Literary critics often call Mary Roberts Rinehart the American Agatha Christie. This is a somewhat interesting comment since Rinehart published her first mystery novel fourteen years before Christie.
Rinehart wrote over 60 mysteries, seven plays, news stories, travel articles, poems and numerous short stories. Let’s take a closer look at Mary Roberts Rinehart.
Rinehart’s Early Years
Mary Roberts Rinehart was born Mary Ella Roberts in a section of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania formerly known as Alleghany City to Thomas and Cornelia Roberts. She grew up with an extended family including her grandmother, a dressmaker who worked long hours in a shop at the back of the house.
Her father was in the sewing machine business and a frustrated inventor. He designed a rotary shuttle for the sewing machine which received a patent, but many of his other inventions were unsuccessful. Throughout her childhood, the family often suffered financial problems. In 1895 Thomas Rinehart committed suicide.
She attended public high school and then enrolled in nursing school at Pittsburgh’s Homeopathic Hospital where she would meet Dr. Stanley Rinehart. The hospital strictly forbid friendships between doctors and staff members. They kept their engagement secret until after her graduation from nursing school when they married. They had three sons; Stanley Jr., Alan and Frederick.
Rinehart did not follow a nursing career. She filled her days with raising her sons and helping her husband with his practice. Life was simple and enjoyable until the couple lost all their savings in the 1903 stock market crash.
The Start of Rinehart’s Writing Career
Dr. Rinehart continued his practice, while Mary wrote verse, short stories and articles. She wrote 45 stories in 1903 to help pull the family through their financial crisis. Her first novel, The Circular Staircase brought her national attention. It also launched her career as a mystery writer and novelist when the book sold over a million copies.
Around 1909 the Saturday Evening Post published some of her humorous pieces and her Letitia “Tish” Carberry stories. The Saturday Evening Post sent Rinehart to England as a reporter during World War I, and she was in Paris when the war ended.
The Circular Staircase Plot
All Story serialized the novel for five issues starting with the November 1907 issue, and Bobbs-Merrill published the book in 1908. All Story was one of the early Pulp Fiction magazines before Argosy Magazine absorbed them. (Just a side note, be sure to check out a previous blog on Pulp Fiction.)
The Circular Staircase story follows wealthy spinster Rachel Innes who has raised her niece Gertrude, age 24, and her nephew Halsey, age 20, since they were young children. Gertrude and Halsey talk their aunt into renting a country home called “Sunnyside” for the summer. The home belongs to the Armstrongs, a prominent family.
On the second night after arriving, they find Arnold Armstrong, son of the owner dead at the bottom of the circular staircase. Halsey and the friend he brought for a visit both disappear. Halsey returns without his friend and with no explanations of where he was or what happened to his friend.
In the meantime, many other events occur to the worry the residents and the staff. Rachel decides she must solve what is disturbing her household and looks for clues. When she discovers evidence and bits of helpful information, she doesn’t initially share with the policeman in charge of the case, Detective Jameson. Nor does Detective Jameson detect. Instead, he waits for those involved to tell the truth.
While searching Rachel is often in dangerous situations. The plot is complex and there are several subplots, but eventually all is revealed and our amateur sleuth restores order to her household.
Had-I-But-Known School of Mystery
Rinehart receives credit as one of the first creators of the “Had-I-But-Known” (HIBK) school of mystery. The Circular Staircase is the first story to introduce this technique. This style of writing foreshadows events yet to come. The person narrating the story misses the hint of a disaster waiting for one or more of the characters.
Neither the narrator nor the reader knows of the mistake until revealed near the solution of the crime. This revelation eventually occurs through the presentation of clues. Characters in these mysteries are also the ones who hear a sound in an empty room and rush in to see what happened.
There are typical HIBK statements from the narrator within the story. For our spinster aunt in The Circular Staircase a typical statement is, “had I but known what lay in wait for me, I would never have rented the country house for the summer.” Handled properly this mystery device can add a real element of suspense. When not handled with skill, the story could turn into a messy melodrama.
“The Butler Did It”
As an avid mystery lover, I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “The Butler Did It.” Mary Roberts Rinehart receives credit for this phrase from her novel, The Door, published in 1930. I should also note this exact phrase never appears in the work.
Sorry there is no way to give Rinehart credit for this mystery first without giving away the ending. The book is still worth reading because of the interesting plot.
