Mary Roberts Rinehart Analysis


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

In a 1952 radio interview, Mary Roberts Rinehart said that she had helped the mystery story grow up by adding flesh and muscle to the skeleton of plot. Beginning at the height of the Sherlock Holmes craze, Rinehart introduced humor and romance and created protagonists with whom readers identified. Thus, the emotions of fear, laughter, love, and suspense were added to the intellectual pleasure of puzzle tales. The Circular Staircase (1908) was immediately hailed as something new, an American detective story that owed little to European influences and concerned characteristically American social conditions.

Rinehart’s typical novel has two lines of inquiry, often at cross purposes, by a female amateur and by a police detective. The woman, lacking the resources and scientific laboratories to gather and interpret physical evidence, observes human nature, watches for unexpected reactions, and delves for motive. The necessary enrichment of background and characterization forced the short tale (which was typical at the turn of the century) to grow into the detective novel. Critics sometimes patronize Rinehart as inventor of the Had-I-But-Known school of female narrators who withhold clues and stupidly prowl around dark attics. Her techniques, however, were admirably suited to magazine serialization. In addition to its influence on detective fiction, Rinehart’s work led to the genre of romantic suspense.


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Bachelder, Frances H. Mary Roberts Rinehart: Mistress of Mystery. San Bernardino, Calif.: Brownstone Books, 1993. Monograph examining Rinehart’s work and her place in the pantheon of mystery writers.

Bargainnier, Earl F., ed. Ten Women of Mystery. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1981. Compares Rinehart’s work to that of nine of her fellow female mystery writers.

Cohn, Jan. Improbable Fiction: The Life of Mary Roberts Rinehart. Rev. ed. Pittsburgh, Pa.: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006. Detailed biographical study of Rinehart, focusing on her unusual situation as a famous and influential woman at a time when few women enjoyed such a position in American culture.

Doran, George H. Chronicles of Barabbas, 1884-1934. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1935. Written by Rinehart’s publisher, this detailed account of the business of publishing provides insight into the practical considerations of marketing Rinehart’s work.

Downing, Sybil, and Jane Valentine Barker. Crown of Life: The Story of Mary Roberts Rinehart. Niwot, Colo.: Roberts Rinehart, 1992. An authorized biography of Rinehart, focusing on her development from nurse to successful author.

DuBose, Martha Hailey, with Margaret Caldwell Thomas. Women of Mystery: The Lives and Works of Notable Women Crime Novelists. New York: St. Martin’s Minotaur, 2000. Describes the life of Rinehart and provides critical comment on her work.

Fleenor, Julian E., ed. The Female Gothic. Montreal: Eden Press, 1983. Places Rinehart’s work within the centuries-old gothic tradition.

Huang, Jim, ed. They Died In Vain: Overlooked, Underappreciated, and Forgotten Mystery Novels. Carmel, Ind.: Crum Creek Press, 2002. Rinehart is among the authors discussed in this book about mystery novels that never found the audience they deserved.

MacLeod, Charlotte. Had She But Known: A Biography of Mary Roberts Rinehart. New York: Mysterious Press, 1994. This biography of Rinehart concentrates on the extent to which her later career as an influential author was an unpredictable swerve in the road of what began as a fairly conventional life.