Grand dames of crime: Mary Roberts Rinehart

Born in the same year as Custer made his last stand, Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958), from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, first trained as a nurse then took up writing post marriage in 1903 at the age of twenty-seven, spurred by financial necessity. Her first mystery novel, The Circular Staircase, was published in 1908 and her second The Man in Lower Ten published the following year. These two pulp novels were very successful, and are the earliest works by an American author still in print purely for entertainment, (as opposed to being classics or literature), a testament to her storytelling capabilities.

…a man may shout the eternal virtues and be unheard forever, but if he babble nonsense in a wilderness it will travel around the world.”

The Red Lamp

A feminist, Rinehart created middle aged spinster Tish in 1910. Tish become the central protagonist in a serious of comic long short stories that ran over thirty years. The series was about the wild adventures of the protagonist and her friends, Aggie and Lizzie, who did all the things women were not supposed to at the time, like race cars, do stunt work, and hunt.

The author (web image)

Rinehart’s work has much in common with hard boiled crime and scientific detection in style and subject, and she utilised realism to depict life and social issues of the time, such as class and gender. Her writing often combined murder, love, surrealism and humour, and she wrote a series of love stories dealing with nurses and hospital life, as well as several Broaway comedies. The most popular stage production, Seven Days, written with Avery Hopwood in 1909, was a farce based on Rinehart’s novella of the same name, and became a runaway hit.

…at last she drew on her gloves, straightened her hat, and went away with that odd self-possession which seems to characterize all the older women of the Crescent. Time takes its toll of them, death and tragedy come inevitably, but they face the world with quiet faces and unbroken dignity.

The Album

During the First World War Rinehart became a correspondent for The Saturday Evening Post and after using her nurse training to earn Red Cross credentials was allowed to got to the front where she visited hospitals, toured “No Man’s Land,” and interviewed both the king of Belgium and the queen of England.

The chef did it (web photo from Crimereads)

The biggest cliche in mystery writing, the Butler did it is often attributed to Rinehart’s novel The Door, published in 1930, in which the Butler turns out to be the villain, although the phrase itself does not appear in the text. An obliging mother, Rinehart wrote The Door in a hurry whilst recovering from an illness in hospital to help her sons fledgling publishing house. Rinehart was the near victim of a servant herself in 1947, when her chef tried to shoot and stab her in the library of her home. She was saved from injury by the brave intervention of her butler and some other servants. So apparently, it was the chef who did it in the library after all.

People that trust themselves a dozen miles from the city, in strange houses, with servants they don’t know, needn’t be surprised if they wake up some morning and find their throats cut.

The Circular Staircase

Her last book, The Confession, was published the year after her death in 1959. At the time, her books had sold more than 10 million copies, which is partly why she is often compared to Agatha Christie.

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