific criminology in Anthony Abbot's About the Murder of Geraldine Foster (1930). The whole book, in fact, shows signs of influence from the Van Dine school, of which Abbot was a member. Rinehart sticks closely to the unraveling of the crime, just as in S.S. Van Dine. There are few suspense sequences, romance is fairly short, and the focus on the murder investigation rarely wavers. There are detailed floor plans, and an expert detective who works with the police: all features of the Van Dine school. There are also some mild "locked room" features, also popular with Van Dine. Rinehart looks like she has been trying to keep her writing style "up to date", absorbing features of the Van Dine school, without abandoning her own personality.
Social Criticism. Rinehart repeatedly criticizes the way of old fashioned, isolated way of living of the five families in the book as abnormal, both socially and psychologically. She explicitly criticizes the fact the none of the women seem to have any life outside their houses. In a striking feminist passage, she compares this to a world in which "women were taking their places" in jobs and public life (Chapter 34).
Architecture. Rinehart excels at her maps and floor plans. This is some of the most elaborate architecture in her books since The Circular Staircase. It is set forth, along with some good mystery writing, in Chapters 1 - 7, 13, 15, 18. The explanation of the killing in the last two chapters (48-49) is worked out in careful detail along the floor plan, and shows considerable imagination. The explanation of the theft in Chapters 33 - 36 has no architectural features, but it is a work of gripping storytelling none the less.
The five houses in the tale are a bit elaborate, but only the left hand three have much significance. The murder house (No. 2) is the most important. The heroine's house next door (No. 3) is architecturally identical, a fact used by Rinehart to produce surrealist echoing effects. When the heroine introduces us to her bedroom, she describes it to us in terms of the parallel room at the murder house. The effect is very eerie, suggesting all sorts of hidden undercurrents in the heroine's life. Other paired houses in Rinehart:
One reason that Rinehart was able to adapt her fiction so well to the stage was that she was used to imagining with extreme precision the movements of her characters through her floor plans. When it came time to put her mystery fiction on stage in The Bat, she was able to integrate the precise staging required by the theater of her time with the floor plan movements of her characters demanded by the mystery. The two types of movement flow together in beautiful ways.
The pleasant opening (Chapter 1, first half of Chapter 2) first introduces the Sheriff and the narrator-heroine: the two characters who do most of the book's detective work. The opening then sets forth the architecture of the mansion and its grounds. These will play a major role in the novel. Everything dealing with architecture and landscape in The Wall is enjoyable.
The opening establishes the novel's priorities: first the two main detective figures, then the architecture. Only after this (second half of Chapter 2, Chapters 3, 4, 5, 6) do we meet the book's suspects, victims and other characters, and learn about their marital and financial problems. I think these aspects are less interesting in The Wall than the architecture and detection.
The Wall has a strong early section (end of Chapter 6, Chapters 7-16): around one quarter of the book. This section deals with the discovery of the first two crimes, and their initial investigation. This section has "real detection", with steady efforts by the local Sheriff to uncover the truth. The near continuous series of plot revelations about the mysteries, make for good story telling.
This section is admirably based on architecture and landscape, twin enthusiasms of Golden Age mystery fiction:
The scenes at the tourist camp are interesting (second half of Chapter 21, Chapter 22). This section has political implications, being a portrait of poorer, working class Americans. Rinehart had earlier looked at the living quarters of the poor in The Curve of the Catenary (1915), and in the Florence Gunther sections of The Door (Chapters: second half of 7, 8, 11). It also relates to Rinehart's own non-fiction books on travel.
The quote about "The green stillness of the country" (Chapter 21) is from Longfellow's Hyperion (1839).
Aspects of The Wall recall Rinehart's much earlier The Window at the White Cat (1908). SPOILERS:
There is also a great deal of interesting architectural detail in the early chapters, a tradition in both Rinehart and the Golden Age detective novel. The "architectural" aspect extends to landscape architecture, all the many paths and outdoor features of the giant estate in the book.
On the negative side, the detection is weak, the story telling sometimes drags after the opening sections, and coincidence gets over employed, although the complicated cat's cradle the novel eventually builds up is part of its storytelling appeal.
The heroine's mother is a kind of character that appears with some regularity in contemporary detective fiction: an older woman relative of the heroine, who is zany, and who keeps doing outrageous things that complicate the plot. These relatives are Good Guys and honest - but they are so uninhibited that they constantly cause humorous confusion, problems and bewilderment.
