The Circular Staircase (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)
  • The Circular Staircase (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)
  • The Circular Staircase (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)
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The Circular Staircase (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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by Mary Roberts Rinehart

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Mary Robert Rinehart unravels a story of a summerhouse rental gone dreadfully wrong in the popular 1908 thriller The Circular Staircase.  With page-turning suspense, the tart-tongued Rachel Innes narrates the ghostly noises, suspicious deaths, troubling disappearances, mysterious origins, midnight prowlers, and stolen fortunes in this

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Mary Robert Rinehart unravels a story of a summerhouse rental gone dreadfully wrong in the popular 1908 thriller The Circular Staircase.  With page-turning suspense, the tart-tongued Rachel Innes narrates the ghostly noises, suspicious deaths, troubling disappearances, mysterious origins, midnight prowlers, and stolen fortunes in this best-selling mystery.   

When The Circular Staircase appeared, Rinehart’s humorous, modern take on the gothic was praised as a new style of mystery writing.  Today, it is prominently included in lists of milestones in detective fiction.  Together with Avery Hopwood, Rinehart recast part of the novel’s plot for their smash-hit 1920 Broadway play The Bat, which was immortalized on the silver screen and influenced the genesis of comic-strip hero Batman.

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Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading
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In Mary Roberts Rinehart’s popular 1908 thriller The Circular Staircase, readers will enjoy the story of feisty spinster Rachel Innes, who shepherds her grown niece and nephew through the vicissitudes of young love and through a disastrous summer [CC1] house rental that peppers the beleaguered family with ghostly noises, suspicious deaths, troubling disappearances, mysterious family histories, midnight prowlers, and stolen fortunes.  The Circular Staircase holds an important place in the history of detective fiction: when it appeared, Rinehart’s humorous, modern take on the gothic was praised as a new style of mystery writing, and the novel eventually achieved bestseller status; it is prominently included on several lists of milestones in detective fiction and remains Rinehart’s best-known work.  Together with Avery Hopwood, Rinehart recast part of the novel’s plot for their smash-hit 1920 Broadway play The Bat, which was immortalized on the silver screen in several versions.  [CC2] The 1926 film version and the 1931 film version, The Bat Whispers, both directed by Roland West, even reputedly influenced the genesis of comic-strip hero Batman.[i]  [CC3] For the modern reader, The Circular Staircase combines a visit to the world of a century ago with laughs, chills, romance, and page-turning suspense.

Born on August 12, 1876, in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, Mary Roberts Rinehart led an active, exciting life that included stints as a student nurse (during the course of which she met and married her surgeon husband, to whom she bore three sons), a World War I correspondent, a suffragette, and an advocate for Native-American rights in addition to her long and extremely prolific career as an author.  An avid outdoorswoman, Rinehart camped, hunted, and fished with her family and friends, endured spartan conditions while pursuing her journalistic and personal adventures, and did not scruple to brandish a gun when hunting a suspected ghost.  Among her friends and acquaintances, she counted politicians, military men, authors, and the lions of Broadway and Hollywood.  According to her lively 1931 autobiography, My Story, Rinehart’s writing career originated in economic necessity, as  a teenaged Rinehart submitted stories to a local newspaper contest when her parents faced hard times.   Later, when Rinehart was a young mother in her late twenties and she and her husband had fallen into debt as the result of a stock-market panic, she began writing again to help stabilize the family’s finances, turning out poems, short stories, and serialized longer stories for magazines such as Munsey’s and Scribner’s.  Rinehart’s big break came with the publication of The Circular Staircase—a revised version of her second serialized long story[ii]—in novel format in 1908, when she was in her early thirties.  She soon became a famous best-selling, high-earning author, yet her expenses grew to match—and sometimes outpace—her income, so that even late in her career, she often wrote simply to support a lavish lifestyle.  The Circular Staircase was followed by a long string of best-selling works, and Rinehart and her writings remained popular into her last years.  When Rinehart died of complications from a heart attack on September 22, 1958, she had authored many dozens of works in a dizzying variety of genres.

