The Circular Staircase

April 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.


  1. This was the first Mary Roberts Rinehart book I read and I agree with you, it’s not a good choice for the first one. Maybe I can reread it later and like it, but I just remember it went on and on and on. I really liked When a Man Marries, and now maybe I’ll try The Man in Lower Ten.

  2. I’m glad you persevered. If this had been my first Rinehart, I would probably have given up.

  3. […] a good review at Redeeming Qualities by a blogger who has read more of Rinehart’s books. Advertisement GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", […]

  4. I really enjoyed this book and it’s the first Rinehart that I’ve read. I put a link to this review in my post. I hope you don’t mind. It’s useful to read a review by someone who has read other books by the same author.

    • On the contrary, I’m happy to have you link to me! And I hope you read more Rinehart–she’s pretty great.

  5. I’ve read a fair number of Mary Roberts Rinehart’s books, but was saving the famous The Circular Staircase for “special” – I thought it would be a good representative for the year 1908 in a Century of Books (1900-1999) project I’m involved in.

    I read it with initial great enjoyment, but early in I completely lost control of where the darned story was going – random clue here! – bizarre development there! – and after a bit it was more like an endurance test to work my way to the end.

    So needless to say I was thrilled to read *your* review and to see that our responses are almost identical. I am going to link your review on my own post and send people your way.

    Love your blog; I’ve visited it quite often, and happily followed up on some of your featured books. I do so appreciate the availability of these forgotten books on Gutenberg et al, but I still love a real “paper” book even better; I’ve acquired some of my most obscure and interesting reads via dusty back-of-the-used-book-store shelves and charity book sales.

    Keep spreading the word, Melody, and a sincere “thank you”!

    ~Barb at Leaves & Pages.

    • Just read your review, and yes — we’re totally in agreement. Thanks for reading and thanks for linking.

      I also agree that real paper books are the most fun — especially when they’re maybe a hundred years old, with stamped illustrated covers and Sunday school bookplates and things. I do my best not to privilege format over content, but I’ve definitely made some great discoveries by judging books by their covers at library sales. (And if you have obscure and interesting recommendations to make, I’d love to hear them!)

  6. […] further edification, there’s a nice review which echoes my own feelings, from Melody at Redeeming Qualities. (A very cool blog featuring mostly vintage out-of-print books. Take a look around when […]

  7. I grew up next to the Mary R Reinhart house. it was 1969, when I trepassed and explored the property as a wandering curious kid. I knew someone of import had lived there. I was ten when it was demolished. In my opinion, It was a 1920s style stucco Hollywood almost mediterranean style house. so weird for Pittsburgh enclave of the rich English style homes there. This Reinhart house has been for a long time abandoned, spookily property with huge oak trees overgrown with vines which almost covered chair niche in a tree a century old. Many trees on the property…it was very haunted…want to know more???

    • Sounds pretty cool, if a little sad.

  8. I was looking around on the internet about The Circular Staircase and I found this article and if you want to see a bit more of Mary Roberts Rineharts writing prowess look at some of the earlier Saturday Evening Post, I don’t know specifically what time but if you reply I will probably be able to send the date they were published and pictures of a few. I know this because she was my great grandmother and I’m sure my grandparents could provide some stories about her and her writing.

    • Wow–it’s very cool that she’s your great grandmother. If you have scans of magazines, I’d love to see them.

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