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Rinehart, Mary Roberts

Page history last edited by Jon 11 years ago

Mary Roberts Rinehart Mary Roberts Rinehart (August 12, 1876-September 22, 1958) was an American author and the source of the phrase "The butler did it." Rinehart was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her father was a frustrated inventor, and through her childhood, the family often had financial problems. She was born left-handed, in the days when this was looked upon as irrational and unladylike. To make her use her right hand, the left was tied behind her back.


Her parents were Thomas B. and Cornelia Roberts. She early learned about financial insecurity. Her father was a frustrated inventor, whose most practical invention was a rotary shuttle for sewing machines. He hated the sewing machine business. Mrs. Rinehart's mother took in two boarders and made Mary help with the housework, after school, and take piano lessons--both of which she hated with equal vigor. Her grandmother, partially blind, was a seamstress.


When she was in Allegheny High School she got $1 each for three short stories from a Pittsburgh newspaper. In her own words, "I did no further so-called literary work until 12 years later when I was 27." Her first book, The Circular Staircase, was published in 1908 when Theodore Roosevelt was President, the hobble skirt was something of a national scandal and ministers spoke of the lawn hammock as a challenge to morals. In this book, Mrs. Rinehart proved, for the first time, that mystery, crime and humor can be combined. In addition to crime stories she wrote many humorous and romantic works.


She married Dr. Stanley M. Rinehart in 1896, and died of a heart attack in 1958, having suffered heart trouble since 1934.


Many of Rinehart's works are available through Project Gutenberg.


Mike Grost on 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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


Her 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. The solution of The Door is notable, however, for being one of only three real life examples known to me of an allegedly popular mystery cliché (the others are "The Strange Case of Mr. Challoner" in Herbert Jenkins' Malcolm Sage Detective (1921), and Gregory Dean's Murder on Stilts (1939)). There is some ingenuity about the title door in the puzzle plot, too. It shows Rinehart's architectural orientation as a plot creator.


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 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 stories and the Miss Pinkerton books 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.


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 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 is frivolous and throwing away its 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 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 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.




The Circular Staircase (1908) aka The Bat

The Man in Lower Ten (1909)

The Window at the White Cat (1910)

The Amazing Adventures of Letitia Carberry {short stories} (1911)

Where There's a Will (1912)

The Case of Jennie Brice (1913)

The After House (1914)

Tish {short stories} (1916)

Dangerous Days (1919)

Love Stories {short stories} (1919)

Affinities {short stories} (1920)

More Tish {short stories} (1921)

Sight Unseen, and The Confession {Also published as: The Confession and Sight Unseen} (1921)

The Breaking Point (1922)

Temperamental People {short stories} (1924)

The Red Lamp {UK Title: The Mystery Lamp} (1925)

The Book of Tish {short stories} (1926)

Nomad's Land {short stories} (1926)

Tish Plays the Game {short stories} (1926)

Two Flights Up (1928)

The Romantics {short stories} (1929)

The Door (1930)

Familiar Faces {short stories} (1931)

Miss Pinkerton {UK Title: The Double Alibi} (1932)

The Album (1933)

The State vs Elinor Norton {aka The Case of Elinor Norton} (1934)

Married People {short stories} (1937)

Tish Marches On {short stories} (1937)

The Wall (1938)

The Great Mistake (1940)

Haunted Lady (1942)

Alibi for Isabel {short stories} (1944)

The Curve of the Catenary (1945)

The Yellow Room (1945)

Episode of the Wandering Knife {short stories} {aka The Wandering Knife} (1950)

The Swimming Pool {aka The Pool} (1952)

The Frightened Wife {short stories} (1953)


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