Although the prolific Rinehart published pieces in an impressive range of genres—travelogues, thrillers, comic novels, “literary” novels, romances, plays, short stories, poems, editorials, and political commentaries—she seemed proudest of her journalistic work, noting in her autobiography with her characteristic disarming frankness: “…I was a good reporter; I was a bad novelist, but I was a good reporter.”[iii]  She was also delighted by her broad popular appeal, telling interviewer Harvey Breit: “The extent of my audience pleases me…. It ranges from Gertrude Stein to stevedores.”[iv]

While she had had extensive exposure to the seamier aspects of big-city life during her time as a nurse, Rinehart noted in My Story that she deliberately eschewed realist fiction for several reasons, including wanting her children to read her work—a prescient move, as two of her sons eventually became her publishers through the publishing house of Farrar and Rinehart.

One feature of The Circular Staircase that has surprised readers ever since it was first published is its humor—narrator Rachel Innes is delightfully tart-tongued both about herself and about the others in her milieu.   Rachel’s self-deprecating wit and down-to-earth narrative style reflect Rinehart’s own unpretentious narrative voice when she writes about herself—Rinehart’s autobiography, for example, includes a picture of her trout fishing in a rather unflattering costume with her own wry caption underneath it: “Several layers of clothing do not improve the figure!”[v]

Readers may also be struck by the extreme class-consciousness of the thriller’s narrator.  Rachel Innes is, as her last name suggests, the ultimate society “insider,” and she never lets the reader—or anyone else—forget it.  Rachel’s talk abounds in references to family traditions, and she responds to a family slight with some choice barbs about the relative class positions of the parties’ forebears.  While her niece and nephew, whose fortunes are menaced in the novel, are extremely wealthy in their own right, Rachel constructs herself as their social superior and remarks with asperity that some supposed character flaw of theirs does not come from her side of the family.  How we are meant to take Rachel’s snobbery is a vexed question—on the one hand, she pokes fun at the social pretensions of others, and she seems to poke a great deal of fun at herself as well; on the other hand, she seems oblivious to her own snobbery.  Are we meant to laugh at Rachel instead of with her in this area?

Despite—or perhaps, because of—the fact that Rachel is generally a likeable narrator, modern readers may be shocked at the regressive casual racism she evinces in reference to Thomas Johnson, the elderly African-American family retainer whose first name and stereotypical initial characterization, as Arnold R. Hoffman aptly notes, suggest the character of “Uncle Tom” in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s sentimental anti-slavery narrative Uncle Tom’s Cabin.[vi]  Thomas eventually winds up coming off reasonably well in the book, however, as he is presented as a kind, trustworthy, loyal, dignified, impeccably dressed, and popular man.  Thomas is, in fact, explicitly compared favorably with a scurrilous wealthy white crime victim, who is so disliked in life that the local minister fakes a cold to avoid having to deliver his eulogy!  Another African-American servant, Sam Bohannon, is delineated as brave, trustworthy, and intelligent, though the latter characteristic is presented through a noxious backhanded compliment.

We might consider Rachel’s problematic treatment of Thomas and other African-American servants as partially a class issue in light of her treatment of servants generally.  Rachel has a fond yet dismissive relationship with her (presumably white) long-time companion Liddy Allen: She discounts Liddy’s deductions and resolutely ignores Liddy’s fears and paranormal observations.  Indeed, Rachel displays a dismissive attitude toward most of the other servants of all races, regarding them all as easily spooked and credulous, regardless of race.

We get a hint of Rinehart’s own sense of race and class in two instances where life imitated art: just as Rachel Innes brings her family to an apparently haunted summer rental in The Circular Staircase, Rinehart and her family had similar eerie encounters twice in the decades after she had written the novel.  As she details in My Story, Rinehart’s family twice rented dwellings apparently inhabited by a poltergeist.  When she, her family, and her secretary perceived the hauntings—hearing mysterious noises, seeing objects move, spotting suspicious lights—Rinehart took these phenomena considerably more seriously than when they were initially reported by her African-American servants. Moreover, much like her character Rachel Innes, Rinehart herself tried to silence her servants about their observations and initially ascribed these observations to mere superstition. 

