• If you are citizen of an European Union member nation, you may not use this service unless you are at least 16 years old.

  • You already know Dokkio is an AI-powered assistant to organize & manage your digital files & messages. Very soon, Dokkio will support Outlook as well as One Drive. Check it out today!


The Circular Staircase

Page history last edited by PBworks 16 years ago

Rinehart, Mary Roberts - The Circular Staircase (1908) aka The Bat


Everyone in the city, from millionaires to the shady citizens of the underworld, goes in fear of The Bat. All that is known of him is that like his namesake “he chose the night hours for his work of rapine; like a bat he struck and vanished, pouncingly, noiselessly; like a bat he never showed himself to the face of the day”. The media scream in vain for his arrest. Such was his tawdry fame that, inevitably, “a popular revue put on a special Bat number wherein eighteen beautiful chorus girls appeared masked and black - winged in costumes of Brazilian bat fur; there were Bat club sandwiches, Bat cigarettes, and a new shade of hosiery called simply and succinctly Bat”.


But the fact remains that the Bat is a cold - blooded loner whose crimes ranged from jewel theft to murder and whose calling card was a drawing or some other form of expression of bathood.


Detective Anderson asks his chief to be transferred to the Bat case. His superior is reluctant, because his other best investigator, Wentworth, was killed by The Bat. However, Anderson insists, having been a friend of the dead man, and so his chief, convinced Anderson will meet the same fate as Wentworth, promises the next time the Bat strikes and a new case is opened Anderson will be transferred to work on it.


We next meet wealthy, elderly, and independent spinster Miss Cornelia Van Gorder, scion of a noble family and the last of the line. An adventurous spirit, at 65 and comfortably situated, she still longs for a bit of an adventure. It maddens her to think of the sensational experiences she is missing as she contemplates that “...out in the world people were murdering and robbing each other, floating over Niagara Falls in barrels, rescuing children from burning houses, taming tigers, going to Africa to hunt gorillas, doing all sorts of exciting things!” Why, she'd love to have a stab at catching The Bat given half a chance!


But all is not lost, for having taken a house in the country for the summer Miss Van Gorder finds herself within twenty miles from the very area wherein the Bat had committed three crimes. Courtleigh Fleming, owner of the house, has died, and the bank of which he was president just failed, possibly because Mr Bailey, its cashier, has stolen over a million dollars - - or so it is said.


Since Miss Van Gorder's arrival at the Fleming mansion strange things have happened: she has received an anonymous letter advising her to leave, the lights mysteriously went off one evening, her butler claims he spied someone looking into the kitchen, and Lizzie Allen, Miss Van Gorder's personal maid for decades, is convinced she saw a strange man on the stairs.


Miss Van Gorder's niece, Dale Ogden, is a guest and her aunt senses she is unhappy about something, perhaps an affair of the heart. As the story opens, Dale has a phone call and goes off to the city. While she is there she will look for a gardener. After she departs, it transpires the cook and housemaid have decided to leave for obviously false reasons. Despite all persuasion, Miss Van Gorder states she *will* remain in the house with or without a full staff, but as it happens an agency has promised replacements in three days. Until then they will just have to manage with the aid of the butler and the hoped - for gardener.


And then adventure makes its appearance in Miss Van Gorder's life, for in the morning post there comes another anonymous letter stating “If you stay in this house any longer - - DEATH. Go back to the city at once and save your life”. Being a stubborn person Miss Van Gorder decides to handle the possible matter not by calling in the authorities but by ensuring the numerous windows and doors of the house are kept locked and by making a phone call, the recipient of which we are not told at that point.


She is practicing with a revolver she purchased for a trip to China when Dale arrives with the news a gardener will be there to take up his duties that evening. After dark a storm begins to rise while Dale goes off to the local country club to visit Richard Fleming, the deceased house owner's nephew and heir, who lives at the club. Miss Van Gorder, left with her maid and the butler, finds herself growing nervous. So she gets out the ouija board and she and a very reluctant Lizzie hold a session. The board first spells out a string of nonsense and then B - A - T.


Not long afterwards, Brooks the new gardener arrives. While Brooks admits he is not *exactly* what he claims to be but rather a man desperate for a job, Miss Van Gorder decides to keep him on and he is given a room in the house for the night rather than being sent to the gardener's house on the grounds. The advancing tempest knocks out the lights, Dale is brought back from the club by local medical man Dr Wells, Detective Anderson appears, a man is shot, at least one unknown person is deduced to be hiding somewhere on the rambling premises, and the stage is set for various characters to flit in and out of view in a many doored and windowed living room lit most of the time only by candle and firelight. It is this room where much of the narration is set. The Bat is based upon a stage play and I imagine one that must have had its audiences perched on the edge of their seats a fair bit of the time.


