Our book today is The Best Mysteries of Mary Roberts Rinehart, one of those neat, attractive hardcovers Reader’s Digest used to produce in such great quantities. This one’s from 2002 and contains four of Mary Robert Rinehart’s most popular novels, The Circular Staircase, The Man in Lower Ten, The Window at the White Cat, and The Buckled Bag, all brought together and introduced by Eva Jaunzems with a wonderful essay that summarizes Rinehart’s remarkable career as the first bestselling American mystery author. She outlines how Rinehart, born in 1876 in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, married, had children, and settled into a conventional domestic existence that was shattered when the family lost almost all its money in a stock market crash in 1903.
She turned to writing stories, reviews, and serialized mysteries for the country’s burgeoning magazine market, and when she submitted the collected installments of The Circular Staircase to the publisher Bobbs-Merrill, the editorial response was eagerly favorable. And when the book was published in 1908, the public response was if anything even more favorable. Thousands of readers – and quite a few hardened reviewers – were hooked right from the first inimitable paragraph:
This is the story of how a middle-aged spinster lost her mind, deserted her domestic gods in the city, took a furnished house for the summer out of town, and found herself involved in one of those mysterious crimes that keep our newspapers and detective agencies happy and prosperous. For twenty years I had been perfectly comfortable; for twenty years I had had the window boxes filled in the spring, the carpets lifted, the awnings put up and the furniture covered with brown linen; for as many summers I had said good-bye to my friends, and, after watching their perspiring hegira, had settled down to a delicious quiet in town, where the mail comes three times a day, and the water supply does not depend on a tank on the roof.
There followed in 1909 The Man in Lower Ten, which became in a runaway success in 1910, the first American mystery novel to become a bestseller. It, too, was gripping right from the beginning, its narration given by the quintessential hapless cipher who turns out to be more remarkable than he – or we – would at first believe:
In fact, of all the man of my acquaintance, I was probably the most prosaic, the least adventurous, the one man in a hundred who would be likely to go without a deviation from the normal through the orderly precession of the seasons, summer suits to winter flannels, golf to bridge.
So it was a queer freak of the demons of chance to perch on my unsusceptible thirty-year-old chest, tie me up with a crime, ticket me with a love affair, and start me on that sensational and not always respectable journey that ended so surprisingly less than three weeks later in the firm’s private office. It had been the most remarkable period of my life. I would neither give it up nor live it again under any inducement, and yet all that I lost was some twenty yards off my drive!
By the time The Window at the White Cat appeared in 1910, there was scarcely a reader anywhere in America who wasn’t enraptured by this tart, slightly smirking, enormously intelligent writing voice. In the infinitely pleasing variations of that voice are the origin-notes of virtually all types of detective fiction to appear in Rinehart’s wake – and not just in America; for instance, biographers routinely tell us that Agatha Christie, the Grand Dame of mystery fiction and the best-selling novelist of them all, was influenced by such writers as Wilkie Collins and Arthur Conan Doyle, but her much-ballyhooed debut, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, appeared in 1916 and was so obviously indebted to Rinehart’s style and innovations that she could rightly be called Rinehart Redoux. Likewise Raymond Chandler, for another example, who could easily have written the first line of The Window at the White Cat: “In my criminal work anything that wears skirts is a lady until the law proves her otherwise,” and except for the conspicuous eloquence, so too the now-stereotypical scene where the physical damage of the fray is assessed in the cold light of morning:
I was almost unrecognizable when I looked at myself in the mirror the next morning, preparatory to dressing for breakfast. My nose boasted a new arch, like the back of an angry cat, making my profile Roman and ferocious, and the lump on my forehead from the chair was swollen, glassy and purple. I turned my back to the mirror and dressed in wrathful irritation and my yesterday’s linen.
The Best Mysteries of Mary Roberts Rinehart concludes with the crystalline-clear 1914 novella The Buckled Bag, which is whetted and and shaped so perfectly that you can see the author’s restless mind constantly rendering and re-rendering things to their essences:
In the lower walks of life, people are more elemental. But get up higher. Crimes exist there; but, instead of a passion, it is a craft. In its detection it is brain against brain, not intellect against brute force or instinct. If anything gives, it is the body.
Many thousands of people eagerly consumed Rinehart’s mystery novels (including a handful of US Presidents who might have been expected to have more important things to do – but then, that’s what Presidential retreats are for), and Eva Jaunzems includes a charming personal recollection of one of those readers:
I have a personal childhood memory of my mother absorbed in one of Mary Roberts Rinehart’s mysteries. She’s reading in our 1950s living room, in a monstrous armchair upholstered with large pink and yellow flowers. Mother was a refugee from Latvia, and Rinehart’s elegant prose must have challenged her imperfect English, but the stories were too good to put down. I did not learn to love them until very nearly fifty years later, when I first met the unstoppable Miss Rachel Innes and fell under the spell of the circular staircase at Sunnyside.
Thanks to this Reader’s Digest volume recently and happily discovered, I had a chance to fall under that spell all over again myself. Apart from trivial matters of terminology, nothing has aged or dated in Rinehart’s books – they’re still as multi-layered and immensely satisfying as they’ve always been. There ought to be a wide shelf of them at your local big evil chain bookstore, reprinted in a pretty paperback set. Maybe some day.