|my hardback copy|
The Circular Staircase (1908) was Mary Roberts Rinehart's first best-seller. She had begun her mystery-writing career with The Man in Lower Ten (1906), but Staircase made her name. It also gave her the distinction of having created the Had I But Known (HIBK) school of mystery writing--full of spooky houses and heroines who would have stayed out of trouble if they only knew then what they know now. It also involves said heroines in actions which manage to extend the time necessary to solve the crime.
As Miss Rachel Innes tells us in the very fist line:
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.
Miss Rachel (or Aunt Ray as she's known throughout the book) has been the guardian of her niece and nephew for years and they convince her that getting out of New York City for a cool, quiet summer in the country is just what she (and they) need. She follows their advice and rents a secluded home called Sunnyside. However, peace and quiet is the last thing that they find in the secluded country house. The first night passes quietly enough, but it is the last one that does: "Never after that night did I put my head on my pillow with any assurance how long it would be there; or on my shoulders for that matter."(14) On the second night, Miss Rachel's maid Liddy swears she hears a ghost and Miss Rachel, despite telling us repeatedly that she doesn't take fright easily, becomes alarmed as well when she sees a shadowy figure outside the window and is later disturbed by "a sound from the east wing, apparently, that made me stop, frozen, with one bedroom slipper half off, and listen. It was a rattling metallic sound, and it reverberated along the empty halls like the crash of doom."(23) When she makes a tour of inspection, she finds half of a pearl cufflink--which she immediately hides and then has stolen before she can produce it when needed.
Gertrude and Halsey, Miss Rachel's niece and nephew, arrive the next night with a guest and things just get worse. A shot rings out in the night and when Miss Rachel investigates she finds an unknown dead man, her niece in a state of collapse, and her nephew and Jack Bailey (the guest) missing. This time when she inspects the house and grounds (before the detective arrives) she finds Halsey's gun half-buried in the flower bed. She hides this too. When the detective named Jamieson arrives, she learns that the dead man is Arnold Armstrong, the black sheep son of the owners of Sunnyside. What was he doing creeping around the house when someone had rented it? She is alarmed to learn that both Halsey and his friend Jack have previously had arguments Armstrong. Surely none of the young people could possibly have killed him.
The next bombshell to be dropped is that Bailey was a clerk at the bank where the Innes's have all their money and which is owned by Armstong's father Paul. Over a million dollars in securities is missing from the bank's vault and both Armstrong senior and Jack Bailey are wanted in connection with the investigation. To make matters even more complicated--Gertrude is in love with Bailey and Halsey is in love with Paul Armstrong's step-daughter Louise. Miss Rachel doesn't really want to get involved (so she says), but she feels she must to resolve matters for her family and to settle the servants down.
Jamieson wanders in and out of the story, asking the proper questions and fixing Miss Rachel with a quizzical stare every time he thinks she's holding something back--which would be like all the time. When they get to the bottom of the mystery, they find that it involves not only the missing securities, but murder, attempted murdered, jilted love, an illegitimate child, false clues, and false identities.
Two years ago I read Rinehart's The Bat--which was a book based on the play which was in turn a loose reworking of the plot in Staircase. I had great fun with The Bat and actually recommend it more highly than this novel. The Bat is more tightly plotted and the action moves far more fast and furious with suspense at just the right level. Staircase is good, don't get me wrong, but I think I would have enjoyed it more had I read it first (there's something to be said about reading an author's work in order). This novel takes much longer to tell virtually the same story.
There is still a lot be said for the first story in the HIBK school. Miss Rachel is a strong character it's nice to see an independent, intelligent woman in a 1908 novel. She doesn't scare easily and even when she does get frightened she doesn't run for cover and let the men-folk take over. She calms herself and heads right back into the fray. The mystery is an interesting one and complicated enough to keep first readers guessing. (I knew the connection to The Bat, so I had unfair advantage.) ★★★
This fulfills the "Country House" square on the Golden Vintage Bingo card and gives me the last square needed to cover the card. One more for the Silver card and I'll be done.