From My Bookshelf: Mary Roberts Rinehart

I have long been a fan of Rineharts’ mysteries. When I see her name on a ratty, much-worn, or faded binding, I usually pounce. Far too frequently, the book proves to be so musty I pass it up, but sometimes I grab it anyway, determined to find a way to read it even if it must be shelved in the garage.

When you start looking, she’s not impossible to find. A few of her best-known works can be found in paperback editions or e-books. A few.

Trouble is, I want them all.

Have you heard of her? Have you ever read her?

She was born in 1876 and died in 1958. She is best known for her mysteries–and she wrote over 60 of them. But she also penned plays that were performed on Broadway, plus short stories and articles for the Saturday Evening Post. She was a travel writer and a war correspondent for that publication during World War I. In the latter capacity, she interviewed Winston Churchill and Queen Mary. In addition to her prolific writing, she trained as a nurse, married a doctor, helped him with his practice, and raised three sons.

She is held responsible for coining the phrase, “The butler did it.” Her first book was published fourteen years before Agatha Christie came along, yet Rinehart today is known as the “American Agatha Christie.”

The other day, as I was reading an elderly, non-musty edition of her novel, K, I found myself asking why did Christie surpass her? Why is a sizable amount of Christie still in print and still selling while Rinehart molders away, largely forgotten?

Christie is probably better at crafting puzzlers. Rinehart is very much of the American school of mystery’s Golden Age. Her novel, The Yellow Room, dating from the 1940s, is as convoluted as any Chandler or Hammett work. No, I couldn’t solve it ahead of her sleuth, but the solution was so complicated that I’m still confused about some of it. And while I was willing to push my way through Hammett’s The Glass Key by watching the film innumerable times then reading the novel in an effort to understand it (and ditto for Chandler’s The Big Sleep), I’m not convinced that struggling so hard through this so-called American approach is worth the trouble.

Christie, after all, is easy to read. She doesn’t require huge effort, yet neither does she write down or patronize her audience. And while I think it’s important to read the difficult as well as the easy, the fact remains that Christie’s prose is clear and approachable. And there’s an advantage to that.

Rineharts writes beautifully. Her sentences are lyrical, lovely, almost poetic. Her style is rich, and she conveys a view of America in that period of pre-WWI through the 1920s that I love to visit. She doesn’t shy away from crime, relationships, ethical dilemmas, or moral struggles in her fiction, yet there’s nothing tawdry or coarse either. I think perhaps she fell out of favor because her style is too distinctive, too noticeable. We’ve moved away from the issues of that era. Very few of us now remember or realize a time in America when income tax didn’t exist. When people struggled to maintain a standard of living that was slowly going extinct before the Great Depression of the 1930s dealt it a death blow. Her characters, contending with recalcitrant servants, dwindling incomes, the desperate need to keep up appearances after losing all their money, etc., seem to belong to that elusive world of old black-and-white movies, evening gowns, and chauffeur-driven automobiles. Her books open a window and let us peer with curiosity into that long-ago place, but it’s hard for us to relate now.

By contrast, Christie doesn’t seem to date. Her characters lack the layers displayed by Rinehart. They are names. They move about and speak, but they are barely developed. Christie’s focus remains on the puzzle to be solved. Strangely enough–despite our modern fascination with the psychotic–we are less drawn to Rinehart’s tormented and complex people than Christie’s placeholders.

Now, my theory that her ornate style drove Rinehart out of favor may be bunk or it may be valid. All I know is that I love pouncing when I find her in vintage shops, forgotten corners, and occasional Amazon offers. She’s a treasure.

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