My verdict: I would describe The Bat as related to the old dark house mystery, with enough obfuscation to keep the reader guessing although one or two surprises are less well concealed.


I found it a light, diverting read which held the interest without taxing the attention too much and would sum up The Bat as an excellent cold - night - outside read.




Mary R.



The Circular Staircase (1908)

by Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958)


This is an iconic mystery novel written by an iconic mystery writer who suffers both neglect (by modern mystery readers) and derision (by many mystery critics both past and especially present). Although The Circular Staircase was Rinehart’s second (magazine) published novel length mystery, it by chance was published in hardcover a year before her first long mystery, The Man in Lower Ten, saw book publication.


Rinehart initially intended for her story to be at least partly satirical of the murder mysteries of her time. She supposedly toned down the satirical content of the serialized magazine version when preparing the manuscript for book publication because it became apparent that readers were generally ignoring the satire and instead were concentrating on the compelling storyline.


A bare-bones plot summary of The Circular Staircase is as follows: Spinster heiress Rachel Innes (aged about 50 or so) rents a country house for the summer to seek rest, relaxation and escape from the intrusive remodeling work being performed on her city house. She moves to the ironically named Sunnyside along with her beloved adult niece and nephew and numerous household servants. Mysterious events ensue which rapidly lead to a murder. More mysterious events and several more deaths follow. An embezzlement scheme, a hidden room and the astonishing number of secrets the cast of characters try to keep from each other are the main plot drivers.


The Circular Staircase is as readable today as it was in 1908. Although Rinehart read and was clearly influenced by Anna Katherine Green (1846-1935), she brought her own fresh approach and style to the mystery genre. Rachel Innes is the first of several intelligent, wry, strong-willed, blunt spoken yet warm-hearted female narrators created by Rinehart during her fifty-year long writing career.


In addition to employing a strong narrative voice and creating engaging characters, Rinehart also managed to inject humor into her writing: Not, for the most part, a farce-like humor as seen in her wonderful Tish stories, but a more subtle, ironic and understated type of humor that one might expect to find in a late rather than an early Twentieth Century American novel. Those instances where Rinehart broadens her humor mostly involve the character of Liddy Allen, Rachel’s longtime personal maid. The scenes where Liddy reacts to mysterious noises, ghosts, uppity fellow servants and the peculiarities of country life are laugh out loud funny. On the other hand, the warm, loving, sister-like yet prickly relationship between Liddy and Rachel displays another aspect of Rinehart’s writing talent. Many serious novelists could learn much from the way that Rinehart smoothly and subtly reveals to her readers how complex and deep this employee/employer relationship has become over time.


Since Rinehart was the originator of the “Had I But Known” school of mystery fiction, one can certainly find several HIBK moments in The Circular Staircase. These instances do not unduly detract from the narrative and were most likely originally incorporated into the story because Rinehart wanted to signal her magazine readers that exciting and dangerous events were about to occur. Rinehart should not be held accountable for all the literary abuses inflicted on readers by later, less accomplished writers who copied this questionable but effective foreshadowing device and made it central to their own writing styles.


The Circular Staircase is a mystery story. It is not a fairly-clued Golden Age detective story for the simple reason that the Golden Age had not yet begun. Later, during the actual Golden Age years (strictly 1918-1939 but more casually recognized as 1913-195?), Rinehart would write detective novels that were more fairly-clued and just about fit into the traditional Golden Age mould. Two that come to mind are Miss Pinkerton (1932) and Haunted Lady (1942) both featuring her only series sleuth, nurse/undercover detective Hilda Adams. Even in these two books Rinehart only grudgingly follows the “play fair with the reader” dictum. She is much closer spiritually to Doyle, Chesterton and Post than to true Golden Age practioners such as Christie, Sayers, Queen and Carr in that she is more interested in writing compelling stories rather than strictly adhering to a list of rules.


Rinehart liked to call her mysteries “crime stories” or “crime novels”. Others have labeled them “women’s suspense” and “romantic suspense”. To my knowledge, Rinehart never admitted to aiming her mysteries at a female readership. Since she did tend to emphasize the relationships between and among her characters more than mystery writers of her own and earlier eras, it is understandable why she is often labeled as a feminine writer; all the pulp-like action, violence and scientific-medical content of her stories not withstanding.


Modern readers may underestimate Rinehart’s rightful prominence in the history of the mystery genre but I believe that Xavier Lechard capsulated her importance best when he wrote “Rinehart pioneered suspense fiction by focusing on people involved in the problem rather than those who solve it.”


My analysis was greatly aided by the wonderful supplementary material included in the 1977 Mystery Library edition of The Circular Staircase, especially the work of Phyllis A. Whitney and Jan Cohn.


Bob Schneider

Comments (0)

You don't have permission to comment on this page.