3.4.16

Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Man in Lower Ten

Mary Roberts Rinehart’s career as a turn-of-the-century novelist began as a result of financial disaster. Her husband lost their savings in the stock market forcing the family into serious debt. Rinehart’s first novel. The Man in Lower Ten, was accepted for serial publication in 1907. When it was published in book form two years later, it became the first American mystery novel to make the annual bestseller books list (DuBose 2000, 51).

Together with The Circular Staircase (see my blog on the novel), The Man in Lower Ten catapulted Rinehart into literary fame. Her mystery novels were some of the most widely read books of the time. Over a century later these novels are still in print and can be found as free public-domain e-books. (See, for example, the list of her books on the Gutenberg site).

In many respects, Mary Roberts Rinehart was a notable woman of her era. DuBose (2000) points out that she was:
the first American mystery writer to enter the bestseller ranks; a household name that repeatedly appeared in the Most Admired lists favoured by women’s magazines; an associate of kings, queens, presidents, generals, and movie moguls; a Republican feminist who rated burial in Arlington National Cemetery. (35)
The crime in The Man in Lower Ten takes place on a train (a type of enclosed setting that Agatha Christie would put to good use two decades later). Lawyer Lawrence Blakely, who must deliver important trial documents to a client, takes an overnight berth on a train from Washington to Pittsburg. In the middle of the night, his documents are stolen and a man is murdered. Immediately Blakely becomes the prime suspect in the case. The train then crashes, killing most of the people onboard.

The Man in Lower Ten is an intricately plotted mystery story. Indeed, skillful plotting and exciting stories are what Rinehart excels at. Rarely does she include an extraneous character in these cleverly worked out narratives (DuBose 2000, 48, 79).

Rinehart’s characters are typically “upper-middle-class professionals or wealthy and socially prominent” (DuBose 2000, 50). Although the main characters in The Man in Lower Ten are portrayed in a fairly stereotypical manner, the housekeeper and amateur detective are depicted with wit and imagination.

The Man in Lower Ten is also a novel of manners, providing a glimpse of the culture and life of early twentieth-century Americans.

Rinehart is one of the earliest novelists to combine mystery with romance. Modern readers, however, will find the romantic scenes overly sentimentalized.

A gripping plot, witty voice, and faithful depiction of Edwardian America are what makes this novel highly readable. Rinehart’s novels prove that “the ‘golden age’ was by no means an English or between-the-wars phenomenon” (Knight 2004, 84).

DuBose, Martha Hailey. “Mary Roberts Rinehart: The Buried Story.” in Women of Mystery: The Lives and Works of Notable Women Crime Novelists, 34-88. 1907. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2000.

Knight, Stephen.
Crime Fiction 1800-2000: Detection, Death, Diversity
. Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Rinehart, Mary Roberts. The Man in Lower Ten. 1907. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger, 2007.