Friday, July 8, 2022

The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rinehart (my Goodreads review)

This book is a fun, energetic, easy read, of no huge distinction until you realize that it was published in 1908, a dozen years before Agatha Christie’s first book. What that means is that the things it seems like it might have in common with Christie’s work (a big rural house, untrustworthy servants, most people as possible suspects, etc.) are not things that Rinehart, an American author, borrowed from Christie.

Otto Penzler’s introduction identifies Rinehart as the leader of a loose school of “Had I only known!” authors. While I don’t think I’ll be following that particular lead any further, it’s interesting to note that Rinehart’s curious overuse of this foreshadowing technique was seen by others as a good way to build suspense. If Rinehart is hardly the first American woman writer of detective fiction, she seems like a big player too in the history of the cozy mystery concept. Nothing in the book is ever really shocking, no matter how often the narrator, Rachel Innes, is shocked, and the book feels entirely light and easy-going.

Miss Innes, as she is usually called by others, is not the official detective, although she certainly does plenty of sleuthing. She’s someone who wants to maintain order and happiness among her family and the others she cares about and is determined to do so. She’s curious sometimes, and sometimes not, but she’s always protective. It’s interesting to think of her amateur detective status, and that of a few other amateur women detectives, as preceding the creation of Christie’s Miss Marple.

One serious caveat about these books: the class and race attitudes, although gentle in expression, are pretty appalling not only by contemporary standards but probably even by those of the progressive political era of American history in which the books appeared. Servants are invariably silly and superstitious, and if they’re black they’re especially superstitious even if they might otherwise be portrayed as thoughtful and sensitive. There’s only one line, late in the book, that’s aggressively offensive, but the light-hearted class and race humor doesn’t fare well now, and people who want old works of pop literature to offer present-day standards should consider themselves warned.

There’s nothing great about this book, and nothing about it is remotely convincing, but it moves along at a highly energetic pace for a book more than a hundred years old, and I enjoyed it. I think the book will mostly be of interest to people who want to know more about the history of detective fiction and the history of detective fiction by and about women particularly.

This review can be found also on my Goodreads page:

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