Rachel Innes’ masculine nickname—she is “Aunt Ray” to her niece and nephew—also underlines her possession of stereotypically masculine detective qualities.  Indeed, Rachel demonstrates many strong detection skills:  she conducts searches, makes discoveries, formulates theories, and conducts experiments to verify her hypotheses; she not only turns over a dead body in more traditional circumstances, but also boldly accompanies a crew on a late-night grave-robbing expedition; she deduces the existence of, seeks, and finds a secret panel; and she develops several reasonable suspicions that are eventually justified.

Some readers may be tempted to dismiss Rachel Innes’ detection skills because much of the mystery is finally revealed via the work of her professional counterpart, the detective Mr. Jamieson, and through an unsolicited deathbed confession. These displacements of investigative triumph onto a male actor or onto circumstances generally are, however, a classic feature of the gothic novel, a genre to which The Circular Staircase arguably belongs.  Gothic novels feature heroines who are “almost-detectives”—investigating women who search for answers and ask questions that should provide those answers, only to have the answers providentially provided by some unsolicited source—and Rachel Innes fits with the women of this tradition, from Emily St. Aubert in Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho to Valeria Woodville in Wilkie Collins’ The Law and the Lady.[vii]  LeRoy Lad Panek similarly sees this displacement of agency as a generic feature, ascribing it to the fact that “…Rinehart has satirized the old, quasi-gothic sensation novel variety of the[CC4]  mystery and not the Poe-revival detective story….”[viii]

Rachel and the other women of the household also fit the gothic tradition of the “almost-detective” in their complex relations with their own physicality.  On the one hand, Rachel’s body often fails her at moments of crisis: she is frightened of mice, gets “dizzy and lightheaded,” finds herself in “a paralysis of fright,” and frequently makes comments like “My hand shook,” “I was collapsed,” “I could scarcely step,” and “… [M]y knees wouldn’t hold me.”  On the other hand, like earlier gothic detectives, Rachel is quite physically bold at times: A self-described “[m]iddle-aged spinster” who fears heights, she nevertheless explores the roof of her rented mansion in search of a murderer, and when trapped in a dark room with a dastardly villain, she defends herself vigorously, wielding a mean chair.  Rachel’s description of herself on the roof in pursuit of her quarry is illustrative of her mettle: “…I climbed out onto the Sunnyside roof without a second’s hesitation, like a dog on a scent, like my bear-skin progenitor, with his spear and his wild boar, to me now there was the lust of the chase, the frenzy of pursuit, the dust of battle.”  Here, in Rachel’s comparison of herself to animal, caveman, hunter, and warrior, we see a much bolder, arguably masculine relationship to her body.  The other women of the household similarly follow this pattern, displaying the same schizophrenic relationship to their physicality, as they appear by turns frightened and fierce in their investigations.

A major theme of The Circular Staircase is that of modernity, of the transition from the Victorian era of the mid-to-late nineteenth century into the nascent Edwardian era of the early twentieth.  Rachel frequently compares the contemporary world unfavorably to the world of her girlhood in all respects, but particularly with respect to modern women and their behavior, making comments like these: “Girls in my day did not meekly accept the public’s verdict as to the man they loved,” and  “… [L]ike all young girls nowadays, I don’t suppose you wear flannels.”  This valuation of past over present, particularly regarding women’s behavior, may reflect some of Rinehart’s own anxieties over the potentially conflicting roles of wife/mother and career woman at the dawn of the twentieth century, both for herself and for women of her times generally.  While Rinehart claims in My Story and elsewhere always to have privileged domestic duties over work and urges other women to do likewise, Martha Hailey DuBose points out in Women of Mystery that in reality, Rinehart sometimes did the opposite and was “[b]y today’s standards … a decidedly conflicted feminist.”[ix]   Although Rinehart acknowledged and adapted to the changes modernity had brought, like her character Rachel Innes, her sympathies clearly lay with the past.

