A Mary Roberts Classic Centennial
Once America’s best-selling author, Pittsburgh native Mary Roberts Rinehart started her career with a crime classic that celebrates its centennial in 2008.
“A hundred well-behaved women seldom make history” read the bumper sticker in front of me the other day. Although that driver was probably announcing her intention to drive erratically, it is just possible that she was referring to the example of the writer Mary Roberts Rinehart, a woman of great accomplishments who is largely forgotten today, her historical reputation doomed by decorum. As Pittsburgh honors its heritage in this anniversary year, it seems only fitting to reconsider Rinehart, one of Pittsburgh’s literary lions, and the years later, this book can still captivate.
Once the best-selling author in America, Rinehart was renowned for her fiction, essays, plays, war correspondence and personal adventures (of the reputable kind). 2008 marks the centennial of the publication of The Circular Staircase, the first of Rinehart’s 47 books, which propelled the Allegheny City housewife to prominence and heralded the Golden Age of detective fiction. Even after 100 years, the story remains a crime classic, genuinely exciting and entertaining; a period potboiler that bears revisiting. And, at the distance of a century, it provides a captivating portrait of a bygone era, when doctors made housecalls and people dosed themselves with laudanum; flashlights were novelties and billiard rooms were the designer kitchens of their day; a time before Internet, television or radio, when all one had to do to withhold bad news was hide the morning papers and a time when a retreat to the country was rife with possibilities for misadventure and murder!
Born in 1876, Mary Roberts Rinehart spent the first 33 years of her life in Allegheny City, first as a trained nurse and then as the wife of Dr. Stanley M. Rinehart and the mother of their three sons. The Rineharts enjoyed a comfortable existence in a home only blocks from the millionaires on Ridge Avenue, but Mary was ambitious for finer things and began publishing occasional poems and short stories in local papers to earn money for little luxuries. When she attempted a “semi-satire on the usual pompous self-important crime stories” of the day, she selected a location close to home: the burgeoning countryclub community of Sewickley Heights.
In 1902 the Ridge Avenue swells had established a recreational outpost in the hills above Sewickley, where Rinehart had ridden with her uncle as a girl. There they built the Allegheny Country Club, which enjoying her success flew — as it does to this day — the flag of Allegheny City; the center of an exclusive exurban utopia devoted to leisure. In the halcyon days before federal income tax, the opulent excesses of Pittsburgh’s new money were legendary, and nowhere more evident than in Sewickley Heights. The ACC’s enviable golf course was surrounded by enormous estates in a variety of architectural styles, some numbering close to 100 rooms, which were supported by stables, garages, lodges, greenhouses, water towers, dairies and a multitude of servants, forming little fiefdoms all their own.
The idyllic image of the Heights was tarnished in 1906 by the example of one of ACC’s founding members, Harry K. Thaw, who stood trial that year for the murder of the famous society architect Stanford White. Tales of sex and showgirls, gambling, whippings and insane “brainstorms” that emerged during the “Trial of the Century” revealed a darker side to the lives of the privileged few.
The memory of Thaw’s sensational case was still fresh in the public’s mind when Rinehart created The Circular Staircase, “the story of how a middle-aged spinster lost her mind, deserted her domestic gods in the city, took a furnished house for the summer out of town and found herself involved in one of those mysterious crimes that keep newspapers and detective agencies happy and prosperous.”
Miss Rachel Innes is well-to-do and well past 40. For decades she has been content to summer in town and busy herself with a narrow routine. To amuse the 20-something niece and nephew she has raised as her own, she departs from form and agrees to rent Sunnyside, a huge hilltop estate within sight of the fashionable “Greenwood Country Club.” But Sunnyside, “cheery and open” in daylight, assumes a sinister quality in the dark — especially after midnight, when the local power company switches off the electricity. Then the long hallways and cavernous rooms are transformed into “a black void, full of terrible suggestion,” concealing the shadowy deeds of unseen prowlers. Before long a dead body, shot through the heart, is found at the base of the home’s circular staircase. It is the remains of Arnold Armstrong, dissolute son of Sunnyside’s absent owner, who ran with the young set up at the club. Both Rachel’s lovely niece Gertrude and stalwart nephew Halsey promptly fall under suspicion, as does Gertrude’s suitor, a teller whose disappearance unfortunately coincides with the failure of the bank that manages the Inneses’ money.
