How Mary Roberts Rinehart Got Her Start—and Invented a New Kind of Mystery

    The so-called "American Agatha Christie" revolutionized the mystery genre with her 1908 novel, The Circular Staircase.

    Fourteen years before Agatha Christie published The Murderous Affair at Styles, a different female author was making waves in the mystery genre. Her name was Mary Roberts Rinehart—a turn-of-the-century American woman who later earned distinction as "the true mistress of mystery."

    Like Christie, Rinehart penned novels, short stories, and plays—the most successful being The Bat, which inspired Bob Kane's iconic caped crusader. But where Christie was a recluse, Rinehart was an extrovert whose natural curiosity and taste for adventure placed her in precious, public-facing situations. While raising three children with her husband, Stanley, she accepted a reporting gig that took her to the European front lines and field hospitals of World War I. 

    Of course, Rinehart also wrote mysteries. Her 1930 novel, The Door, introduced and popularized murderous butlers—a concept that gained so much traction, it has since become cliché. Several years prior, she had invented the "Had I But Known" school of mystery with her career-changing book, The Circular Staircase, about a crime-filled summer vacation. This style of writing builds suspense through a specific kind of foreshadowing: A woman reflects on her experience at, say, an eerie estate where she made a decision she now regrets (for example, entering a locked room). Rinehart used this tactic frequently and masterfully, though it soon suffered the same fate as her "the butler did it" trope.  

    In this excerpt from Charlotte Macleod’s Rinehart biography, Had She But Known, Macleod describes the early days of the author’s career. When an editor reads and is impressed by The Circular Staircase, he asks to see more of Rinehart's work—and thus, sets her down the path to becoming America’s Agatha Christie.

    Read on for an excerpt from Charlotte MacLeod's Had She But Known, and then download the book.

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    Had She But Known

    By Charlotte MacLeod

    Had She But Known

    By Charlotte MacLeod

    As any author can testify, creative writing is essentially a solitary profession, best carried on behind a drawn portcullis. Even the slightest interruption can smash one’s concentration with the impact of a physical blow, scattering fragments of exploded imagery all over the room and making further efforts at getting a coherent sentence down on paper impossible until silence reigns again and wits can be regathered for a fresh start. Three little boys clamoring for their after-school milk and cookies, or a doctor husband shouting for his wife to come and hold her thumb on a spurting artery until he could get his needle threaded and his patient sewn back together, would have been powerful incentives for Mary to switch back into her housewife persona.

    Nevertheless, Mary kept on writing. In the beginning she used a small mahogany desk that she’d brought with her from her mother’s house. Finding this inadequate, she moved on to a card table. Once her earnings had topped $1,000, she felt justified in squandering $20 on a flat-topped desk at a secondhand furniture shop. She also acquired the use of a typewriter. This was a Blickendorfer, even then a dinosaur among typewriting machines, with a keyboard unlike that of any other on the market. It belonged to Stanley’s cousin George.

    Uncle George, as the children called him, was a regular Saturday evening visitor. He came for the weekly pillow fight. Between supper and bedtime, George, Stanley, and three wildly excited little boys would rampage through the bedrooms, up and down the stairs, snatching pillows off the beds and hurling them at each other in high and raucous glee. Work would surely have been impossible under such conditions, so Mary entertained herself by picking up pillow feathers and practicing on the Blickendorfer. She learned to peck out the letters with one finger of each hand, as many another writer was doing then and would continue to do long after her. She still wrote her original drafts in longhand, but now she could type the revisions for submission to her publishers instead of having to pay the typist down the street.

    Mary never truly mastered the Blickendorfer, however. The master gremlin in her operation was Ted, who found it jolly fun to dash up and bang his wee fist down on three or four keys at once, jamming them together and making work impossible until they’d been patiently untangled. Persistent soul that she was, Mary did manage to poke out a number of short stories and her first book-length serial on that cantankerous old machine before total exasperation set in. She bade a relieved farewell to the Blickendorfer, mended relations with the typist down the street, and thenceforth stuck to her trusty fountain pen.

    That first serial and the two that followed it were, though Mary didn’t realize it at the time, the catalysts that impelled her into the limelight. She’d done them at the urging of Bob Davis, Munsey’s editor, for whom she had already written ten short pieces and with whom she and Stanley became quite friendly. In her autobiography, Mary told an amusing little anecdote about their going to New York and entertaining the Davises for dinner at the Waldorf Hotel. The Rineharts ordered quail for their guests because it seemed such an urbane thing to do. They hadn’t realized what happened to a quail when you took off the feathers. Contrasting the miniature fowls with the stocky trencherman, Mary feared that Bob Davis must have gone away from his expensive meal still hungry. She herself had honored the occasion by wearing an orchid-colored evening gown and an enormous hat freighted with orchid plumes. She expressed a hope that the splendor of her attire had made up for the scantiness of the fare, but it probably hadn’t.