The Circular Staircase appeared to positive reviews: The Arena magazine gushed: “With the possible exception of The House of a Thousand Candles, this is by far the best mystery or detective story of recent years.  It is ingenious in plot and skilful [sic] in execution.”[x]  The New York Times lauded the characterization of Rachel Innes, called the novel “the sort of thing people sit up nights to finish,” and rejoiced that it was “written in [a] delightfully humorous vein….”[xi]

Other critical assessments of Rinehart’s work during her lifetime usually tempered any stylistic misgivings with lavish praise:[CC5]  writing in 1953 in Blood in Their Ink, Sutherland Scott lauds[CC6]  Rinehart’s “genius in the creation of atmosphere.[CC7] ”[xii]  Howard Haycraft’s take on Rinehart, published during her lifetime in Murder for Pleasure, acknowledges her faults, but praises the “Rinehart formula” as “delightful” and forgives her flaws based upon her “superlative talent as one of the great story-tellers of the age….”[xiii] 

After Ogden Nash mocked her writing style in The Circular Staircase and later works in his poem “Don’t Guess, Let Me Tell You,”[xiv] Rinehart became known in jest as the founder of the “Had-I-But-Known” school of detective fiction, since her distinctive style had sparked many imitators who copied Rinehart’s stylistic quirk of having the narrator detail what forthcoming horrors might have been averted had she but known the consequences of some seemingly innocent act.  As Margaret Caldwell Thomas argues persuasively in Women of Mystery, however, this foreshadowing technique is well suited to maintaining readers’ interest in the magazine-serial format in which many of Rinehart’s novels also appeared.[xv]  In The Art of the Mystery Story, James Sandoe, while blaming the popularization and wording of this device on Rinehart, traces it back “in spirit if not in fact” to Rinehart’s literary foremother, the eighteenth-century gothic thriller writer Ann Radcliffe, in her Mysteries of Udolpho.[xvi]

Critics number among Rinehart’s other literary progenitors the Victorian sensation novelist Wilkie Collins and the detective-story writers Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Anna Katherine Green.[xvii]  According to DuBose in Women of Mystery, Rinehart’s literary descendants include the best-selling authors Victoria Holt and Mary Higgins Clark. Sandoe adds to those influenced by Rinehart’s formula Margaret Millar, Lenore Glen Offord, Mabel Seeley, Dorothy B. Hughes, and Elisabeth Sanxay Holding; Scott adds Kay Strahan and Dorothy Disney; and in American Mystery and Detective Novels, Larry Landrum adds Paul Auster, Leslie Ford, and Mignon G. Eberhart. [xviii]

Despite her vast influence on later mystery fiction, Rinehart herself has fallen somewhat out of fashion in recent years.   Yet surely the current neglect of Rinehart and her work is undeserved.  Just as Rachel Innes appreciates the beauties of the century past, so should we look back to a rediscovered treasure from the century before our own.  As she aimed to do, in The Circular Staircase, Rinehart writes amusing escapist fiction that beguiles a weary hour while providing a fascinating window for modern readers into the mores and social tensions of a bygone era.

Lisa M. Dresner is the author of The Female Investigator in Literature, Film, and Popular Culture.  She is currently a special assistant professor at Hofstra University.

[i] Mike Conroy, “The Many Faces of Batman,” 500 Great Comic Book Action Heroes (2002; Hauppauge, NY: Barron’s, 2003) 56; Michael L. Fleisher, “How to Use This Book,” The Original Encyclopedia of Comic Book Heroes. Vol. 1. (1976; New York: DC Comics, 2007) N. pag.; Paul Sassienie, The Comic Book: The One Essential Guide for Comic Book Fans Everywhere (Edison, NJ: Chartwell, 1994) 24.  For an intriguing list of similarities “borrowed” from The Bat Whispers for the creation of Batman, see Jared [no last name given], “Batman Was a Total Rip-off, or, ‘How to Create a Title That Gets Geeks Angry’” 2005. Accessed November 3, 2008. .

[ii] For a sample of the revisions Rinehart made to the serialized story before it was published in novel format, see Jan Cohn, “A Note on the Serial Version of the Circular Staircase,” Mary Roberts Rinehart, The Circular Staircase, intro. Phyllis A. Whitney, bibliography Jan Cohn (1908; San Diego, CA: University Extension, UC San Diego, 1977) 268–69.

[iii]Mary Roberts Rinehart, My Story (New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1931) 228.

