R. wrote a number of mainstream novels and stories, but found her forte and gained her literary reputation in the composition of detective stories, which she wrote for fifty years corresponding roughly to the first half of the 20th c.
Her career began with a detective novel that hewed closely to the conventional formula of the day—the closed milieu of a country house, a “detective” searching out clues and hidden facts, and the revelation of the murderer in the last scene. For all its haste of composition, The Circular Staircase (1908) has remained a classic of the genre. Twelve years after its publication, the story was adapted as The Bat for the Broadway stage, where it became a long-running hit.
R.'s literary career blossomed in the 1930s with the development of her own Americanized version of the typically English country-house detective story. Setting her stories in a mansion or country house of the well-to-do, she simply moved the English “cozy” formula to the U.S. and put her own stamp on it by her thematic material and her astonishing ability to work up complex and baffling plots.
Structurally, she spends as much time on the “inner” story of her novel—what has happened in the past to cause the present conflicts—as she does on the “surface” story. To prevent the typical confusion of the end-of-book “revelation,” she allows parts of the inner story to appear piece by piece during the narration, until only the salient elements are left to clear up at the end.
Thematically, she builds her plots on complex social and personal conflicts. A favorite is mesalliance, the crossing of class barriers in marriage—the female “nobody” who pretends to be a “somebody” and marries an unsuspecting upper-class male—as in The Wall (1938). Repressed emotion, sexual passion, and jealousy frequently serve as building blocks for her plots, as in The Album (1933). In that novel she even plays with the theme of amnesia, later a work horse of the soap opera genre; she hints at incest in that same book years before the subject became fashionable. The problem of identity—concealed by amnesia or by deliberation—always fascinated R.
The Great Mistake (1940) has a monumentally complex plot whose murders hinge on past relationships rather than present ones, thus providing a smokescreen to hide the killer's motivation. Once again, the real relationships, revealed at the end, contain a hint of the incestuous. The Yellow Room (1945) is a story of a government agency, a mesalliant marriage, and amnesia, plus a suspicion of incest.
Her reputation as the “had I but known” mystery author, while deserved, is essentially unfair. Writing primarily for magazine serialization, she would create suspense by remarking, “Had I but known then what I know now, I would have….” She did not invent the style, but it seems to cling to her in retrospect. The other cliché of the mystery—“The butler did it”—could just as easily have been applied to her.
Bibliography Cohn, J., Improbable Fiction: The Life of M. R. R. (1980) MacLeod, C., Had She but Known: A Biography of M. R. R. (1994)
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