My rating: 5.5/10
A decade and a half before Agatha Christie penned her first murder mystery in England, Mary Roberts Rinehart had a stunning success with this book, which established her as bestselling mystery and dramatic fiction writer in North America. It is sometimes claimed that she was the best-paid American author of her time; her book sales were in the millions. So I was looking forward to The Circular Staircase with great anticipation, having read enough of Mary Roberts Rinehart’s work over the years to know that she can indeed spin an engaging tale, usually including a nicely independent and outspoken female lead or two, in keeping with the author’s suffragette and proto-feminist leanings.
And, by and large, The Circular Staircase mostly pleased me, in a low-key way, though it took me absolutely forever to work through. It has an unusual and most engaging narrator, the charmingly independent and opinionated Miss Rachel Innes. It helps with the independent and opinionated character traits that Rachel also seems to be quite wealthy and therefore able to indulge in letting herself speak freely – for who will argue with the lady who pays the bills? She also can be rather high-handed in her dealings with family members and subordinates, though her gently cynical self-mockery keeps us on her side, along with her obvious affection for her adopted niece and nephew and her personal maid Liddy.
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-by to my friends, and, after watching their 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.
Having adopted her orphaned young niece and nephew some thirteen years ago, this summer finds all three of them preparing to settle down in a rented country house for a few months. Rachel has resigned herself to a disturbance in her long routine in order to indulge the wishes of the younger members of her establishment; she brings along her long-time companion and personal maid, Liddy, against that retainer’s grumbling resistance. Twenty-year-old Gertrude and twenty-four-year old Halsey are expected to flit in and out at will, being popular and well-heeled young people with many friends. Halsey has just purchased an automobile; it will play an important role in the summer of mystery and peril they are all about to embark on.
For Rachel and Liddy are horrified to find, their very first few days in residence, that their idyllic country house has an unsavory reputation among the locals. Belonging to an absent banker, it has been empty for some months, and it turns out that strange noises have been heard and strange lights seen at night. Almost immediately upon arrival Liddy has managed to offend the few servants who were brave enough to take on employment, and Rachel is left servant-less and alone in the house but for jittering Liddy. Luckily she is able to acquire an ally in the person of Thomas.
Liddy wanted to go back to the city at once, but the milk-boy said that Thomas Johnson, the Armstrongs’ colored butler, was working as a waiter at the Greenwood Club, and might come back. I have the usual scruples about coercing people’s servants away, but few of us have any conscience regarding institutions or corporations—witness the way we beat railroads and street-car companies when we can—so I called up the club, and about eight o’clock Thomas Johnson came to see me. Poor Thomas!
Ah! Note the “Poor Thomas.”
This does not bode well, for Mary Roberts Rinehart in this book is abundantly generous with her broad hints of disaster to come, in what was to become her signature “Had-I-But-Known” mystery writing style. Now this is rather cute when used sparingly, but MMR has her narrator Rachel pop these foreboding hints in way too frequently for readerly comfort. There you are, caught up in the thread of the story, when the insertion of a “HEY! IMPORTANT CLUE COMING RIGHT UP” aside stops you dead in your tracks. Okay then, you think to yourself, what is she talking about? And you tiptoe carefully in to the next few paragraphs, wondering all the while where the clue is hidden. Sometimes it is quite obvious, and you sigh with relieve and get on with things. Other times it is pages – nay, chapters! – ahead, and so many other meaningful asides have been made in the meantime that you are completely lost as to which thing was important to what incident before and what did knowing this have to do with that and on and on and on. Sometimes the clue fails to materialize at all, leading to retrospective confusion as one tries to link it all together, and fails dismally.
And this is what stopped me from loving this book. It is too darned long, and too darned illogical. It had its charms, for certain sure, but it was hard work to keep straight, and it took me well over a week to work through, as I kept putting it down in mild irritation and true confusion and turning to other things much more straight-forward.
Without revealing the mystery of the summer place and its circular staircase (which is really not at that important to the tale in my opinion, and, I thought, something of a red herring supplied by the author) may I just say that the plot involves embezzled money, hidden/mistaken identities (multiple), a wicked doctor, a secret(ish) child, a hidden room, shots fired in the night, and a whole lot of people rushing about and missing their chances to clear important elements of the mystery up by keeping their odd little secrets for just a bit too long. Among other developments I’m already erasing from my short-term memory bank.
Four deaths (at least I think it was four – that bit left me a bit bemused, too – corpses in this novel not always being reliable identified), including that of “poor Thomas” early on, tried my patience severely, mostly because of the generally nonchalant attitude of the survivors. There’s a bit of horror at the thought that “just yesterday a man lay dead right over there beside the table where the tea tray now sits” but by and large the expected reactions are underplayed. Or overplayed. There’s some of both.
Would I recommend this book? Only to the very patient, and those willing to work through the confusion of the twisty and illogical plot to delight in the witty and self-contained running commentary of our opinionated narrator Rachel.
For 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 you’re there - I’ll guarantee that your personal look-for list will get much longer!)