Thursday, November 12, 2009

A Mary Roberts Rinehart Omnibus

AUUUUUUGGGGHHHHH!! Allergies attack. To distract myself from how crappy I feel, I begin reading an omnibus by "the American Agatha Christie", Mary Roberts Rinehart.

Rinehart (1876-1958) spent many years writing heavy-duty serious fiction because her stuffy, politically connected physician husband was offended by the popularity of her works for the stage and in the mystery genre. It is in those genres that he dismissed as "trashy" that she did her best work, however. She also was a World War I correspondent, the mother of three sons, and, before her marriage, had trained as a nurse.

The omnibus I'm reading consists of three novels in the mystery genre. The first, THE BAT, was published under the title THE CIRCULAR STAIRCASE in 1908. It was adapted for the stage by Rinehart and Avery Hopwood in 1920 under the title THE BAT, and republished in novel form in 1926 under the latter title. I have a feeling that once it had been a hit in play form, the novel underwent a transformation of sorts, because it reads like a breathless combination of stage melodrama and broad farce, with all the stock melodramatic characters: the spinster aunt with a mania for doing her own detective work despite the remonstrations of the police, the star-crossed lovers she's trying to save from the long arm of the law, the hysterical and superstitious Irish maid, the enigmatic butler, a gardener who thinks alopecia, rubeola, and uticaria (baldness, measles, and hives, if you wondered) are plants, and a master criminal known as The Bat. The Bat is notorious for burglarizing seemingly impregnable homes, but lately he's added killing as a sideline to his burglary. The plot spirals off to stolen securities from a bank failure that have apparently been hidden in a summer rental house; various suspicious outsiders turn up at the door to be greeted by a gun-toting spinster or, if she's occupied elsewhere, the butler. A murder committed on the circular staircase of the original title finally focuses the rather meandering action, and eventually (of course) the spinster aunt triumphs over police, Bat, and improbabilities to bring the story to a rousing conclusion.

THE HAUNTED LADY (1942) is an altogether darker, more densely plotted work. Set in the 1930s, it features Rinehart's series character Hilda Adams, a nurse who frequently works with the police and in the process has acquired the nickname Miss Pinkerton. She is hired to provide both medical assistance and security for an old, wealthy woman who believes someone--possibly one of her fractious family--is trying to frighten her to death (she has a weak heart), having failed to kill her with arsenic. In the event, despite Hilda's best efforts, the old lady is murdered--violently--and Hilda will not walk off the case until the killer is exposed.

THE YELLOW ROOM (1945) is a stand-alone novel. I haven't quite finished it yet, but the plot revolves around a family's summer home. When Carol Spencer and three family servants arrive to open the house for the season, they find the telephones mysteriously removed and its year-round caretakers hors de combat, one hospitalized for an appendectomy and the other with a broken leg which she got from falling down the main staircase of the house while running from--so she swears--a person who rushed out of a closet at her. When a dead and partially burned body is found in the closet from which she was attacked, it introduces a whole host of mysteries, not the least of which is this: who was staying in the yellow bedroom of a house that had been shut up for more than a year? There are subplots involving Carol's missing/believed killed pilot fiance and a new love interest for her who is not all he appears to be, but I'm completely in the dark as bodies continue to pile up and the plot gets more convoluted.

Good read for a sunny, sneezy day.


  1. Sometimes you really need and intricate alter world to replace your own. Hope you feel better soon.
    If you feel up to it, the new Take This Tune prompt is up for next week.

  2. I've wondered, since researching her life and work, if that wasn't in a way what MRR was doing--creating an alternate world that was easier to live in.

    There's an anecdote about how she reread one of her books many years after she wrote it and she was thrilled to pieces because she couldn't figure out how it ended!

    I have a couple of ideas about Take This Tune--still in the cogitating stages--