The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rinehart

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. For twenty years I had been perfectly comfortable; for twenty years I had had the window boxes filled in the spring, the carpets lifted, the awnings put up, and the furniture covered with brown linen; for as many summers I had said good-bye to my friends, and, after watching the perspiring hegira, had settled down to a delicious quiet in town, where the mail comes three times a day and the water supply does not depend on a tank on the roof.
And then the madness seized me.

Isn’t that a delicious beginning for a murder mystery? I don’t know why it’s so appealing, but the thought of a middle-aged spinster gone mad, her madness taking the form of renting a house in the country, is amusing and inviting. And of course, such a lapse in sanity can only lead to crime, murder, and mayhem.

Unfortunately, the rest of this 1907 mystery by Mary Roberts Rinehart does not move along quite so swimmingly. I liked the narrator, Miss Innes, and her companion, Liddy, but the rest of the characters were rather flat and one-dimensional. The plot is involved, with more than one villain, and more than one sub-plot, combining together to keep the reader guessing. But I found that three-fourths of the way through the book I didn’t really care whodunnit.

The writing is fun and feels more like the 1920’s than 1907. Rich people near the East Coast drive cars and have telephones and hire servants and hang out at The Club. I sometimes felt as if I were reading an early Americanized Agatha Christie, but where were the quirky characters with such strong motivations to crime? The novel ambles along, people die, but no one in the police department insists on answers to basic questions. The suspects (because they’re rich?) are free to refuse to tell the police detective whatever information they feel disinclined to share—with impunity. Maybe the police were more patient early last century than they are now.

As an historical exhibit in the history of the detective novel, I can see that The Circular Staircase would be of interest to those studying the genre. As amusement for a rainy day, it falls short. But there is that wonderful opening paragraph . . .

An interesting incident of true crime in the life of Mary Roberts Rinehart.
Mrs. Rinehart’s tombstone at Arlington Cemetery and a brief biography
First Lines, Anyone?: A Semicolon flashback

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