Elizabeth Bell’s runs an efficient and quiet household. When the family nurse, Sarah Gittings, is brutally murdered, Elizabeth discovers there are several suspects within her home. Especially when it appears Sarah knew and probably trusted her murderer. The crimes don’t stop with Sarah’s murder. There’s a burglar in the house, along with a shadowy figure who appears and disappears and there is more than one victim before Bell solves the case.
Rinehart quickly wrote The Door in 1930. She was in the hospital recovering from an illness when her sons launched a new publishing house. As a devoted mother she broke her longtime contract with Doubleday and wrote this bestseller to get their new business started.
The Publishing Firm of Farrar & Rinehart
In June 1929 Rinehart’s sons, Stanley M. Rinehart, Jr (president) and Frederick R. Rinehart (partner) joined with John C. Farrar (vice president) and formed Farrar & Rinehart. Rinehart supported her sons by leaving Doubleday. Her best-selling mysteries were the foundation for the new firm.
The firm continued to grow and with the acquisition of Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Book Corporation in 1931; it became one of the most successful publishing houses for this period. Best-selling authors for the firm included Rinehart and Hervey Allen’s Anthony Adverse (1933) which sold over two million hardcover copies. For mystery lovers, they also published Elizabeth Daly (1940-43) and the first ten (1931-1944) Nero Wolfe books.
They renamed the publishing house, Rinehart and Company when John C. Farrar left the firm in 1946. He formed a new company with Roger Straus that became Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Rinehart’s Play “The Bat”
Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood penned a three-act play called The Bat in 1920. The play used elements from The Circular Staircase and is a combination of mystery and comedy.
It was a dark and stormy night and Cornelia Van Gorder and her guests are at the summer home she’s rented. They are spending their time looking for stolen money, supposedly hidden in the house. Interrupting their search efforts is the appearance of a masked criminal called the “Bat.” The play also focuses on learning the identity of the masked criminal revealed at the end of the play.
After 867 performances in New York, 327 performances in London and numerous shows by road companies the play was a critical and commercial success. There were several film adaptations, and the play was the basis for the Batman comic book hero. In 1933, RCA’s talking book division released a recording of The Bat.
Rinehart’s Writing Has Benefits
Unlike so many writers, Rinehart’s writing career made her a wealthy woman. She had a 24-room seaside home in Bar Harbor, Maine and an elegant apartment on Park Avenue in New York.
Rinehart once made the comment she wished she had a pen that could keep up with the speed of her thoughts. The Parker Pen company created a special snub-nosed fountain pen for her.
She was also a guest on the popular CBS television show Person to Person with Edward R. Murrow in November 9,1956. The show featured stars from stage, screen, television the world of sports and other famous people who reached a pinnacle of success.
Rinehart’s Real-Life Crime Drama
In 1947, while staying at her Bar-Harbor home Rinehart’s chef attacked her. He worked for her for 25 years, but unexpectedly fired a gun at her and then attempted to slash her with several knives. Other servants rescued her. The police arrested the chef and while being held; he committed suicide in his cell.
Other Rinehart Facts
Dr. Rinehart accepted a post at the Veterans Administration and the family moved to Washington, DC in 1922. Rinehart joined the Literary Society of Washington and remained a member until 1936.
Dr. Rinehart died in 1932, and Mary remained in Washington until 1935 when she moved to New York City.
Rinehart was left handed. During this time and for years to come, we trained left-handers to use their right hand. I can relate to this having been a left-hander trained to use my right.
She smoked a pack of cigarettes a day; she had breakfast in bed and loved to climb mountains, ride horses and fish.
Rinehart had personal health issues. Diagnosed with breast cancer, she had a radical mastectomy. She discussed her surgery and urged women to have breast examinations in an article for the Ladies’ Home Journal in 1947.
In 1954 she received a special award for her work from the Mystery Writers of America but was too ill to attend the dinner in her honor. She died in 1958 at age 82 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Rinehart Versus Agatha Christie
Why do people say Rinehart is the American Agatha Christie? Even though Christie published many years after Rinehart I think her entire body of work offers many comparisons.
Rinehart’s pieces are dated, but they accurately capture a time from the past. And remember a good mystery transcends time.
Do you think Mary Roberts Rinehart is the American Agatha Christie? There’s only one way to decide. Pick up one of her books and give it a read and decide for yourself.