Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Circular Staircase

Mary Robert Rinehart’s The Circular Staircase was an instant best-seller when it was first published in 1908 and is still in print today. Roberts was one of the most widely read writers in the first half of the 20th century. In fact, the largest number of best-selling novels in the United States during this period were written by her. A financial crisis prompted Rinehart to turn to writing and with the publication of The Circular Staircase, she rescued her family from financial ruin. The novel became the basis for a silent film and a play called The Bat, a production that made the Rinehart family wealthy (Cohn 1980, chap. 1). 

“Unlike other American women of the time,” observes Cohn,
who found their way to wealth and position in brilliant marriages, Mary Roberts Rinehart made her own success. Her life story, the ambition and the hard work that made possible her progress from genteel poverty to what some have called ‘tycoon-hood,’ may qualify her as America’s first female Horatio Alger. (1980, 3)
Although Rinehart wrote poetry, news stories, articles, and children’s stories, she is remembered today for her mystery novels. Rinehart’s love of adventure inspired her to work as a reporter for the Saturday Evening Post during the war years. She served as the first American female correspondent on the Belgian Front during World War I and became a celebrity on her return home.

The Circular Staircase begins with the move to a large country house. Rachel Innes and her wards – niece Gertrude and nephew Halsey – arrive at Sunnybrook unprepared for the mysterious events that begin to happen after they move in. Over the course of the summer, five unexpected deaths occur. Rachel Innes turns amateur detective and is undeterred by the apparent haunting of their new home.

The novel is famous for introducing the “had-I-but-known” school of detection. Narrator Rachel Innes tells the story thirteen years after the events take place. After spending her first night in the haunted house, Rachel and maid Liddy decide to vacate it. In classic had-I-but-known narrative style, Rachel admits “If we had only stuck to that decision and gone back before it was too late!” (9). This style of hindsight narration intensifies the sense of foreboding that the reader experiences.

Typical of this style of novel, a female character tells her own story. Rachel presents herself as a survivor who can “withstand the dangers of the inner and outer worlds. She knows now that she is strong and capable and she wants to share with us what she has learned” (Maio 1983, 90).

This type of mystery is noted for a number of other features, each of them present in The Circular Staircase: secrets from the past, Gothic elements, old country houses, an emotional rather than strictly intellectual appeal, multiple murders, a romantic interest, menacing characters, ghosts who are eventually found to be bogus, and a rapid succession of chain-reaction events. (Freier 1999, 197; Maio 1983, 82-90).

The isolated twenty-two room mansion, hidden rooms, trap doors, strange noises in the middle of the night, graveyard scenes, and ghostly apparitions are all straight out of the Gothic novel (see my post on the Gothic influence on mystery fiction). But Rinehart presents the narrative in a light-hearted comic tone that satirizes the Gothic elements of the story.

The most engaging part of the novel is the character of the spinster aunt, a woman who has spunk and a delightful sense of humour. The spinster stereotype, observes Cohn,
was a staple of popular American fiction in the latter part of the nineteenth century. By reason of her advanced age, she was no longer restricted to the conventional behavior demanded of single women and, without the responsibilities of a married women, she enjoyed relative freedom” (1980, 44-45).
Readers will love Rachel Innes’s self-deprecating humour and marvelous sense of adventure. Early in the narrative, she admits:
If the series of catastrophes there did nothing else, it taught me one thing – that somehow, somewhere, from perhaps a half-civilized ancestor who wore a sheepskin garment and trailed his food or his prey, I have in me the instinct of the chase. (3)
And after surviving a harrowing summer, she tells us, “I am talking of renting a house next year, and Liddy says to be sure there is no ghost. To be perfectly frank, I never really lived until that summer” (178).

The Circular Staircase has appeared on the Mystery Writers of America’s The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time and The Independent Mystery Booksellers Association’s 100 Favorite Mysteries of the 20th Century. It is not difficult to see why readers continue to enjoy this delightfully comic mystery novel.

Cohn, Ian. Improbable Fiction: The Life of Mary Roberts Rinehart. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1980.

Freier, Mary P. “Had-I-But-Known.” In The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing, edited by Rosemary Herbert, 197. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Maio, Kathleen L. “Had-I-But-Known: The Marriage of Gothic Terror and Detection.” In The Female Gothic, edited by Juliann E. Fleenor, 82-90. Montreal, QC: Eden Press, 1983.

Rinehart, Mary Roberts. The Circular Staircase. 1908. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1997.