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The Circular Staircase
Mary Roberts Rinehart

£6.00

Mary Roberts Rinehart was prolific and hugely successful in her time; her first novel was published in 1906, her last in 1952. She is often referred to as the American Agatha Christie, although her first books predate Christie’s. This is her most popular book, her second, and is the first Had-I-But-Known whodunnit.

AMERICAN RETRO : AR04
C format paperback (216mm x 135mm)
gatefold cover, 224pp
cover design by Alexandra Andries

Biography

The reputation of MARY ROBERTS RINEHART (1876-1958) may have been traduced to parody, particularly on the British side of the Atlantic – she is referred to as the American Agatha Christie – but even in America in recent decades much of her work has been more out of print than in print. She was undoubtedly a trailblazer within her genre and supremely commercial before all else (similar to Christie). The Circular Staircase, her most famous book, remains in the canon, perhaps as a tired classic. If it was popular in its day, its author now is regarded as having more than one foot in the age in which she was born, the decade after the Civil War had ended; her English contemporary counterparts – Arthur Conan Doyle or E. W. Hornung – were true Victorians. The Circular Staircase, of course, comfortably predates the heyday of noir or hard-boiled crime writing.

This is a restricted view of Rinehart. To begin with, Rinehart’s career unfolded by design rather than accident. She wrote romance and comedy as well as mystery (rather like Christie), and her writing developed as much through a sense of personal fulfilment as through dictates of the market. Rinehart defined her own career and was mistress of it at all times. Greatness was not thrust upon her: she assembled it rather like the clues in her mystery books. She had written as a child (three short stories had been published by local newspapers for $1 each when she was fifteen), and turned to the craft as a business proposition when twenty-seven, certainly as a means to escape the gynaecological ailments that afflicted after she had given birth to three children, and to add colour to her life, but more for fiscal self-help She kickstarted her career only after she had discovered her husband’s financial frailty. He was a medical doctor – she had met him in Pittsburgh after her training as a nurse and had married in 1896 – who had played the stock market carelessly and landed his young family into difficulty in 1903, leaving them $12,000 in debt. Her husband could only make more house calls, but her response was to write short stories – she produced 45 in her first year – and serialized novels for the magazines, mostly for Munsey’s Magazine. This was a “magazine of the people and for the people” that had tried hard to dumb down its content in the decades before Rinehart contributed. The Circular Staircase was the second of these novels, written in five instalments beginning in November 1907, in fact for Munsey’s pulp specialist All-Story, which published Rex Stout and Edgar Rice Burroughs as well; it was transcribed into book form in 1908 with Bobbs-Merrill. Her second book, The Man in Lower Ten, which actually predated The Circular Staircase in its magazine completion, became the first mystery bestseller in America when published in 1909: it was the fourth ranked book of that year, and hit the public nail so hard that it was reported to have frustrated railroad porters when customers refused to sleep in carriage ten of overnight sleepers, the place of the book’s murder. Both these books feature Miss Cornelia van Gorder.

That there was an economic impulse to her writing can be seen in its rapid diversification. She was able to exploit the emerging leisured market and its many medium. In 1929 she even funded two of her sons with their publishing venture, Farrar & Rinehart, which became the vehicle for Rinehart’s new work. She started to write romance, comedy, even a Broadway farce in 1909: When A Man Marries was based on one of her novels, Seven Days. She wrote and produced nine plays throughout her career. The Bat, based on The Circular Staircase but with an arch-criminal called The Bat who terrorized and left his bat symbol wherever he had perpetrated a crime (at one point a spotlight throws the image of the bat upon a wall, which inspired Bob Kane’s Batman iconography), ran successfully for 878 performances in New York; six additional companies staged the show elsewhere. She and her husband had invested much money in the production and reaped a significant return. The play’s novelization was in fact licensed (because of copyright issues with its film producers), ghost-written by Stephen Vincent Benet and published in 1926; its reincarnation on disc made it one of the first talking books, released in 1933 by RCA Victor. Many of her books migrated to film: The Circular Staircase four times, K and Miss Pinkerton, twice each. Even in her early years as a published author, she was in discussion over film rights. A friend was Beatrice DeMille, who tried to broker a deal for the book with her son, Cecil B. DeMille, but the rights to The Circular Staircase were sold eventually to Selig Polyscope Co. for a paltry amount, filmed first by Edward le Saint in 1915 to poor review; Essanay Studios had bought several short stories from her in 1914. Rinehart was perhaps too early for television, although some adaptions of her stories were screened in the 1950s.

