Friday, October 31, 2014

Mary Roberts Reinhart, America's Agatha Christie

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING:  We've been talking with some wonderful contemporary writers this week, but I think Hallowe'en deserves a special guest: one of the writers who helped create and popularize the mystery genre in this country. Mary Roberts Rinehart was called "the American Agatha Christie" - though, since Rinehart's first mystery was published fourteen years before THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES. With that in mind, here's an essay I wrote a few years ago while summering (ie, away for the weekend) in Maine's famous summer destination, Bar Harbor.

I’m writing this in Bar Harbor, on Mount Desert Island, one of the spots that has defined “summering in Maine” for more than a century. I have a spectacular view of Frenchman’s Bay, with the sun rising over the islands, courtesy of my perch high on a hilltop at the aptly named Wonder View Motel. I’m not the first mystery writer to have enjoyed this lofty perch view, however. The motel is built on the former summer estate of Mary Roberts Rinehart, the writer known as the American Agatha Christie. 

Rinehart was born in Pittsburgh in 1876. She trained as a nurse and married Dr. Stanley Marshall Rinehart after graduation. She showed an early interest in writing, publishing several short stories in her teens, but she might have had a conventional life as a wife and mother if the Rinehart family hadn’t lost most of their savings in the stock market crash of 1903. 

Necessity being the mother of invention, Rinehart took to the typewriter. She published forty-five short stories before her first mystery, The Circular Staircase, came out in 1907. The book was an enormous success, selling more than a million and a half copies, and is credited with originating the “Had-I-But-Known” story, described as “one where the principal character (frequently female) does things in connection with a crime that have the effect of prolonging the action of the novel.”

Her prodigious output of short stories, plays and novels included The Door, which introduced the phrase “The butler did it,” (I know, I thought it was English as well) and The Bat, which was made into a movie twice and is credited with inspiring the character of – you guessed it – Batman.

Rinehart herself led a life that might have been written for one of those sweeping sagas popular in the 1930s. She was the first female war correspondent on the Belgian front during WWI, reporting for the Saturday Evening Post. After her husband was appointed medical director of the Veterans Bureau (now the VA) she became an acclaimed hostess in the Washington, DC social world. In her late fifties she helped her two sons found the publishing firm Farrar & Rinehart and served as one of its directors. And in 1947 she broached the then-taboo subject of breast cancer by writing frankly about her illness, radical mastectomy and recovery. 

With all this activity, she naturally needed some downtime. The Rineharts had vacationed out west and in Florida, but with her husband’s death in 1932, Mary Roberts Rinehart looked for a change of scenery. She came to Bar Harbor in 1935 and fell in love with the ocean, the islands, and the Acadian mountains. By 1939, she had completed construction on “Farview.” Several of her novels in the 40’s were set in fictionalized versions of Maine’s most famous resort town, and her estate would itself be the site of a real-life crime drama. Please excuse me as I crib from the Wonder View Motel’s account of l’affair Reyes:

The absence of her husband’s handling of the finances were felt from time to time and at one point even put Farview up for sale. She could not let go of any of her servants. Farview was large and it was hard to find maids. She then hired a butler in the summer of 1947 and her Filipino cook, Reyes, was not happy about it. He had been with the Rineharts for 25 years and he was always highly praised for his skills.
One day, Reyes, told Mary he was leaving. She was used to hearing this from him and paid it no mind. The next day, Mary found his wife, Peggy, a maid, crying. Peggy said Reyes had been drinking the night before and they had a fight when she refused to leave with him. Mary was reading in the library before lunch when Reyes came in. They spoke a few words when he pulled a gun from his pants pocket and pulled the trigger within point blank range of her face. Luckily, the gun misfired. He tried again and Mary leapt to her feet and ran. She entered the kitchen, Peggy, and Theodore Falkenstrom, her chauffeur, saw what was happening.
Ted tackled the cook and grabbed the gun. Peggy ran to get the breathless Mary a nitroglycerine tablet and Ted went and threw the gun over a garden wall. The butler ran down the street to get help thinking he was the intended victim. As Mary was in the hall on her way to phone the police, she saw a young man standing outside the door. The boy said he was looking for a job as a gardener’s assistant.

“Young man,” Mary said, “you’ll have to come back later. There is a man here trying to kill me.” The boy never returned.

As Mary stood at the phone, again in the library, Reyes came up behind her wielding a long carving knife in each hand. Ted and the gardener came running in and again knocked him down. Peggy sat on his chest, and Ted held his arms getting cut by the flailing knives. Finally, the police arrived and took Reyes away.