    Anyway, Mary took Bob’s advice about the serial. She was diffident about her ability to sustain a long narrative, but was scheduled to have more gynecological surgery and was unable just then to do much else but sit, so she thought she might as well give it a try.

    Related: 11 Authors Like Agatha Christie 

    Now that they had some extra money coming in, the Rineharts decided to get the children out of the hot city for the summer. They rented a house in the suburbs fully equipped with a porch, a cherry tree, and a gardener named Jackson who was kind and quiet but apparently none too bright. Cornelia Roberts came to visit, and decided it would be fun to gather cherries for the grandchildren. Jackson fetched a ladder and held it for her while she picked.

    Being Cornelia, Mary’s mother was not satisfied to stay on the ladder. She ventured out on a limb. It broke under her by now not inconsiderable weight, she landed on her daughter, who’d been standing directly underneath. Jackson left Mary sprawled on the ground, struggling to get her breath back while he carried Cornelia into the house.

    Neither of the women was badly hurt, it was Jackson who got into real trouble. A night or two after the cherry tree incident, he wandered downtown, got drunk, and shot a woman dead. He was given the death sentence but granted a reprieve; Dr. Rinehart managed to get him freed. Jackson came to thank the doctor afterward but seemed disoriented by what had happened. Mary said the traffic frightened him and he kept wanting to stop strangers on the street and talk to them.

    Little things like a shooting and a squashing weren’t about to stop Mary from working. She wrote most of her serial sitting on that rented porch with a notebook in her lap. She wondered later why she’d chosen to build her plot around a murder in a Pullman car, but the device worked well enough to bring in some real money. She called it The Man in Lower Ten, collected a hefty $400 for her work, and stuffed the carbon into a desk drawer.

    The Man in Lower Ten

    By Mary Roberts Rinehart

    Mary’s serial ran in All-Story magazine from January to April 1906; by the end of its run she’d written some new short pieces and a play. Automobiles were quite the vogue by now; she based her play on an auto race. Her idea was to have a scenic panorama cranked rapidly back and forth across the stage to create the illusion that the cars were really moving. Her script was awful, her auto race a failure. Not until television became part of the American way of life would inane dialogue and mindless car chases capture the fancy of the American viewer. Mary chucked the worthless play aside and wrote another serial.

    She’d hit her stride by now. She tossed off her second effort in a month or so. This time the locale was less exotic, merely a large country house reminiscent of those in which she’d attended a few dances before Allegheny became part of Pittsburgh and all the nabobs moved off to Sewickley. For The Circular Staircase, All-Story gave her $500 and scheduled the serial to run from November 1907 to March 1908. The carbon of her previous effort was already gathering coal dust in a drawer of her twenty-dollar desk, and she dumped this one in on top of the first.

    Now that she’d learned how much better serials paid than short pieces, she batted out a third, The Mystery of 1122. Live Wire magazine paid her $500 and would start running it in February 1908.

    As serials, the three that she’d dashed off in the midst of having her operation, tending her children, running her household, and writing a variety of short pieces brought in some welcome cash but made no great stir. But late in 1907, Uncle John, lonely in Cincinnati, still missing his beloved Sade, came to visit his favorite niece. He’d heard on the family grapevine that Mary had been doing fairly well lately with her little stories. How about showing him something she’d published?

    John Roberts was no gentle critic. Mary didn’t want to risk his censure but how could she refuse? She fished in her desk drawer, took out the by now rather dilapidated carbon of The Circular Staircase, which happened to be on top of the pile, and handed it over. Uncle John sat down to read. He kept on reading until lunchtime, he hurried through his meal and went back to read some more. He finished in the late afternoon, and gave his verdict.

    “That’s a book, Mary. You ought to have it published.”

    The Circular Staircase

    By Mary Roberts Rinehart

    Mary didn’t think her story was good enough for a book. John said nonsense, he’d read lots worse. Stanley found the notion of approaching a book publisher quaint and amusing, but supposed it wouldn’t do any harm to try. So the next morning Mary took the bedraggled carbon to a local bindery and asked if it could be made presentable. No problem, said the binder. He trimmed the ragged edges, bound the pages inside a limp cover, stamped the title in gilt letters on the front, and charged her three dollars. Seeing her humble effort in such elegant guise, Mary felt a little more confident about sending it off. But where?

    That problem was also quickly solved. Mary took an Anna Katharine Green mystery novel out of the bookcase, noted the publisher’s name, and addressed her package to Bobbs-Merrill in Indianapolis. She had no great expectation of getting a return on the three dollars she’d paid to the bookbinder. She’d begun to realize how bad most of her work so far had been, how little she actually knew about writing. She had started to study the techniques of authors whom she respected, she reviewed her high school grammar, she wore out one copy of Roget’s Thesaurus and bought another. As to her reckless facility at getting words on paper, that was something Mary couldn’t help. She wrote as swiftly as she thought, darting her fountain pen into the inkwell when the ink in the cartridge wouldn’t flow fast enough to keep up with her hand.

