Social Concerns / Themes
While Rinehart's comments on social issues would later be eagerly sought by the readers of mass market magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post and Ladies' Home Journal, in her early novels she concentrated almost entirely on plot and character. Yet The Circular Staircase is not devoid of an interest in the limitations of the author's own upper-middle-class environment. Its main character, Miss Rachel Innes, is a spinster, an anomalous figure in a society which saw wife and mother as the only acceptable roles for a woman. Most spinsters were financially dependent and condemned to stereotypically feminine (and low-paying) occupations such as teachers, nurses, shop clerks, and office workers. The fictional Miss Rachel Innes is released from those constraints in The Circular Staircase and is free to use her intelligence and insight to unravel the complexities of the situations in which she finds herself. The more traditional roles are represented in the novel both by Miss Rachel's timid maid Liddy and by her teen-age niece Gertrude. Rinehart herself had longed to study medicine as a girl but was forced by family finances as well as social convention to train as a nurse. In her novels she liberates her female characters from the constraints placed upon them by their gender. There is also a great deal of witty commentary on that new social phenomenon — the automobile — one of which is owned by Miss Rachel's nephew Halsey.
As with all her detective novels, Rinehart's The Circular Staircase is concerned with the reaction of ordinary people who become innocently embroiled in situations beyond their control. Miss Rachel rents a summerhouse which turns out to have a secret room in which the proceeds from a bank robbery have been hidden. While her maid Liddy cowers in the background, Miss Rachel rises to the occasion in typical intrepid amateur sleuth fashion. While Rinehart's approach is comic, the examination of human reactions in the face of unexpected horror is serious.