Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Mary Roberts Rinehart; book review - The Window at the White Cat

The Window at the White Cat is the first novel I've read by Mary Roberts Rinehart.  I plan to read some of her others now.

I only stumbled upon Rinehart after listening to a recorded lecture series on detective fiction (Modern Scholar - Detective Fiction: From Victorian Sleuths to the Present, given by M. Lee Alexander).  Rinehart was just briefly mentioned in the lecture series.  Apparently, though, she was quite a sensation in her time.  She wrote from 1908 all the way till 1953, and was read by Presidents and literary luminaries in addition to everyone else.  Some of her books were also adapted into plays and films.  The edition I'm reading, The Best Mysteries of Mary Roberts Rinehart, includes four of her novels and an Introduction on the life and writing career of Rinehart; the Introduction is the primary source of my information regarding Rinehart, in addition to Wikipedia.

I find it rather interesting that Rinehart, renowned in her time and apparently something of a public figure, should now be relatively obscure, a brief mention in a lecture series on detective fiction and no one I'd heard of before.

Also of note, per the Introduction, it turns out that it's Rinehart's first four that are considered her "best" by "critics"(I'm not sure who, though), "more carefully crafted" than later works.

The Window at the White Cat is narrated by the rather hapless but earnest Jack Knox, an attorney, who is drawn into some mysterious disappearances and ultimately political corruption, suicide, and murder.  Our purported hero bumbles his way through, trying to find clues and make sense of them, and naturally loses his heart in the process.

The young and beautiful Margery Fleming, daughter of the corrupt State Treasurer, Allan Fleming, seeks Knox's assistance after her father disappears.  Her father, we learn, is a "successful politician of the criminal type," so it's no surprise that the trail of his disappearance should lead to more shady political characters and criminal doings.  It eventually leads to murder at the rough and tumble club, The White Cat.  What's a surprise, though, is the disappearance of Margery's sweet and timid aunt, Jane, around the same time.  Can all these mysterious and sordid events be connected?

Following Knox as he fumbles around does cause the plot to drag at times.  This is made up for, though, by the fun cast of characters and their interactions with each other. Ultimately, the characters carry the book more than the unraveling of the mystery, which is done in a rush in the end and only truly made clear by a tell-all confession. There's an interesting, almost incongruous mix between rather sweet scenes and others that are almost hard boiled.  Still, I found it to be a charming, enjoyable read.

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