The Man in Lower Ten and The Circular Staircase | Comic Stories and Nurse Fiction | Miss Pinkerton | Mainstream Fiction | The Bat | Later Tish stories | Return to Mystery Fiction 1930-1939 | The Door | Series Detectives | The Inside Story | Politics | The Album | The Great Mistake and The Swimming Pool | The Early 1940's Mystery Fiction: 1942-1945 | Recommended Reading

A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page

Mary Roberts Rinehart

Recommended Works:

The Man in Lower Ten (1906) (available on-line at

The Circular Staircase (1907) (available on-line at

Affinities (available on-line at

Love Stories (available on-line at

The Case of Jennie Brice (1912) (Chapter 1) (available on-line at

Tish (available on-line at

More Tish (available on-line at

Miss Pinkerton (omnibus volume)

The Curve of the Catenary (1915)

Sight Unseen and The Confession

The Bat (1917 -1920) play written with Avery Hopwood

Tish Plays The Game

The Door (1930) (Chapter 1)

Miss Pinkerton (1932)

The Album (1933) (Chapters 1 - 7, 13, 15, 18, 33 - 36, 48-49)

Married People

Tish Marches On

The Great Mistake (1940)

Familiar Faces

Haunted Lady (1942)

Alibi For Isabel

Episode Of The Wandering Knife

The Frightened Wife

This list of recommended works by Rinehart includes mainstream and humorous fiction, as well as mystery tales. The article on Victor Kalin discusses his illustrations for Rinehart's books.

Mary Roberts Rinehart

Rinehart's work is very different from the clichés of Rinehart criticism. It has a lot in common with hard-boiled school, in both style and subject. It also is part of the American school of "scientific" detection, like Arthur B. Reeve. In fact, all three groups, scientific, hard-boiled and Rinehart show common features. They form an American school that mixes adventure and detection. There is an attempt at realism in the depiction of modern life, with many different classes, corruption high and low, and a great diversity of characters.

Rinehart was highly influential on later mystery writers. Please see articles which discuss such writers in detail:

The Early Novels 1904-1908

The career of Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1957) can be broken up into a series of phases. The first was her pulp period (1904-1908), where she wrote her first three mystery novels and a mountain of very short stories. These stories have never been collected in book form, and are inaccessible today. The first two novels are classics, however, and are probably her best works in the novel form.

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.

Rinehart also wrote a third, less successful novel during this period, The Window At The White Cat (1908). This story deals interestingly with civic corruption, a popular theme of early American mysteries, but the mystery plot depends on some unfair coincidences. Stories like this anticipate the hard-boiled school to come. So does Rinehart's realistic style, which does not gloss over life's problems.

Comic Stories and Nurse Fiction 1908-1913

Rinehart also wrote some Broadway comedies. Seven Days (1909), written with the popular Broadway farceur Avery Hopwood, became a runaway hit. It is still hard to understand how an obscure Pittsburgh housewife could get her plays produced on Broadway, but it is not surprising that the public liked her writing.

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.

Rinehart wrote mysteries and hospital fiction as well in this period. Her mystery novel The Case of Jennie Brice (1912) opens with an imaginative description of a flood in a slum district in Pittsburgh, but is otherwise not one of her best mysteries.

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.

Miss Pinkerton and Scientific Detection

Next Rinehart would combine her hospital and mystery fiction, in two long short stories. "The Buckled Bag" (1914) and "Locked Doors" (1914) introduce Hilda Adams, a nurse who does undercover work for the police and who is popularly known as Miss Pinkerton. "The Buckled Bag" piles mystery on mystery before the satisfying resolution; it is one of Rinehart's most perfect works. "Locked Doors" is not as good, but it contains some powerful imagery and plot ideas. 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.

Rinehart produced a long novella, The Curve of the Catenary (1915), which also is centered on scientific mystery. The ingenious story is one of Rinehart's few excursions into impossible crime, along with Haunted Lady (1942). 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 also 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). Also, 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.

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 boots 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.

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).

Mainstream Fiction 1914-1929

At this point (1914), Rinehart's writing and career drastically changed. Rinehart largely gave up mystery and humorous fiction, and turned to straight novels instead, 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 always shown to be male chauvinist pigs 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. 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.

The Bat

The Bat (1917-1920) is a stage adaptation of Rinehart's The Circular Staircase, written in collaboration with Avery Hopwood, the writer of popular Broadway comedies with whom Rinehart had collaborated before. The Bat introduced some new plot complexities into the original novel, especially a master criminal known as The Bat. It also includes plot elements reminiscent of her first Post story, "The Borrowed House" (1909). The Bat shows Rinehart at the height of her powers, and in fact is her greatest work. A work of great formal complexity, The Bat is one of the few mystery stage plays to have the dense plotting of a Golden Age detective novel. Moreover, the formal properties of the stage medium are completely interwoven with the mystery plot, to form intricate, beautiful patterns of plot and staging of dazzling complexity.

