Mary Roberts Rinehart Critical Essays


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Mary Roberts Rinehart significantly changed the form of the mystery story in the early years of the twentieth century by adding humor, romance, and the spine-chilling terror experienced by readers who identify with the amateur detective narrator. Borrowing devices from gothic novels of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and from sensational fiction of the 1860’s, Rinehart infused emotion into the intellectual puzzles that dominated late nineteenth and early twentieth century magazines. By securing identification with the central character, she made readers share the perplexity, anxiety, suspense, and terror of crime and detection. Because she did not deal in static cases brought to a master detective for solution but rather with stories of ongoing crime, in which the need for concealment escalates as exposure approaches, the narrator almost inevitably becomes a target and potential victim.

Rinehart’s typical mystery has two investigators. One is a professional detective and the other a female amateur who narrates the story. All the important characters must be sufficiently developed so that the amateur can make deductions by watching their emotional responses and penetrating their motives. Rinehart’s books also include both romance (sometimes between the two detectives) and humor. The Man in Lower Ten, her first full-length mystery, was intended as a spoof of the pompous self-importance with which Great Detectives analyzed clues.

Like many readers, Rinehart used mysteries for escape; the “logical crime story,” she wrote, “provided sufficient interest in the troubles of others to distract the mind from its own.” On the wards of a busy urban hospital she had seen “human relations at their most naked.” In writing, however, she “wanted escape from remembering” and therefore chose “romance, adventure, crime, . . . where the criminal is always punished and virtue triumphant.”

She saw the mystery as “a battle of wits between reader and writer,” which consists of two stories. One is known only to the criminal and to the author; the other is enacted by the detective. These two stories run concurrently. The reader follows one, while “the other story, submerged in the author’s mind [rises] to the surface here and there to form those baffling clews.” In “The Repute of the Crime Story” (Publishers Weekly, February 1, 1930), Rinehart outlined the “ethics” of crime writing. The criminalshould figure in the story as fully as possible; he must not be dragged in at the end. There must be no false clues. . . . Plausibility is important, or the story may become merely a “shocker.” The various clues which have emerged throughout the tale should be true indices to the buried story, forming when assembled at the conclusion a picture of that story itself.

In most of Rinehart’s mysteries the “buried story” is not simply the concealment of a single crime. Also hidden—and explaining the criminal’s motives—are family secrets such as illegitimacy, unsuitable marriages, or public disgrace. This material reflects the sexual repression and social hypocrisy embodied in Victorian culture’s effort to present an outward appearance of perfect respectability and moral rectitude. Rinehart forms a bridge between the sensational novels of the 1860’s, which had used similar secrets, and the twentieth century psychological tale. Clues locked in character’s minds appear in fragments of dream, slips of the tongue, or inexplicable aversions and compulsions. In a late novel, The Swimming Pool (1952), the amateur detective enlists a psychiatrist to help retrieve the repressed knowledge. Even in her earliest books Rinehart used Freudian terminology to describe the unconscious.

Rinehart’s stories typically take place in a large house or isolated wealthy community. In British mysteries of the interwar years, a similar setting provided social stability; in Rinehart, however, the house is often crumbling and the family, by the end of the tale, disintegrated. The secret rooms, unused attics, and hidden passageways not only promote suspense but also symbolize the futile attempt of wealthy people to protect their status by concealing secrets even from one another. These settings also allow for people to hide important information from motives of privacy, loyalty to friends, and distaste for the police. In the Miss Pinkerton series (two stories published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1914, a collection of short fiction published in 1925, novels dated 1932 and 1942, and an omnibus volume published under the title Miss Pinkerton in 1959), Inspector Patton uses nurse Hilda Adams as an agent because when any prominent family is upset by crime, “somebody goes to bed, with a trained nurse in attendance.”

Relations between the professional detective and the female amateur—who is generally an intelligent and spirited single woman in her late twenties or early thirties—are...

(The entire section is 2050 words.)