More deaths, thefts, kidnappings and creepy confusion ensue (including a spinetingling climax in a secret, sealed room) before the evildoers are dispatched by the hand of Fate, the lovers reunited and the family fortune recovered thanks to the sleuthing of venerable “Aunt Ray,” who frankly admits to having a ball.
“Here was I,” she marvels, “a spinster, … a Colonial Dame, mixed up with a vulgar and revolting crime and even attempting to hoodwink the law! … I remember wondering if this was really I, and if I had ever really tasted life before that summer.”
Discovering that she possesses “the instinct of the chase,” Rachel sets out to clear the names of her loved ones. In so doing, she encounters villains, demolishes walls and exhumes corpses, unhindered by her floor-length frocks and whalebone corsets. Stiff she may be and loathe to attract “disgusting publicity,” but Rachel Innes displays a wry humor and indomitable spirit that make her an irresistible heroine.
Very much a formal, front-parlor person, Rachel’s move to the country and her investigations there lead her into unknown territory; unearthing clues in the laundry, the servants’ lodge, the back stairs and storage rooms. When at last she climbs out onto the roof of Sunnyside, Rachel acquires not only a new perspective on the property and its mysteries, but on her life as well. She is as far from the drawing room, literally and figuratively, as the setting allows, and the aging maiden, in acute physical danger, feels acutely alive; achieving a psychological liberation that she never knew she needed.
The investigation of unfamiliar places leading to a breakthrough evokes the principles of psychoanalysis — still quite new in 1908 — and presages the Freudian motivations that would figure so prominently in the detective stories of the ’20s and ’30s; ranking Rinehart with her predecessor, Anna Katherine Green, as “mothers of the modern detective story.” The “liberation” of Rinehart’s protagonist also caused the author to be touted as a feminist; a label she vehemently rejected.
Rinehart’s 1931 autobiography, My S tory, repeatedly asserts that the author was a simple wife and mother. No matron in Rinehart’s fiction was ever permitted the luxury of eccentricity and independence afforded to her single heroines; those were merely compensation for their unmarried state. (“Love is greater than personal freedom,” she wrote in My S tory.) Rinehart always upheld in her writing the tenets of conventional morality and solid, middleclass virtues: loyalty; strength of character; common sense; courage in adversity. Rachel Innes has these in spades, along with a healthy dose of wit and wisdom. Furthermore, her fine character is the result of breeding, not filthy lucre, which exposes the nouveau-riche Armstrongs as shallow, self-serving frauds.
Miss Innes may illustrate the conflicting pull between respectability and adventure that countless women have felt, but she resigns herself to her lot. “Were I a man,” she reflects wistfully, “ I should be a trapper of criminals … but being an unmarried woman, with the handicap of my sex, my first acquaintance with crime will probably be my last.”
What was the end for Rachel Innes was just the beginning for Mary Roberts Rinehart. T he Circular S taircase sold a cool million and a quarter copies in its first printing, providing the author with the wherewithal to return to the “scene of the crime” by purchasing a grand home in Osborne, immediately adjacent to Sewickley. From there she went on to greater adventures; writing prolifically, hobnobbing with royalty, roughing it in the Wild West, and traveling to the front lines in World War I. She lobbied for the rights of Native Americans and advocated breastcancer prevention in a time when few people dared to breathe the C-word. In 1929 she established the respected publishing house known as Farrar & Rinehart, now Holt Rinehart & Winston.
In “retirement” (she continued to write, albeit at a slower pace, until her death in 1958), Rinehart experienced an attack on her life by a deranged servant, handling the affair with all the aplomb of Rachel Innes herself. In a scene befitting one of her novels, Rinehart encountered a job applicant as she flew to telephone the police. Ever the lady, Mrs. Rinehart politely remarked, “You’ll have to come back later, young man, someone is trying to kill me!”
Rinehart’s fame may not have survived the 20th century, but she — and Rachel Innes — are well-behaved women well worth remembering.