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.