Mary Roberts Rinehart, The Circular Staircase (1908)

I’m so late about reviewing books that I’ve finished a while ago, it’s terrible! How am I going to catch up without being unfair with some books? 

After Margery Allingham in December, I set about to discover another nearly-forgotten mystery writer (at least, unknown to me), this time an American writer, Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958). The Circular Staircase made her fame, so that’s where I started.

The book starts on a great 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-by 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.And then–the madness seized me.

When I look back over the months I spent at Sunnyside, I wonder that I survived at all. (…) 

Hadn’t I read the publication date, I’d have thought it had been written in the 1920s. Young people dash off in cars, people use the telephone, country manors have electricity (albeit not 24h/24) and young girls are very carefree and independent-minded, in a way that reminded me of the Great Gatsby’s parties (sleazy, decadent behaviors aside). Wealthy Americans really lived before WWI with much more modern comfort than their contemporary on the other side of the pond! 

The story was deliciously quaint and sometimes naïve in the twists and turns of the plot. It didn’t take me much to figure out what was going on in broad outlines, but there was still enough suspense (noises in the dead of the night, mistaken characters, even a nightly visit to a graveyard that borders on the gore, but no disgusting detail is provided) to sustain my attention up to the end. I liked the narrator, a wealthy spinster in her 50s (I guessed as much since she took care of her orphaned niece and nephew, who are in their early 20s) who goes through life without much worry and with a ridiculous live-in companion, but I really couldn’t take her seriously. 

That said, don’t expect something half as good as an Agatha Christie’s, just to name an author Rinehart was compared to during her lifetime. The psychology and the plot is nowhere as deep and twisted as in her British counterpart’s novels. Apart from the narrator, the other characters are sometimes mere caricatures, not fully two-dimensional. Servants are gullible and superstitious, especially black ones (Rinehart doesn’t escape the dyed-in-the-wool racism of her times), and the police is very complacent and passive.

I don’t mean to smash the book by expecting too much of it, but I think it should be better read as a piece of literature history, a milestone in the building of modern crime fiction, than as a masterpiece that could measure up to the crime stories that have followed it.

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