[iv]Harvey Breit, “Mary Roberts Rinehart,” The Writer Observed (Cleveland: World Publishing, 1956) 227.

[v]Rinehart, My Story plate after 234.

[vi] Arnold R. Hoffman, “Social History and the Crime Fiction of Mary Roberts Rinehart,” New Dimensions in Popular Culture, ed. Russel [sic] B. Nye (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State U Popular P, 1972) 162.  Hoffman also takes a dim view of Rinehart’s views on race throughout her literary opus and sees no particular progression in her racial attitudes over the half-century of her writing that follows The Circular Staircase. 162–63. One misreading that Hoffman makes, however, is in inveighing against a description of the “servant Beulah” as “coal-black” in The Circular Staircase. 162.  Beulah isn’t a servant—she’s the narrator’s beloved pet cat!  On the other hand, Rinehart’s giving the “coal-black” cat an African American-associated name supports Hoffman’s point as well.

[vii] Lisa M. Dresner, “The Female Gothic Novel and the ‘Almost-Detective,’” The Female Investigator in Literature, Film, and Popular Culture (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2007) 9–39.

[viii] LeRoy Lad Panek, The Origins of the American Detective Story (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2006) 159; see also Panek, Probable Cause: Crime Fiction in America (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State UP: 1990) 78–79.

[ix]Martha Hailey DuBose, with additional essays by Margaret Caldwell Thomas, “Mary Roberts Rinehart: The Buried Story,” Women of Mystery: The Lives and Works of Notable Women Crime Novelists (New York: St. Martin’s, 2000) 44–45.

[x] Rev. of The Circular Staircase, by Mary Roberts Rinehart, The Arena 40.226 (Oct. 1908): 394.

[xi] “Entertaining Mystery,” rev. of The Circular Staircase, by Mary Roberts Rinehart, New York Times Saturday Review of Books 22 Aug. 1908: 460.

[xii] Sutherland Scott, Blood in Their Ink: The March of the Modern Mystery Novel (1953; London: Stanley Paul, 1973): 23.

[xiii] Howard Haycraft, Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story, rev. ed. (1941, 1951; New York: Biblo and Tannen, 1972) 89.

[xiv]Ogden Nash, “Don’t Guess, Let Me Tell You,” The Face Is Familiar: The Selected Verse of Ogden Nash (Garden City, NY: Garden City Publishing, 1941) 48–49. Reprinted in The Art of the Mystery Story: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Howard Haycraft, intro. Robin W. Winks (1946, 1974; New York: Carroll & Graf, 1992) 319–20.

[xv] DuBose 70.

[xvi]James Sandoe, “Dagger of the Mind,” The Art of the Mystery Story: A Collection of Critical Essays, Rev. ed., ed. Howard Haycraft, intro. Robin W. Winks (1946, 1974; New York: Carroll & Graf: 1992) 259.

[xvii]DuBose 18; Ann B. Tracy, “Gothic, Had-I-But-Known, Damsel-in-Distress: Stalking the Elusive Distinction,” Murderess Ink: The Better Half of the Mystery, ed. Dilys Winn (New York: Workman, 1979) 17; Grant Overton, “Mrs. Rinehart’s Writing,” Mary Roberts Rinehart: A Sketch of the Woman and Her Work (New York: George H. Doran, 192?) 5–6.

[xviii]DuBose 18; Sandoe 259; Scott, 69; Larry Landrum, American Mystery and Detective Novels: A Reference Guide (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1999) 121.

 [CC1]This needs to be two words, as the family does not rent a “summerhouse” (a small outbuilding); it rents a house for the summer.

 [CC2]I removed an extra space here.

 [CC3]I removed two extra spaces here.

 [CC4]This change is needed as the word “the” is in the original quotation.

 [CC5]I think the colon makes the paragraph flow a little more smoothly.

 [CC6]I don’t feel strongly about this change, but it does reduce repetition in the paragraph.

 [CC7]This gets a little confusing, as I tried combining the sentences and then un-did the change.  What I mean to do is leave this part as it was, with a period after “atmosphere” and a new sentence starting with “Howard.” 

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