Very quickly Mary Roberts Rinehart’s career migrated from the mystery and comedy genre to writing unashamed potboilers. When she resumed her flood of mystery tales from the 1930s, it was with a more contemporary feel; some commentators have even attached the sentiment of hard-boiled fiction to her work and allied her with writers like Chandler and Hammett. But Rinehart has always been dismissed as lowbrow and too popular; critics like Howard Haycraft, the founding father of mystery criticism, derided her last two decades’ work, although he included The Circular Staircase in his “definitive library of mystery fiction” – the Haycraft-Queen Cornerstones. Her husband encouraged her always to improve her literary worth. She was prolific; Rinehart wrote hundreds of short stories in her career, produced a novel each year as well as books of travel and reportage; her autobiography, My Story, was published in 1931 and revised in 1948. She was an instinctive writer with no training or literary friendships. In a letter to fan, September 29, 1945, she wrote: “What I really had was the ability to tell a story.” 4,000 words or more each day was her normal pace of storytelling. She complained that her thoughts ran away with her and that she was not able to write fast enough to keep up with the speed of her thoughts. (Parker Pen Co., eager to exploit this product placement opportunity, created a special right-handed, snub-nosed fountain pen for her; it was described as having a “bold sweep,” and she was devoted to it.) To look at the bestseller lists for each year is revealing. Her books are rarely included in their annual top ten, which might indicate that she boasted a dedicated and loyal audience, and had a healthy reliance on reprint. It is alleged that cumulatively she was the highest paid author in America between 1900 and 1950. Upon her death in 1958 she had sold over 10 million volumes; The Circular Staircase alone accounted for well over a million of those.

Her writing might usefully be seen in the context of her personal life. Her parents’ domesticity rested on frail economics. Her father owned a sewing machine factory in Pittsburgh and was a thwarted inventor. The summit of his achievement had been to patent a rotary shuttle for sewing machines; his ambition was never realised, noted his daughter, and he fell back often to being a salesman on the road. Handsome, winsome and a hopeless dreamer, he committed suicide when Mary was nineteen (her uncle subsidised her education from this point). Her mother was a dressmaker who worked long hours, anxious it seems to keep up appearances of financial vigour. When money came to Mary later in her life, her response was to spend it. It need not be unlikely that such a tense financial background was the cause. One of Rinehart’s expensive habits was to purchase ruined houses that needed expensive restoration. The first house she bought from her earnings was at Glen Osborne, Pennsylvania and it required considerable overhaul: “all week long I wrote wildly to meet the payroll and contractor costs,” she wrote in her autobiography. She lived for a period in Washington, DC before relocating to New York in 1935, where she had a well-appointed 18-room apartment on Park Avenue. She had also a 24-room home in Bar Harbor, Maine.

There is throughout her life a sense of a delayed and displaced teenage revolt. That she detested overtly many of her adolescent duties – much housework was required of her as her mother took in two boarders, she disliked intensely her piano lessons – reads as little more than teenage huff. Of more interest is that she was left-handed by nature, and parental intervention meant that as a child she had her left hand tied behind her back often as correction. Any residual adolescent bitterness was softened by antidote in later life. As an adult delinquent she delighted to take her breakfast in bed; she smoked heavily. And there were huge streaks of non-conformity within her. The light-hearted Tish was introduced first in 1910 for upmarket literary magazines, and the first book, The Amazing Adventures of Letitia Carberry, was published a year later; Rinehart continued the character for twenty-seven years more, extended eventually to a further four volumes. She was in many, perhaps, Rinehart’s literary alter ego; certainly, some of the milder plot lines are exaggerated traces of her own experience. Tish, with her friends Aggie and Lizzie, pursued the almost impossible for women of her time: she raced motor cars, hunted for shark and wild bear, and drove ambulances in France during the First World War; she was a sort of Yankee and female Biggles. Rinehart in her own life indulged a sense of danger and adventure; even with a background of family duty, she pursued wilderness vacations, committed defiant acts of independence, participated in outdoor and field sports. She was fearless during the First World War: The Saturday Evening Post, upon her instruction, produced for her letters of introduction that gave access to the Belgian front line, where she was the first female war correspondent. Rinehart managed to interview not only Churchill and the Queen of Belgium but also Queen Mary; also she was in Paris when the armistice was signed. (The earliest of her war time exploit made readable reportage in Kings, Queens, and Pawns: An American Woman at the Front, 1915). Rinehart was, too, an intrepid traveller: she defied death as she navigated the Cascades on horseback via a seldom explored pass, and she crossed uncharted rapids on the Flathead River in a precarious wooden boat. One of the essays in her book The Out Trail (1923) is called Roughing It with the Men. Nomad’s Land (1926) is an account of her 100-mile trek on a camel through Egypt; her attitude is very much to hike up her skirt and get on with it.