Mary’s son Alan flew up that night to be with his mother. The next morning he gave her the news that Reyes had hung himself in his jail cell. A Catholic priest allowed him to be buried in sacred ground since he was “Plainly of unsound mind.” Mary had no anger against the long-time cook and paid for his funeral.

Mary Roberts Rinehart  received a special Edgar Award for lifetime achievement in 1954, the year after she published her last novel, The Frightened Wife. Until her death in 1958, she summered every year in Bar Harbor. To which I say, dear readers, if it was good enough for America’s Agatha Christie, it’s good enough for me.


Joan Emerson said...

What an amazing woman! Coincidentally, I am currently reading one of Mary Roberts Reinhart's books, "The Man in Lower Ten," on my Nook. It's the classic "body found on a train" story, published in 1906 . . . .
Thanks for the insight into this writer's life and career.

Mary Sutton said...

Our SinC chapter namesake - but I confess I didn't know she originated the phrase "the butler did it."

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

Wow Julia, that's some story! Seems like it could be a lesson about doing your own cooking...

Brenda Buchanan said...

Great tale, Julia! I read a bunch of Mary Roberts Reinhart's novels when I was a teenager, and love knowing her Maine connection.

Thanks also for the photo of Frenchman's Bay. It got my morning off to a lovely start.


Deb Romano said...

I think I've read all her mysteries. I've also read - and LOVED - her "Tish" stories, about Letitia Carberry and friends. They were "elderly" (in their fifties!) very proper ladies who were always getting themselves into trouble when following Tish's lead, as Tish either tried to come up with methods of "self-improvement" or interfered in the lives of people around her, trying to "help" them. I usually take the Tish books on vacation with me.

I don't remember all the details so I've probably got some of this wrong, but I believe there's a story that her son was in the military during WW I, was over in Europe, and asked for permission to go behind the lines. He was told it was too dangerous and his commanding officer asked why he wanted to go there. His response was "to visit my mother" who was of course working there!

Julia said...

She was indeed an amazing lady, and her books stand up pretty well even today - her language and writing style are very much of her time, but her characters and stories remain vivid and enjoyable.

She was the most highly paid author in the US between the turn of the century and the end of WWII - amazing when you consider her peers in popular fiction at the time included Pearl S. Buck, Zane Gray, Booth Tarkington, Edna Ferber and, of course, Margaret Mitchell.

MRR was also a pioneer in what we'd today call multiple platforms; several of her most popular works began as plays, were turned into movies, and then were rewritten as novels.

When you consider all that, and the fact that she's directly responsible for the creation of one of the most influential publishing houses in the US (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux)...well, I consider it a shame that Mystery Writers of America doesn't give the Grand Master Award retroactively.

Mark Baker said...

Interesting. I knew the name, but not anything about her, including that wild story. Yikes!

Interestingly enough, I'm rereading a mystery novel by one of my favorite authors - Sandy Dengler. It is set at Acadia national park (also the republished e-book title, although the paperback I have from 20 years ago was title A Model Murder).

Kathy Reel said...

What an amazing story of an amazing woman! She led such an interesting life, and then she was a successful author, too. Wow! I'm just sorry that I hadn't heard of her or read any of her books. I plan on adding something to my Kindle today of hers. I'd like to get a print copy of something, but I guess I'll have to check and see if those are available. Wonderful post today, Julia! Thanks.

Libby Dodd said...

After writing all those stories I would think she'd have figured out to not be standing around waiting for him to try again!
Bar5 Harbor is very special.

Anonymous said...

I've enjoyed reading her since I was a teenager, and still enjoy picking up a story now and then, as I come across them.


PK the Bookeemonster said...

While I love historical mysteries, I also like the golden age authors as well because they were IN one of my favorite time periods. :) While MRR is on my list, right now I'm working on Ngaio Marsh, in order. So much to read, too little time.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

OH, my goodness, the is wonderful! And,um, I have never read any..not one..and thank to you it is time to start!

Lisa Fernow said...

I have some of her books in my library - time to revisit them. Thanks for a really inspiring post.

Leslie Budewitz said...

Rinehart wrote 3 nonfiction books about Glacier National Park and was just featured yesterday in an article in the Missoulian about women in the early days of Glacier -- love her comments about not letting the men know she could put up her own tent or cook tasty biscuits!

Anonymous said...

Glad you mentioned Mary Roberts Rinehart!

I read her fascinating account of her time in World War I and saw her photographs not too long ago while reading an early edition of her autobiography.

-Brenda Perrott Williamson

Alura Wilson said...

Several of the 'Tish' books, and many of MRR's other books, are available as free or very low cost bundles at I've just loaded the '26 Works' for $1.99 pack, and it's wonderful.