The Circular StaircaseApril 29, 2010
I decided after my second Mary Roberts Rinehart book that I was a fan, and The Circular Staircase is, I think, my fifth. It might be the first one I read about, though, because Rinehart is remembered primarily as the originator of the Had-I-But-Known school of mystery fiction, and The Circular Staircase is the prime example.
Had-I-But-Known mysteries are the ones with first person narrators who are constantly saying things like “I would never have gone if I knew then what I know now,” and “this would prove to be important later” and other irritating things along the same lines — things that are apt to make readers who are caught up in the story…un-catch. Please, someone, give me a better way to phrase that. Anyway, it’s a style I wouldn’t want to encounter in the hands of any author with less of a sense of humor than Rinehart. She mostly makes it work, but I don’t think many others could.
And this isn’t Rinehart’s best work. The main character, Rachel Innes, is engaging despite her tendency to spout had-I-but-known-ish phrases, but she’s overwhelmed by clutter.
Rachel is a spinster who has had custody of her orphaned niece and nephew since they were children. Halsey and Gertrude are now 20 and 24, respectively, and they’ve talked their aunt into renting a house in the country for the summer. The first night Rachel is there, there is a mysterious tresspasser and something falls down the stairs in the middle of the night. The second, after Halsey and Gertrude have arrived, there is a murder, and Halsey and the friend he’s brought to stay disappear. Halsey returns a few days later, without his friend and without an explanation, but by then half a dozen other crazy things have happened, and all you can do is try to take them all in and hope they make sense eventually.
I couldn’t synopsize this book in less than fifty pages, but here are some things that happen: Rachel finds some cuff-links. The butler dies of fright. Some plates are broken. The housekeeper gets blood poisoning. A child does not know where he lives. The stable burns down. Halsey turns out to be engaged to the murdered man’s sister. Shaving off a mustache turns out to be an astonishingly effective disguise. Also there’s a secret room and a midnight visit to a graveyard, two things that always make me think of A Woman Named Smith.
And, okay, filling a book with mysterious events that have no clear connection to each other is a fairly effective way of writing a mystery. But it also makes the bit at the end where everything is explained go on for far, far too long. Again, it’s okay because it’s Mary Roberts Rinehart, but I’d prefer a book where I didn’t have to make excuses for her.
I don’t have to make excuses for Rachel, though. She’s great. Rinehart’s protagonists always are — sensible and practical and brave and stubborn and mostly able to see the funny side of things. The cool thing about Rachel in particular is her relationship with the detective, Mr. Jamieson. We don’t get to see as much of it as I’d like, but what there is is intriguing. He obviously picks her out from the beginning as the most sensible and trustworthy person around, even though he knows she’s not telling him everything. And Rachel trusts him, too, although in a less obvious way. She avoids telling him things that she believes incriminate Halsey and Gertrude, but she relies on him quite a bit. I think she knows that Jamieson is going to get it right in the end, although as it turns out, he needs a bit of help from her first. My favorite bit is when, after the inquest, she invites him to stay at the house while he investigates, and Halsey and Gertrude are horrified at the thought.
Also I like it when Rachel climbs on the roof.
Bottom line: don’t let this be your first Rinehart. Try…oh, maybe The Man in Lower Ten? Similar part of Rinehart’s career, but much more manageable.