Her stance on social issues was hardly timid. She marched as a suffragette. She was an advocate for Native American rights and was initiated into the Blackfoot Tribe. She tackled issues not often in the public domain of her time. She wrote of domestic violence, well before such an issue was spoken of in public. (Her own marriage was not happy, and her husband, who died in 1932, was resentful of her success.) She spoke of her mastectomy and advocated for breast examination; she announced her fight with breast cancer in an interview that was published in the Ladies’ Home Journal, 1947. “To all of us,” ran the cover feature, “she says: Face Your Danger In Time.”

The Circular Staircase was the first example of the Had-I-But-Known school of writing. Always the narrator misses all clues of impending disaster, and all is revealed at the plot’s conclusion. This is a style that tires if not done well; Ogden Nash parodied it with his poem Don’t Guess Let Me Tell You, and Rinehart was wise to move on with her plotting techniques. It was assumed readily that the John F. Singer House on the east side of Pittsburgh was the book’s setting, a rich man’s vanity project from 1869, expensively furnished, marbled, and deserted when Rinehart wrote her novel; its swirling staircase was one of the building’s pretentious calling cards. Rinehart revealed that the book had been inspired by her visit to Melrose, a Gothic Revival castle with a three-storey-octagonal tower in Northern Virginia.

Rachel Innes, a dowager easily persuaded by her niece and nephew, rents a country house for the summer. On the second night there, the owner’s son is found dead at the bottom of the staircase; others disappear and a sequence of crime and foreboding unravel; evidence isn’t shared with the inert Detective Jameson; amateur sleuth Rachel stumbles into a sequence of crimes, often in danger; all is revealed in the end.

There is a stiff backbone of reality to Rinehart’s writing that is not present with her Anglican rival, Agatha Christie. Rinehart was more socially alert and wrote about all levels of society with compassion; if a revolver was found in the shrubbery, then the shrubbery needn’t have contained roses; there is soot and sweat aboard her railroad train. There is a touch of authenticity that alluded Christie. Even in their respective real time criminal dramas, Rinehart wins. Christie staged her own suicide in 1926 when she drove her car to a quarry’s edge and vanished for ten days; newspaper hullabaloo was resolved when she was found in a Harrogate hotel registered in the name of her husband’s mistress. Rinehart’s cataclysm was in 1947 whilst at her home in Maine. Her servant for twenty-five years fired a gun at her and attempted to carve her up with a knife; she was rescued by her other servants and the attacker killed himself in his prison cell the next day. “The butler did it” is a phrase ascribed to Rinehart, supposedly taken from The Door, a lacklustre novel of 1930, but in her life the butler really did it. Unlike Christie’s implausible tableaux and faux testimony, things really did happened in the fiction of Mary Roberts Rinehart, too.

Extract

I Take A Country House

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. As it is, I show the wear and tear of my harrowing experiences. I have turned very gray—Liddy reminded me of it, only yesterday, by saying that a little bluing in the rinse-water would make my hair silvery, instead of a yellowish white. I hate to be reminded of unpleasant things and I snapped her off.

“No,” I said sharply, “I’m not going to use bluing at my time of life, or starch, either.”

Liddy’s nerves are gone, she says, since that awful summer, but she has enough left, goodness knows! And when she begins to go around with a lump in her throat, all I have to do is to threaten to return to Sunnyside, and she is frightened into a semblance of cheerfulness,—from which you may judge that the summer there was anything but a success.

The newspaper accounts have been so garbled and incomplete—one of them mentioned me but once, and then only as the tenant at the time the thing happened—that I feel it my due to tell what I know. Mr. Jamieson, the detective, said himself he could never have done without me, although he gave me little enough credit, in print.

I shall have to go back several years—thirteen, to be exact—to start my story. At that time my brother died, leaving me his two children. Halsey was eleven then, and Gertrude was seven. All the responsibilities of maternity were thrust upon me suddenly; to perfect the profession of motherhood requires precisely as many years as the child has lived, like the man who started to carry the calf and ended by walking along with the bull on his shoulders. However, I did the best I could. When Gertrude got past the hair-ribbon age, and Halsey asked for a scarf-pin and put on long trousers—and a wonderful help that was to the darning—I sent them away to good schools. After that, my responsibility was chiefly postal, with three months every summer in which to replenish their wardrobes, look over their lists of acquaintances, and generally to take my foster-motherhood out of its nine months’ retirement in camphor.

