Were I a Man I Should be a Trapper of Criminals

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The Circular Staircase by Mary Robert Rinehart (Bobbs-Merrill, 1908)

Back on September 7th, Ted Balcom asked “Do We Neglect Authors Once They’re Dead and Gone?”

I am about to venture off to Bouchercon: the World Mystery Convention in Baltimore.  A brilliant friend of mine named Roger Sobin decided it would be fun to do a panel in which the participants would explain what a Bouchercon would have been like one hundred years ago in 1908. 

Because a Bouchercon has many author guests of honor, it was decided to invite Mary Roberts Rinehart to address the crowd this year.  Our actress will cover Mary’s rather interesting life.  She was forced to turn to writing The Circular Staircase, her first novel, because her physician husband lost all the family’s money in a stock market crash in 1903.  While becoming a fashionable writer of both novels and short stories, she also raised three boys, served as a WWI war correspondent, may have invented the Bat Signal, started Farrar & Rinehart with her sons and went public with her breast cancer, educating women every where, when talking in public about this subject was not commonplace. 

She is credited with two major achievements:  getting people to say the butler did it because of her novel The Door (oops, did I just spoil that one for you?) and formulating the Had-I-But-Known school of writing wherein the romance and the Gothic novel are mixed with suspense to create a mystery only explained when the first person narrator puts it all together by revealing some arcane piece of information, that if revealed at the beginning, would have instantly reduced the novel to a postcard.  Oh, and the narrators (usually women) get to do cool things like open doors in a deserted house when they hear a noise even though they are all alone and should run screaming the other way. 

When I train on mystery reader’s advisory and we get to this school of writing, I always take great glee in reading Don’t Guess Let Me Tell You by Ogden Nash wherein are the lines:

Sometimes the Had I But Known then what I know now I could have saved at least three lives by revealing to the Inspector the conversation I heard through that fortuitous hole in the floor

I decided it was time to read The Circular Staircase.

While not all the authors that Ted worried about in his column should fall into the neglected pile permanently, The Circular Staircase may be a candidate.  The main character is Rachel Innes, a woman who rents a country house that appears to be haunted.  The plot is ridiculous, with the most irritating course of action being how the main character, Rachel, continually decides not to tell anyone crucial pieces of information, actions that directly lead to the deaths of others.  While Rachel is a bold and determined woman, she is a bit of a dunce when it comes to personal safety.  She stakes the claim, “Were I a man I should be a trapper of criminals.”  She fails to find any gold on this claim because the nefarious creature behind all the bad things that are happening eventually reveals himself by falling down a flight of stairs and breaking his neck, losing the wig that has been his one mode of disguise (not unlike Clark Kent’s glasses). 

To Roberts’s credit, there is lots of intentional humor in the book and a few well written passages.  I loved this passage:

I knew one once, more than thirty years ago, who was like that:  he died a long time ago.  And sometimes I take out his picture, with its cane and queer silk hat, and look at it.  But of late years it has grown too painful:  he is always a boy—and I am an old woman.  I would not bring him back if I could.

Even if your book discussion group decided an old Had-I-But-Known-er would be fun to read, this book has to come with another caution.  All the African-American characters are referred to as darkies, and Rachel herself reveals “it was always my belief that a Negro is one part thief, one part pigment, and the rest superstition.”

Hmmmm.

So when it comes to book discussions, one always has to balance the strengths of a title against the weaknesses.  Remember that sometimes it is the weaknesses that lead to the best discussion topics.  But, also sometimes, it is just best to let sleeping dogs lie and read the current hot author.  Whatever ridiculous things they are writing that we are oblivious to today may not be revealed for one hundred years. 

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About the Author:

Gary Niebuhr is the author of Make Mine a Mystery (2003), Caught up in Crime (2009), and other readers' guides to mystery and detective fiction. He was a Booklist contributor from 2008-2014.

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