Perhaps the name of the investigating policeman Inspector Welles, is a tribute to Orson Welles.
Recurring Object. The knife keeps returning, showing up in new situations, ways and contexts. This is played for both surrealism and humor.
Such returning objects or elements appear in films directed by Ernst Lubitsch, Max Ophuls and Vincente Minnelli. See the discussion of the movie The Cobweb in the article on Minnelli for details.
Architecture. The two most important indoor locales are the entrance halls of the two houses.
The indoor pool in one entrance hall, perhaps reflects Rinehart's enthusiasm for water.
The mother has open archways between rooms in her mansion, instead of doors. This is because she likes "vistas": being able to see long views within the house (Chapter ). This recalls the heroine's similar liking for views and lines of sight within her house in The Door.
Social Criticism. Tony King is another man-of-the-people who makes critical, left wing remarks about the upper class set to which the heroine belongs. He also forms a romantic partner for the heroine. Young men with similar roles and politics appear in The Wall and The Yellow Room. Comparisons:
Rinehart, and perhaps Tony King too, draw a distinction between rich people like Leland who inherited their money, and those like the heroine's family who grew wealthy in "trade" (the wholesale grocery business, in this case). Old Money people like Leland are seen as purely bad, while business families like the heroine's are viewed as redeemable. See:
A later section also has good storytelling (Chapters 15-17). This opens with that Rinehart specialty, characters running around exploring at night during spooky events. More crimes are discovered and evidence found, in this section too. Its protagonist is the male Army officer Jerry Dane, who serves as the book's main sleuth.
Architecture. The Yellow Room has a Maine setting similar to that of The Wall. Both are set in "summer colonies" where rich people go to enjoy the summer months. Both have a young heroine living in her huge house in the colony. In both, the gardener's toolshed on the estate plays a role in the mystery plot.
We learn about the heroine's house, which is somewhat unusually built around a courtyard. And each part of the mystery puzzle is firmly set in a part of the house and its grounds. Despite this, The Yellow Room seems less "architectural" than several other Rinehart mysteries. Descriptions of architecture seem simple, standard and conventional in architectural content.
Rinehart does get atmosphere, from the way both the heroine's house and other homes are closed up and mainly deserted. This is due to World War II, and the shortages of manpower and supplies it brings.
Unlike The Wall, water landscapes play little part in The Yellow Room.
Private Eye. Jerry Dane hires a private detective Tim Murphy to assist him in investigating the murder. This recalls the way the lawyer-narrator of The Window at the White Cat similarly hires a detective. Professional men like Dane and the lawyer regularly employ detective assistants in Rinehart. By contrast, her amateur women sleuths rarely seem to think of hiring private eyes.
Both private eyes are something of a roughneck. Both are earthier in manner than their refined employers.
There is a good deal of male bonding between sleuth Jerry Dane, his aide Alex, and private eye Tim Murphy. Male bonding is a subject perhaps more often found in male writers. However, Rinehart does it well. It gives her a chance to add humor, to what is otherwise a pretty grim story.
Much earlier, Rinehart's The Curve of the Catenary (1915) had a young just-out-of-college male narrator, many men characters, and much comedy centered on its narrator and his breezy male attitudes. So "inside" looks at the world of young men sometimes occur in Rinehart. (The narrator of The Curve of the Catenary more closely resembles the heroine's brother in The Yellow Room, rather than Jerry Dane: both are spoiled playboy heirs of an upper class family, who treat life as a joke.)
Reporter. Dane's encounter with the likable young reporter Starr also emphasizes humor and friendliness between men (Chapter 17). Both this meeting with Dane, and Starr's earlier talk with the heroine (end of Chapter 5), emphasize how observant Starr is. While Starr is a reporter, he in some ways is a detective figure too. He is one of the many interesting detective characters that run through The Yellow Room.
Starr is male, but one wonders if there is a reference to a famous comic strip about a woman journalist, Dale Messick's Brenda Starr, Reporter, which debuted in 1940.
Undercover. Dane has Tim Murphy go undercover as the gardener at the estate. This recalls the way the young man in The Bat goes to work as an alleged gardener. Rinehart gets comedy in both works out of these young men's ignorance of gardening. Undercover men also appear in The Album, and comic versions appear in the Tish tales "Tish's Spy" and "Hijack and the Game".