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.

Later Tish stories

While working on The Bat, Rinehart wrote her best Tish story. "Salvage" (1919) details the middle aged trio's attempt to rescue Tish's nephew from battle while working as ambulance drivers in World War I France. It has many autobiographical elements; Rinehart was active as a war correspondent for much of the war (1914-1918), and used her occupation to make a similar if less successful attempt to rescue her own son from the fighting. (All three of her sons did survive the war). The brilliant lunacy of this story and its underlying powerful emotionalism mark it as one of her most creative works.

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" reflect 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 involve the trio with a young, ultra-modern heroine. Both stories show the middle aged trio and the heroine on vacation in some remote wooded area, in Canada and Maine respectively. Both vacation areas involve a lot of water and boating sequences. In both tales, the heroine has a boyfriend who tags along incognito. Both stories innocently involve the trio in illegal activities. "Tish's Spy" has problems, in that it depicts the trio as a bunch of bumblers; this is not the sort of characterization we want to see of them. By contrast, "Hijack" has a warm, good natured feeling throughout. Its storytelling is also better. 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 Return to Mystery Fiction 1930-1939

The founding of her sons' publishing house, Farrar and Rinehart, in 1929, and her need to provide commercial books for them to publish; the advent of the Depression in that same year; and the death of her husband in 1932 all conspired to influence Rinehart to write much more mystery fiction during the last 25 years of her career. In my judgment, this was all well and good, even if her work was sometimes uneven. In general, her short stories were much better than her later novels, in this critic's opinion.

The Door

Mary Roberts Rinehart's return to the mystery field, The Door (1930), is, after a good opening chapter, one of her poorest works. This long and interminable work, like such successors as The Wall (1938) and The Yellow Room (1945), probably damaged Rinehart's reputation as a mystery writer. Anyone who wants to pan Rinehart's work can point to these long stuffy novels without much in the way of real detection or exciting storytelling. By the early 1940's critics like Howard Haycraft were treating Rinehart's books as old fashioned camp.

There is some ingenuity about the title door in the puzzle plot, too. It shows Rinehart's architectural orientation as a plot creator.

BIG SPOILERS. The solution of The Door 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:

Both in 1930 and today, Rinehart was much better known than these other writers. This has likely led some to suggest erroneously that Rinehart originated "The butler did it" approach. She didn't. There are also early mysteries where the butler is a suspect, but turns out to be innocent: see Rufus Gillmore's The Alster Case (1914).

Series Detectives

Despite these problems some of Rinehart's writings of the 1930's were very good. Miss Pinkerton (1932) revives her nurse detective for a full length novel, her two 1914 appearances both being novellas. The story telling in this novel is vivid, and the ostinato retellings of the basic crime from different perspectives and eyewitnesses build up to an almost hallucinatory intensity.

The little short story "That Is All" (1932) deals with a couple of policemen who nocturnally patrol by squad car. It shows Rinehart's perennial interests in both night scenes and realism. Both Miss Pinkerton and "That Is All" show Rinehart trying to inject some Depression era realism into her work. "That Is All" was followed by a sequel with the same characters, "Code 31" (1932). "That Is All" is a crime story; but it has no elements of mystery, and it does not much resemble most of Rinehart's mystery fiction. Instead, its raucous nocturnal adventures recall the comic chase scenes of some Tish stories, although it has serious elements as well.

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 squad car short stories and the Miss Pinkerton novels and novellas were Rinehart's only attempts at series detectives. Otherwise she never reused the same characters from one mystery to the next. This is unusual in the mystery field, where there are strong pressures on authors to use the same detective in all their books. The public usually purchases novels featuring their favorite detective, and the series-sleuth functions commercially as a drawing card in a manner analogous to that of the star in Hollywood movies. Rinehart's immense popularity perhaps freed her from these considerations. Even here, it is significant that Rinehart's use of series peaked in the darkest days of the Depression, when she was feeling the greatest economic pinch. The Miss Pinkerton books were also shorter than the enormous, over-stuffed non-series mystery novels Rinehart turned out in her later years, and this is all to the good.

The Inside Story

Another policeman hero shows up in "The Inside Story" (1934), where he says "Trouble is my business", five years before Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe makes a similar claim.

"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.


"Mr. Cohen Takes A Walk" (1933) deals with an elderly Jewish businessman who disguises himself as a bum and wanders around giving financial help to people in need. Rinehart had this short story published as a chapbook by her sons' firm. This portrait of a kind hearted Jew was probably Rinehart's reply to the anti-Semitism being spewed forth by the Nazis in Europe.

