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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Mary Roberts Rinehart - The Circular Staircase

Before I began The Circular Staircase, I happened to see the Publisher's Note on the copyright page of the edition I'm reading (The Best Mysteries of Mary Roberts Rinehart, The Reader's Digest Association, Inc. 2002): "The books... were written in the early twentieth century and carry language and attitudes typical of the time.  This edition... does not reflect the attitudes of the editors or publishers..."  After beginning the story I quickly saw the reason for the disclaimer; there are a number of racial and class stereotypes that figure in the story, which to current sensibilities are really unpalatable.  It took away some from my enjoyment of it, though, much to my relief, Rinehart eased off on all the quaking, cowardly servants as the story progressed.

The Circular Staircase is narrated by a well-to-do "middle-aged spinster", Rachel Innes, who encounters murder and mystery when she rents a country estate for the summer. It is the no-good Arnold Armstrong, son of the absent owners of the estate, who is found murdered in the house.  The fiance of the Rachel's niece, John "Jack" Baily, is implicated in the murder.  He works as a broker for the bank owned by Armstrong's father, and was on poor terms with Armstrong.  Things look even more bleak for Jack when he is also accused of embezzling and absconding with bank funds.  Almost everyone else around Rachel seems to be entangled in the murder and harboring secrets that may be the key to solving the mounting mysteries.  But the ultimate solution to the murder and the bank's troubles all seem to lie at the Armstrong estate, itself.  Our intrepid narrator is determined to solve the mystery with or without anyone's cooperation.

Overall, I enjoyed the read, especially once I was reconciled to its datedness and figured out that Rinehart may not necessarily mean the reader to solve the mystery until the end (when there's a confession), and that the point is to enjoy the suspense, thrills and chills.

Of note, the narrator is supposedly intelligent and brave (according to herself and the police imspector, who compliments her), though how she handles a number of situations and her tendency to faint away when confronted with dangerous situations made me wonder otherwise.  I guess heroines in the early 1900s are supposed to faint, at least as long as it's genuine (unlike the servants with their fake swooning).  But the narrator comes off, to me, at least, as a tad pompous and not as smart as she thinks she is.  I wasn't sure if Rinehart meant to be straight about the reliability of the narrator or was being somewhat ironic.  On the other hand, it's a fine line between trying to keep the mystery up without making the characters seem stupid; also, since Rinehart was writing over a hundred years ago, some conventions may have changed.

I did end up posting other versions of this on Powells.com and Amazon.com.

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