Saturday, January 14, 2006

Book note: The Circular Staircase, by Mary Roberts Rinehart

I just finished reading The Circular Staircase, c. 1908, by Mary Roberts Rinehart this evening. And while some of the plot is a bit farfetched, it's still a quite entertaining read. (Translation: My husband had to put up with me laughing out loud at the narrator's antics and descriptions of people and situations.)

But then, I'm the sort of reader who will put up with even outrageous storylines any day if the characters are wonderful and the dialog has wit. And Rinehart, in this book, let loose with some great observations. She also did very well with the red herring business, as far as I'm concerned. It was great fun, with lots of twists and turns, and a few delightful detours.

It's told as a narrative, from the point of view of one Rachel Innes, and right off the bat we know she's no shrinking violet:

This is 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 our newspapers and detective agencies happy and prosperous. For twenty years I had been perfectly comfortable; for twenty years I had had the window-boxes filled in the spring, the carpets lifted, the awnings put up and the furniture covered with brown linen; for as many summers I had said good-by to my friends, and, after watching their perspiring hegira, had settled down to a delicious quiet in town, where the mail comes three times a day, and the water supply does not depend on a tank on the roof.

And then - the madness seized me. When I look back over the months I spent at Sunnyside, I wonder that I survived at all. As it is, I show the wear and tear of my harrowing experiences. I have turned very gray - Liddy reminded me of it, only yesterday, by saying that a little bluing in the rinse-water would make my hair silvery, instead of a yellowish white. I hate to be reminded of unpleasant things and I snapped her off.

"No," I said sharply, "I'm not going to use bluing at my time of life, or starch, either."

Liddy's nerves are gone, she says, since that awful summer, but she has enough left, goodness knows! And when she begins to go around with a lump in her throat, all I have to do is to threaten to return to Sunnyside, and she is frightened into a semblance of cheerfulness, from which you may judge that the summer there was anything but a success.

The newspaper accounts have been so garbled and incomplete - one of them mentioned me but once, and then only as the tenant at the time the thing happened - that I feel it my due to tell what I know. Mr. Jamieson, the detective, said himself he could never have done without me, although he gave me little enough credit, in print.

I shall have to go back several years - thirteen, to be exact - to start my story. At that time my brother died, leaving me his two children...

This title is still in print, from several publishers in several formats, actually. There are also lots and lots of used copies floating around for sale. You can also read it online, but if you're like me, a spirited "cozy" murder mystery is most properly read in a comfy armchair, preferably a rocker or recliner, with a nice lap robe and a cat or two on hand to improve the atmosphere :-).

As far as new copies go, in addition to paperback and hardcover, it is available as audio:

The Circular Staircase
The Circular Staircase

And in collections, like this one:

Best Mysteries of Mary Roberts Rinehart: Four Complete Novels by America's First Lady of Mystery
Best Mysteries of Mary Roberts Rinehart: Four Complete Novels by America's First Lady of Mystery

Mary Roberts Rinehart died in 1958 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, which has a short write-up and photo of her on its website.


Bookworm said...

Gosh! That sounds like a wonderful book, but then again, I like the old stuff.

Denny said...

Nice post. I commented on Mrs. Rinehart's work last September ( at a blog you might like visiting every now and then. I certainly enjoyed reading through yours. Good job.

Denny Hartford
Omaha, Nebraska
The Book Den (
Vital Signs Blog (