I missed the summers with them when, somewhat later, at boarding-school and college, the children spent much of their vacations with friends. Gradually I found that my name signed to a check was even more welcome than when signed to a letter, though I wrote them at stated intervals. But when Halsey had finished his electrical course and Gertrude her boarding-school, and both came home to stay, things were suddenly changed. The winter Gertrude came out was nothing but a succession of sitting up late at night to bring her home from things, taking her to the dressmakers between naps the next day, and discouraging ineligible youths with either more money than brains, or more brains than money. Also, I acquired a great many things: to say lingerie for under-garments, “frocks” and “gowns” instead of dresses, and that beardless sophomores are not college boys, but college men. Halsey required less personal supervision, and as they both got their mother’s fortune that winter, my responsibility became purely moral. Halsey bought a car, of course, and I learned how to tie over my bonnet a gray baize veil, and, after a time, never to stop to look at the dogs one has run down. People are apt to be so unpleasant about their dogs.

The additions to my education made me a properly equipped maiden aunt, and by spring I was quite tractable. So when Halsey suggested camping in the Adirondacks and Gertrude wanted Bar Harbor, we compromised on a good country house with links near, within motor distance of town and telephone distance of the doctor. That was how we went to Sunnyside.

We went out to inspect the property, and it seemed to deserve its name. Its cheerful appearance gave no indication whatever of anything out of the ordinary. Only one thing seemed unusual to me: the housekeeper, who had been left in charge, had moved from the house to the gardener’s lodge, a few days before. As the lodge was far enough away from the house, it seemed to me that either fire or thieves could complete their work of destruction undisturbed. The property was an extensive one: the house on the top of a hill, which sloped away in great stretches of green lawn and clipped hedges, to the road; and across the valley, perhaps a couple of miles away, was the Greenwood Club House. Gertrude and Halsey were infatuated.

“Why, it’s everything you want,” Halsey said “View, air, good water and good roads. As for the house, it’s big enough for a hospital, if it has a Queen Anne front and a Mary Anne back,” which was ridiculous: it was pure Elizabethan.

Of course we took the place; it was not my idea of comfort, being much too large and sufficiently isolated to make the servant question serious. But I give myself credit for this: whatever has happened since, I never blamed Halsey and Gertrude for taking me there. And another thing: if the series of catastrophes there did nothing else, it taught me one thing—that somehow, somewhere, from perhaps a half-civilized ancestor who wore a sheepskin garment and trailed his food or his prey, I have in me the instinct of the chase. Were I a man I should be a trapper of criminals, trailing them as relentlessly as no doubt my sheepskin ancestor did his wild boar. But being an unmarried woman, with the handicap of my sex, my first acquaintance with crime will probably be my last. Indeed, it came near enough to being my last acquaintance with anything.

The property was owned by Paul Armstrong, the president of the Traders’ Bank, who at the time we took the house was in the west with his wife and daughter, and a Doctor Walker, the Armstrong family physician. Halsey knew Louise Armstrong,—had been rather attentive to her the winter before, but as Halsey was always attentive to somebody, I had not thought of it seriously, although she was a charming girl. I knew of Mr. Armstrong only through his connection with the bank, where the children’s money was largely invested, and through an ugly story about the son, Arnold Armstrong, who was reported to have forged his father’s name, for a considerable amount, to some bank paper. However, the story had had no interest for me.

I cleared Halsey and Gertrude away to a house party, and moved out to Sunnyside the first of May. The roads were bad, but the trees were in leaf, and there were still tulips in the borders around the house. The arbutus was fragrant in the woods under the dead leaves, and on the way from the station, a short mile, while the car stuck in the mud, I found a bank showered with tiny forget-me-nots. The birds—don’t ask me what kind; they all look alike to me, unless they have a hall mark of some bright color—the birds were chirping in the hedges, and everything breathed of peace. Liddy, who was born and bred on a brick pavement, got a little bit down-spirited when the crickets began to chirp, or scrape their legs together, or whatever it is they do, at twilight.

The first night passed quietly enough. I have always been grateful for that one night’s peace; it shows what the country might be, under favorable circumstances. Never after that night did I put my head on my pillow with any assurance how long it would be there; or on my shoulders, for that matter.

On the following morning Liddy and Mrs. Ralston, my own housekeeper, had a difference of opinion, and Mrs. Ralston left on the eleven train. Just after luncheon, Burke, the butler, was taken unexpectedly with a pain in his right side, much worse when I was within hearing distance, and by afternoon he was started cityward. That night the cook’s sister had a baby—the cook, seeing indecision in my face, made it twins on second thought—and, to be short, by noon the next day the household staff was down to Liddy and myself. And this in a house with twenty-two rooms and five baths!

