Study Guide

The Circular Staircase

by Mary Roberts Rinehart

The Circular Staircase Analysis

Literary Techniques

All of Rinehart's detective novels were to follow the pattern set by The Circular Staircase. The initial crime is only the first in a series of violent events which strike the characters throughout the novel. Other elements introduced in this novel include the infamous "Had-I-But-Known" narrative technique, where the first person narrator laments that, based on hindsight, she would have acted very differently; the blending of romantic subplots with the main mystery story line; the use of humor; and the shifting of attention from the detective to the victims and villains involved in the crime.

Rinehart also borrows a number of gothic elements for The Circular Staircase. It is set in Sunnyside, a rambling old mansion on Long Island, full of hidden rooms, secret passages, and things that "go bump in the night." The name of the house is, of course, ironic. While its surface appearance is benign, its interior hides great evil. The novel also features a middle-of-the-night disinterment in a cemetery, another direct borrowing from the gothic tradition.

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The Circular Staircase Literary Precedents

The Circular Staircase is clearly a descendant of the fifty years of detective stories which preceded it. It is probably no coincidence that Bobbs- Merrill, the publishers of the novel, had also published Anna Katherine Greene's The Leavenworth Case (1878), exactly thirty years earlier. Greene also created a female detective, Violet Strange, now long forgotten. Although Rinehart writes firmly in the detective tradition of Edgar Allan Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, she shifts the focus from the eccentric detective with almost supernatural powers of detection to an ordinary person caught up in a situation in which she must call on her powers of common sense to deal with the problem in front of her. While earlier practitioners of the genre had portrayed women in their more typical role as victim, Rinehart made her detective a woman. While it is true she is an unusual one, being free from the restrictions she would have faced had she been tied down with the responsibilities of caring for a husband and children, she is a woman nonetheless.

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The Circular Staircase Related Titles

The spinster detective Rinehart creates in The Circular Staircase is clearly a forerunner of one of her most popular characters, the heroine of the long-lived "Tish" series. Miss Letitia Carberry first appeared in a short story written in 1910 and then in more short stories and a series of books: The Amazing Adventures of Letitia Carberry (1911); Tish (1916); More Tish (1921); Tish Plays the Game (1926); The Book of Tish (1931); Tish Marches On (1937); and The Best of Tish (1955). The Saturday Evening Post printed every new "Tish" story for over thirty years. While exceptionally popular, these stories usually have very little to do with the solution of a mystery. Their interest lies in the comic character of Tish, a spinster of indeterminate age who travels about the United States and Europe, encountering any number of off-beat and sometimes improbable situations which her own blend of morality and silliness always sees her through.

The Circular Staircase is also related to the "Miss Pinkerton" stories which feature Rinehart's other female detective, Nurse Hilda Adams. "Miss Pinkerton" is given her nickname by the police themselves because of her ability to solve crimes that elude them. Although "Miss Pinkerton" is cast in the same mold as Miss Rachel Innes and "Tish," she is a more realistic character. Rinehart obviously has drawn on her own youthful experiences as a nurse and her own...

(The entire section is 487 words.)

The Circular Staircase Adaptations

The first film version of The Circular Staircase appeared in 1915. A television version appeared on CBS's Climax! series in 1954. More well-known, however, are the motion pictures and television productions based on Rinehart's own adaptation of the novel for the stage as The Bat, one of the most commercially successful mystery dramas ever written. Rinehart and Avery Hopgood adapted The Circular Staircase for the stage under this title in 1920. Miss Rachel Innes became Miss Cornelia Van Horder; her maid Liddy was renamed Lizzie. The initial Broadway run of The Bat lasted for two years. (A 1953 revival with Zasu Pitts as Lizzie was nearly as successful, and after the play closed, Pitts starred in a television version.) To capitalize on the success of her play, Rinehart allowed Stephen Vincent Benet to fictionalize The Bat, and it was republished as a separate novel in 1926. The stage version of The Bat was used as the basis for a silent film in 1926, followed by a United Artists sound version with the title The Bat Whispers in 1930. The film was remade in 1959 by Allied Artists with Agnes Moorehead as Miss Van Horder and Vincent Price as "the Bat." The following year Helen Hayes and Jason Robards, Jr., were featured in a Dow Great Mystery Series television production of The Bat.

(The entire section is 214 words.)