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.

The Album

The Album (1933) is another uneven late Rinehart novel. The story lacks fair play, there are too many subplots, and it is way too long. 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. There are also many imaginative passages, and some good storytelling.

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.

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.

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).

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. Later, in the novella "The Burned Chair", Rinehart will introduce a pair of houses, to somewhat similar effect. All everyday living will take place in one house; all murder and mystery events take place in the similar house across the way. Going from one house to another means traveling from the normal world into the world of mystery. A somewhat similar architectural pattern is established in The Great Mistake (1940), where sinister events more often happen in a small building on the grounds called the "playhouse", rather than in the large central mansion where everybody lives.

Rinehart's architectural ideas show a 3D quality. The floor plans do not show that cliché of Golden Age layouts, the central hall with rooms on either side. Such a design is essentially one dimensional. Admittedly it is well suited to brownstone buildings, and shows up in such New York brownstones as Van Dine's The Kennel Murder Case, and Nero Wolfe's brownstone home. Rinehart instead has a building with both a hall and a perpendicular cross hall, one which uses two Cartesian coordinates to describe it. In addition, she has many floors for her houses; each has three regular floors, a roof, and a cellar. This gives a full 3 dimensions to her tales. Rinehart loves staircases, too, and often sets her works on them, including the murders in The Circular Staircase and The Bat. She shows people looking up or down levels of her buildings outside, through windows or up to the roof, spatially integrating the levels of her buildings. Rinehart also gives her buildings elaborate grounds, which will show up again in The Great Mistake.

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 Late Mystery Novels

The best of Rinehart's long non-series mystery novels is The Great Mistake (1940). Rinehart's later novel technique is found at its finest in The Great Mistake. This best parts are the early chapters, with a great wealth of interesting detail on every aspect of her characters' lives. One can really lose oneself in this book. It is like entering a dream world. The characters in it are largely pleasant, interesting people, whom one would like to know better. There are many emotionally supportive relationships, especially between woman characters. The delicately handled love stories remind one that Rinehart is the literary ancestor of F. Scott Fitzgerald. 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.

Rinehart's final novel, The Swimming Pool (1952), also has its strengths and weaknesses. It is another great Brontosaurus of a novel, and many parts never jell. Yet it has a tragic grandeur of conception, especially in its finale. 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).

The Early 1940's Mystery Fiction: 1942-1945

Rinehart had a late flowering of her mystery work in 1942-1945. Howard Haycraft, in Murder For Pleasure (1941), had criticized Rinehart's books for not adhering to the strict canons of 1930's mystery fiction. Whether Rinehart was influenced by his remarks or not, her writings in 1942-1945 move much closer to the typical Golden Age detective story. Instead of long diffuse novels, her tales become restricted to a single location and a short period of time. Such matters as alibis, clues and detection become much more important. Haunted Lady (1942), the second Miss Pinkerton novel, is among the closest approach in Rinehart to the puzzle plot detective novel. "Episode Of The Wandering Knife" (1943) is a novella mixing humor and detection, humor making a welcome return to Rinehart's fiction after years of grimness. 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. Similarly, "The Burned Chair" did not appear until a later Rinehart collection, The Frightened Wife (1953). This story has an emotionally scarred veteran, who seems to be home from the Korean War. But there is also much talk of rationing, and it has the "Bar Harbor deserted by War and gas rationing" setting of her novel, The Yellow Room (1945). There was extensive rationing during World War II, and this portrait of Bar Harbor was probably fairly realistic during W.W.II (1942-1945). But it does not gibe at all with post war American affluence. One suspects that "The Burned Chair" is actually a product of the W.W.II era, and was simply published much later, with some slight updating to more modern times. "The Burned Chair" has affinities with Rinehart's 1945 tale, "Murder and the South Wind". Both take place in resort areas frequented by the elderly Rinehart, the Florida Keys and Bar Harbor, respectively, both take note of the War in their setting, both feature married young women as protagonists. Both stories, and The Yellow Room, also have scenes of fire playing roles in their plots. Both stories are distinctly surrealist in their plotting and tone. This surrealism can give an absurd tone to "South Wind", but it seems absolutely brilliant in "The Burned Chair". The fire in "The Burned Chair" falls exactly halfway through the story. Rinehart is using an almost mathematical principle of design here, recalling Emily Brontë's similarly split in half novel Wuthering Heights. 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.

Recommended Reading

Jan Cohn's Improbable Fiction: The Life of Mary Roberts Rinehart (1980) is a superb biography and critical study of Rinehart. It is jam packed with information, including a detailed bibliography listing the original magazine publications of all of Rinehart's fiction. It is also remarkably readable.