    And this was just in her spare time. There were still the housekeeping, the medical practice, and the family. Even with servants in the house, a conscientious wife and mother had to oversee every task and do her own food shopping. Mary was at the meat market some days after John’s visit, meditating between the relative merits of steaks and chops, when the butcher’s telephone rang. Surprisingly, this call was for Mrs. Rinehart; her husband was on the line. No, none of the boys had had an accident, it was just that Stanley thought she might like to know she’d had a letter from a Mr. Hewitt Howland at Bobbs-Merrill. Should he read what Mr. Howland had written?

    Of course he should. Mary braced herself against the gory chopping block and listened.

    “My dear Mrs. Rinehart,” the letter began. “I have read The Circular Staircase not only with pleasure, but with thrills and shivers.”

    mary_roberts_rinehart

    Mary never actually learned how to typewrite.

    Photo Credit: Open Road Media

    Thrills and shivers, indeed! Mary was having them too, had Mr. Hewitt Howland but known. Howland not only wanted to publish her book, he even offered to pay for the right to do so. And he wanted to come to her house, and talk to her about writing more books!

    There was only one thing to do, and Mary did it. She dashed to the telegraph office and wired Mr. Howland to come right ahead. She dashed back to buy steak and ice cream, dashed home, and baked a cake.

    When mother baked a cake, the Rinehart children knew it was a party. But whom was this party for? Mary wasn’t quite sure herself.

    “It’s not really a party,” she told them, “just a special sort of day.”

    “What’s a special sort of day?”

    A day when they had cake and ice cream for dessert, naturally. This was hardly the way to start a serious literary career, but Mary had no time to play author. Those guest room curtains had done well enough for her and Stanley’s visiting relatives, but here was a big, important editor coming all the way from Indianapolis just to see Mary Roberts Rinehart. And that brass bed needed a valance, and what if Mr. Howland showed up tomorrow?

    First on the next day’s agenda was a quick trip to the dry-goods store. Mary bought fresh material, lugged it home, and began to sew. She kept on sewing until late the night before Howland was due to arrive, and the final curtain got hung in the nick of time. What her new editor thought of the bedroom decor was beside the point—what he’d come to see were manuscripts. Had Mrs. Rinehart anything else to show him?

    She had. There was no time to take those other two ratty carbons to the bindery but Editor Howland didn’t care. He read them both, sitting all day long in the living room with the Rinehart boys and the Rinehart dogs for company. He could not but have been impressed by the virtuosity of a young housewife who could spin off three diverse tales in such a fresh and often amusing style. He’d take them all and be glad he got them. He was already planning to publish The Circular Staircase in 1908, The Man in Lower Ten in 1909, and The Mystery of 1122 in 1910. He didn’t care much for that last title, so he and Mary wisely changed it to The Window at the White Cat.

    Mary had scrupulously listed each one of the small sums she’d gotten for her short pieces and her serial rights in the old bankbook, but she didn’t know what to put down for Bobbs-Merrill’s three-book deal. That didn’t matter. Her husband was by now making a goodly amount of money at his practice, and he naturally expected to be the family’s major breadwinner for the rest of his life, but it was beginning to look as if there might be plenty of jam on the Rineharts’ bread.

    By now, Stanley must have managed to sublimate any atavistic qualms; he had begun taking an enthusiastic interest in his wife’s burgeoning career as a writer. Knowing Mary as he’d had every opportunity to do since that fateful day when she’d tripped into his office with her flounced parasol and rose-bedecked hat, applied to join the nurses’ training program, and proved throughout her arduous three years of training to have a backbone of good Pittsburgh steel, he must have realized somewhere along the line that she’d never be content to spend the rest of her life sewing on buttons and ordering lamb chops. He’d taken her for better or worse. There’d been enough of the worse. Why play dog in the manger now that the good times were starting to roll?

    Despite his ongoing war with the inanimate, the collar buttons that willfully leaped from his shirts, the matches that wouldn’t light, the cussedness of things in general, Stanley Rinehart was clearly a man who would rather be happy than not. He showed himself a genial host to Mary’s suddenly acquired editor. When they gathered around the piano after dinner, it was his fine baritone that led the singing. Mary played, the little boys sang, Hewitt Howland sang, even the family collie sang. This could hardly have been the kind of reception Howland was used to; he must have left the next day with a strong awareness that his newest author would turn out to be somebody altogether out of the ordinary.

    Want to keep reading? Download Had She But Known today.

    Had She But Known

    By Charlotte MacLeod

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