Liddy wanted to go back to the city at once, but the milk-boy said that Thomas Johnson, the Armstrongs’ colored butler, was working as a waiter at the Greenwood Club, and might come back. I have the usual scruples about coercing people’s servants away, but few of us have any conscience regarding institutions or corporations—witness the way we beat railroads and street-car companies when we can—so I called up the club, and about eight o’clock Thomas Johnson came to see me. Poor Thomas!

Well, it ended by my engaging Thomas on the spot, at outrageous wages, and with permission to sleep in the gardener’s lodge, empty since the house was rented. The old man—he was white-haired and a little stooped, but with an immense idea of his personal dignity—gave me his reasons hesitatingly.

“I ain’t sayin’ nothin’, Mis’ Innes,” he said, with his hand on the door-knob, “but there’s been goin’s-on here this las’ few months as ain’t natchal. ‘Tain’t one thing an’ ’tain’t another—it’s jest a door squealin’ here, an’ a winder closin’ there, but when doors an’ winders gets to cuttin’ up capers and there’s nobody nigh ’em, it’s time Thomas Johnson sleeps somewhar’s else.”

Liddy, who seemed to be never more than ten feet away from me that night, and was afraid of her shadow in that great barn of a place, screamed a little, and turned a yellow-green. But I am not easily alarmed.

It was entirely in vain; I represented to Thomas that we were alone, and that he would have to stay in the house that night. He was politely firm, but he would come over early the next morning, and if I gave him a key, he would come in time to get some sort of breakfast. I stood on the huge veranda and watched him shuffle along down the shadowy drive, with mingled feelings—irritation at his cowardice and thankfulness at getting him at all. I am not ashamed to say that I double-locked the hall door when I went in.

“You can lock up the rest of the house and go to bed, Liddy,” I said severely. “You give me the creeps standing there. A woman of your age ought to have better sense.” It usually braces Liddy to mention her age: she owns to forty—which is absurd. Her mother cooked for my grandfather, and Liddy must be at least as old as I. But that night she refused to brace.

“You’re not going to ask me to lock up, Miss Rachel!” she quavered. “Why, there’s a dozen French windows in the drawing-room and the billiard-room wing, and every one opens on a porch. And Mary Anne said that last night there was a man standing by the stable when she locked the kitchen door.”

“Mary Anne was a fool,” I said sternly. “If there had been a man there, she would have had him in the kitchen and been feeding him what was left from dinner, inside of an hour, from force of habit. Now don’t be ridiculous. Lock up the house and go to bed. I am going to read.”

But Liddy set her lips tight and stood still.

“I’m not going to bed,” she said. “I am going to pack up, and to-morrow I am going to leave.”

“You’ll do nothing of the sort,” I snapped. Liddy and I often desire to part company, but never at the same time. “If you are afraid, I will go with you, but for goodness’ sake don’t try to hide behind me.”

The house was a typical summer residence on an extensive scale. Wherever possible, on the first floor, the architect had done away with partitions, using arches and columns instead. The effect was cool and spacious, but scarcely cozy. As Liddy and I went from one window to another, our voices echoed back at us uncomfortably. There was plenty of light—the electric plant down in the village supplied us—but there were long vistas of polished floor, and mirrors which reflected us from unexpected corners, until I felt some of Liddy’s foolishness communicate itself to me.

The house was very long, a rectangle in general form, with the main entrance in the center of the long side. The brick-paved entry opened into a short hall to the right of which, separated only by a row of pillars, was a huge living-room. Beyond that was the drawing-room, and in the end, the billiard-room. Off the billiard-room, in the extreme right wing, was a den, or card-room, with a small hall opening on the east veranda, and from there went up a narrow circular staircase. Halsey had pointed it out with delight.

“Just look, Aunt Rachel,” he said with a flourish. “The architect that put up this joint was wise to a few things. Arnold Armstrong and his friends could sit here and play cards all night and stumble up to bed in the early morning, without having the family send in a police call.”

Liddy and I got as far as the card-room and turned on all the lights. I tried the small entry door there, which opened on the veranda, and examined the windows. Everything was secure, and Liddy, a little less nervous now, had just pointed out to me the disgracefully dusty condition of the hard-wood floor, when suddenly the lights went out. We waited a moment; I think Liddy was stunned with fright, or she would have screamed. And then I clutched her by the arm and pointed to one of the windows opening on the porch. The sudden change threw the window into relief, an oblong of grayish light, and showed us a figure standing close, peering in. As I looked it darted across the veranda and out of sight in the darkness.