My rating: 5/10
There was a lot to like about this convoluted domestic drama, but it almost didn’t get its 5, for it just went on for too darned long. The length was redeemed by its passages of quite decent writing, and by the sweet love story of the narrator, which added an aura of hope to a supremely nasty tale.
So, Mary Roberts Rinehart.
She’s always sort of been there on the fringes of my reading consciousness. I have a handful of her murder mysteries (The Yellow Room, The Episode of the Wandering Knife, The Swimming Pool) which, over a period of years, regularly make the trip in to my mom’s place to provide some light reading for my book-a-day elderly parent. I recently read and reviewed one of her early melodramas, “K”, which I enjoyed, and I’ve just sought out and purchased a vintage hardcover version of her very early (1908) murder mystery, The Circular Staircase, the novel which established her career as a phenomenally best-selling mystery writer long before Agatha Christie entered the game. I once had a very handsome early edition of her very first book, 1906’s The Man in Lower Ten, which I gave away in one of those later-regretted merciless shelf purges; as I poke around exploring Rinehart a little deeper I do so wish I’d kept that one around, though I see it’s not as horribly expensive as it could be to replace if I so wish. Now that I’ve finally started paying attention, it seems that MRR is everywhere.
A case in point is this 1971 reissue of a much earlier novel which I happened upon recently at a local charity book sale. The Album is mostly murder mystery, but it is also the tale of a young woman’s emotional awakening, as the horrifying events she becomes embroiled in shock her into an awareness of her own situation and trigger her to defy the convention of her quiet and dismally unfulfilled life.
The Album was first published as an 8-part serial in The Saturday Evening Post in 1933. I could not find a record of what the author received for this work, but a similar serializations of The Wall in 1936 netted her a cool $65,000; not bad at all for the midst of the Depression! Mary Roberts Rinehart is well-known for being the highest paid writer of her era in the United States; she was hugely popular.
The Album is narrated by 28-year-old Louisa (Lou) Hall, a self-proclaimed “hopeless spinster” living with her widowed mother and a number of household servants – including a full-time chauffeur – in a stately house on a secluded side street of a large American city. The other four residences echo the Hall home in architectural detail and in the quiet wealth of the occupants. In the outside world, things are moving at breakneck speed, but the occupants of Crescent Place live in a manner of a generation before. “Out there” women are happily pursuing careers and enjoying their emancipation from staid Victorian roles; in the Crescent time stands still. The house is the sole female focus; the correct technique of ironing of the damask tablecloths and the micro-management of the servants whilst preserving large portions of the day for such peaceful pursuits as taking tea with like-minded neighbours, pasting pictures in albums, and purely decorative sewing has been elevated to a high art. Matriarchs rule in several of the Crescent Place homes, but whereas the men of the households are at least able to daily escape into the real world to pursue their careers and recreations, the daughters are kept well under the collective maternal thumbs. Though the superficial picture is peaceful, the emotions held in check behind the masks of duty are ever closer to eruption.
One afternoon the peace of the Crescent is shattered – forever, though the residents don’t know that quite yet – by the hysterical screaming of Lou’s next door neighbour. Dutiful spinster daughter Emily Lancaster, slave of an elderly invalid mother, has obviously had a severe shock; she collapses insensibly at Lou’s feet. She has just discovered her mother brutally murdered; five blows from a hatchet have suddenly severed Mrs. Lancaster from her iron grip on the household reins. The window of murderous opportunity was narrow. Mrs Lancaster was alone only for a few moments while Emily was in her bedroom changing her dress and feeding her canary; the second Lancaster daughter was showering and out of hearing; elderly Mr Lancaster was out, the servants were in the kitchen together. No stranger has been observed in the neighbourhood – the collective eyes of the Crescent residents, master and servant alike, are keen to any such intruder. Obviously an inside job, by someone familiar with the Lancaster household’s habits. But who could it have been? The discovery that Mrs Lancaster has been hoarding a small fortune in gold bars under her bed adds a sinister twist, especially when the strongbox key the murdered woman habitually wears around her neck proves to be missing.
More murders and attempted murders follow, and as the list of potential suspects shrinks through sheer attrition, the tabloids go wild with speculation, and dark family secrets are reluctantly revealed.
It is inevitable that Mary Roberts Rinehart is compared to her across-the-Atlantic contemporary, Agatha Christie, and the comparison is apt. Both writers liked to mix romance with their crime; both attempted to write “psychological” thrillers on occasion; both were good at fabricating intricately choreographed plots; both were inconsistent in providing clues to their readers; both loved the hidden identity reveal at the last moment, and the implausible motive.
The Album is a very uneven effort, and the narrator’s continual “if I had but known” refrain starts to grate slightly after the first few instances. Clues are mysteriously hinted at; some are proved to be vitally important while others are mentioned once and never again. The residents of the five houses act in the silliest of ways – first locking up their homes against the mysterious axe murderer and then wandering about alone in the night, which is handy for the furthering of the plot, but fatal for several of the key characters. Secret lives and hidden identities abound, and only in some cases are these fully developed; we are left hanging more than once.
On the plus side are some nicely competent policemen who continually just miss being in the right place at the right time – and who are not held up to scorn by the narrator and author, a pleasant change from the usual bumbling officials – and a creative use of truth serum which reveals key plot points.
The prototypically feminist Mary Roberts Rinehart accompanies her mystery with a strong critique of outmoded views on the roles of women. Both the oppressed daughters and their oppressing elders are held up to the light and analyzed and scolded by their creator for being complicit in their state of being. The daughters get the most sympathy, and are provided (in several cases) the opportunity to move away from their oppression into the light of the modern world; there is no question as to what the author thinks her characters should be doing with their lives.
The novel’s main fault (like this review!) is that it was ultimately just a bit too long. It took forever to get through, and I kept having to set it down because the sheer multitude of detail was getting in the way of my keeping the plot(s) straight in my head.
The murderer and the many secrets were revealed at the end, but by that time I was rather blasé about the whole thing; only my interest in the narrator’s romance and the well-deserved thrill she got from casting off her overbearing mother’s oppressive hand kept me engaged; the crimes faded into the background and the most horrifying details left me yawning.
An interesting read, and one that left me thinking favourably of pursuing more of this writer’s work, though it will definitely be a while before I will willingly read this particular title again. It’s going on the pile to go to town to visit Mom today, and it should keep her occupied for at least a day or two – a definite point in favour!