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Saturday, January 11, 2014

Mary Roberts Rinehart, the Publishing Dynamo (part 1)

Last summer I set out to read the works of Mary Roberts Rinehart’s first publishing decade-and-a-half in order. Being a skinflint, I was downloading books onto my Kindle but restricting myself to those that are free. I tried to get a complete bibliography off the internet, but even with that as a roadmap, it has proven extremely hard for me to organize my reading of the works in the public domain published from 1906 through 1923. I cannot understand why this should be so. The list doesn’t look all that hard to tick off, but somehow I keep finding another and another and another entry from those late 19-teens that I’ve missed.

Mary Roberts Rinehart was born in the summer of 1876 near Pittsburgh and graduated from high school when she was only 16. She entered a hospital training program and graduated as a nurse before she turned 20, soon after which she married one of the doctors. Marriage was not all roses. The couple lost all their money in the stock market crash of 1903, and Mary was spurred to write to replace the money. This did not always sit well with her husband, who had very old-fashioned views on how his spouse should prioritize her time. Mary ignored his views and wrote ever more prolifically, publishing 45 stories in 1906 alone. In 1907 she wrote her first novel, The Circular Staircase, and published it the next year to nationwide acclaim. She wrote short stories, plays, and novels; they were mysteries, romances, adventure, comedy, social drama, political allegory, a western, religious allegory, travelogue, and war correspondence. Her works were made into radio dramas and movies. It seemed there was nothing she couldn’t try and she succeeded in everything. Her money made the couple wealthy, although her husband rose to high positions in his field and earned wealth himself. He died 26 years before she did, and after that she kept writing and publishing and helped her three sons found the Farrar & Rinehart publishing company, of which she served as director.

Here are a few of my reviews of her first works. I think I’ll break these up and publish a new set every day for a while.

The Circular Staircase. I wanted to like this more, because the mystery is really good as is the writing, but one character is treated with truly cringe-worthy racism that was usual for the time this book was written, but it ruined the book for me—it really formed too much a part of the story to be overlooked in any way. The story concerns a middle-aged spinster aunt who rents a country house for her young-adult niece and nephew. There’s a spinster companion-servant who is annoyingly prone to screaming, and the black servant is treated with truly horrible condescension and derision. Instead of this, read the next one.

The Bat. I thought this was an original story when I started it, but the first chapter made me think of The Circular Staircase (1908), and I found from looking at reviews that The Bat is the same story, updated and adapted as a stage play for the 1920 season, and then rewritten as a novel that was published about 1925. Its differences from the original are improvements in my opinion, and I liked this treatment a lot better. The plot is full of twists and turns; the heroine is 25 years older in this version and very likeable; the racism is still there but toned down into slight stereotypes that didn’t ruin the whole thing as it did the early novel. There are elements of slapstick, of supernatural, of horror, of suspense, and the usual Rinehart foreshadowing. It’s a lot of fun, ultimately and would be terrific to see performed. I understand there’s an old Vincent Price - Agnes Moorehead film version out there somewhere—now that would be fun.

That’s it for today. Next time I’ll have some more mysteries and maybe introduce the screwball comedies.

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