Wylie. A State Trooper is named Lieutenant Wylie (Chapter 7). One wonders if this is a homage to mystery writer Philip Wylie. Both Rinehart and Wylie were prominent in the "slick" magazines. Philip Wylie's mystery novel Corpses at Indian Stones (1943) seems influenced by Rinehart: see the detailed discussion in the Wylie article.
Lieutenant Wylie is presented as more competent than the local law enforcement officials. State Troopers also got favorable views in another American "slick" magazine mystery writer of this era, Rufus King: see King's Crime of Violence (1937), A Variety of Weapons (1942), The Deadly Dove (1944 - 1945).
Heroine: Not a Detective. In many ways, The Yellow Room recalls The Wall. At first, the heroines of the two novels seem similar. Both are proper upper class young women, who have no jobs and who take part in Society. But a key difference eventually emerges. The heroine of The Wall is a detective, albeit an amateur, unpaid, unofficial one. She is always discovering things and trying to solve the mystery. By contrast, the heroine of The Yellow Room only rarely does anything that might be called detective work. This is mainly left to the male detectives in The Yellow Room. And most of the discoveries about the crime in the early chapters are made by the servants, not the heroine.
The heroine of The Yellow Room has her best detective moment, when she reasons out what her discovery in the tool shed means (middle of Chapter 8).
Clues. The heroine finds a bobby pin (Chapter 8). This recalls the heroine's finding a button in The Wall. Both of these are archetypical clue situations: finding a small object that provides a clue to a mysterious person who wore it. In fact, this kind of clue is so typical that it approaches self-parody. Jerry Dane provides a different interpretation of the bobby pin, than does the heroine (Chapter 8).
Jerry Dane surreptitiously observes Nathaniel Ward picking up and concealing a shell (end of Chapter 16). This recalls the hero of The Curve of the Catenary (Chapter 2) seeing Miss Hazeltine pick up a mysterious object in the park, when she doesn't realize he is looking.
List. Sleuth Jerry Dane makes a list about the crime (Chapter 20). Such lists play a key role in detective fiction. Carolyn Wells wrote about the use of lists in her The Technique of the Mystery Story (1913).
This list in The Yellow Room combines two types of information:
Lists of unsolved mysteries are widespread in detective fiction. Outlines of a novel's plot events are rarer, but are sometimes found as well: Here are examples of Outlines Within Mystery Novels.
Each step in Rinehart's list in The Yellow Room describes another key plot event in the book, and thus forms part of an outline of the book's plot. But each step is also written to emphasize unsolved mysteries embedded in that event.
Related outlines in Rinehart:
The Swimming Pool is a huge expansion of a tale Rinehart wrote for This Week magazine, "Case Is Closed!" (1951); one can find it in Stewart Beach's anthology, This Week's Stories of Mystery and Suspense (1957).
Rinehart did not entirely give up writing mainstream fiction during this period, although she concentrated on mysteries; the impressive experimental mainstream tale "The Temporary Death Of Mrs. Ayres" (1942) dates from this era, as do others in Alibi For Isabel.
There are signs that some of Mary Roberts Rinehart's late fiction seems to have been published much later than it was written. Her final Miss Pinkerton novella, "The Secret", has a World War II setting, although it first appeared in her book Episode of the Wandering Knife (1950). One wonders if she wrote this tale during the war (1942-1945) or shortly after, failed to get it published in magazines, and finally included it in her collection. We know Rinehart was having trouble getting her writing to appear in the Saturday Evening Post and other periodical markets for her work. By contrast, her publishing house was run by her sons, and originally funded with her own money, so Rinehart presumably had carte blanche to publish her work with them.
"The Burned Chair" has affinities with Rinehart's 1945 tale, "Murder and the South Wind":
Rinehart's late novellas have a great deal of medical detail in them, carrying on the tradition of her early stories, and reminding one that Rinehart is part of the American school of "scientific" detection, like Arthur B. Reeve, MacHarg & Balmer, Samuel Hopkins Adams, etc.
Surrealism had been an important Rinehart strategy all her life. Most of her mystery and humorous fiction eventually erupts into the most startling plot twists imaginable. Surrealism is not found just in Rinehart, but in many other American authors of mystery fiction, such as Jacques Futrelle, Burton L. Stevenson, Cleveland S. Moffett, T.S. Stribling, S.S. Van Dine, Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr, Stuart Palmer, and Craig Rice. It is one of the things that makes their storytelling so interesting. In fact, nearly all of the major American detective writers have a strong surrealist orientation.