In The Spotlight: Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Circular Staircase

In The Spotlight A-LHello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Mary Roberts Rinehart had a profound influence on modern suspense fiction. In fact, she’s believed to have created the ‘Had I but known’ style of crime novel. Let’s take a look at how that style of novel works; let’s turn today’s spotlight on The Circular Staircase, one of her best-known stories.

Rachel Innes is a middle-aged spinster who’s decided to take a summer holiday at Sunnyside, a large country house she’s rented from Paul Anderson, president of Traders’ Bank. With her are her grown nephew Halsey and his sister Gertrude, whom she’s raised since their father (and her brother) died. Also in attendance is the family maid Liddy Allen.

Very soon after their arrival, some strange things begin to happen. First, there seems to be an odd shadow of someone lurking near the house. Then, there are strange noises and other disturbing events. It’s unnerving, but Rachel determines to stay in the house.

Then, very late one night, a shot is heard. Everyone rushes to the card-room where they find the body of Paul Anderson’s son Arnold. The police are informed, and the next day they begin their investigation. Suspicion soon falls on Halsey and his friend Jack Bailey. They were in the house on the night of the murder, but left suddenly, right about the time Armstrong was probably killed. When Halsey returns, he claims that neither he nor Bailey knew about the murder until later. But at the same time, he won’t account for his absence. And it’s clear that Gertrude knows more than she’s saying about what happened.

With both her nephew and her niece implicated, Rachel determines to clear their names. It’s not easy because for their own reasons, neither Halsey nor Gertrude will be frank with their aunt. Then, the Armstrong’s butler Thomas Johnson, who’s been helping out in the house, suddenly dies. He didn’t have a very strong heart; but at the same time, he wasn’t ill. Liddy is convinced that his death and the other frightening events at the house have a supernatural explanation. But Rachel looks for a more prosaic explanation.

Then it comes out that there’s been a theft of money and valuable securities from Traders’ Bank. And there’s more eerie evidence that someone desperately wants something that’s at Sunnyside. What’s more, there’s a great deal of pressure on Rachel (from more than one source) to leave Sunnyside immediately. This she refuses to do until she solves the mystery and clears her family’s name. In the end, we find out who shot Arnold Armstrong, and how that’s connected to the frightening events at Sunnyside.

This is, as I mentioned, a textbook example of the ‘Had I but known’ style of novel, and Rinehart uses foreshadowing of that kind from the very beginning. Here, for instance, are Rachel’s thoughts when she and Liddy first discuss leaving Sunnyside (right after the first strange events):

‘And so we sat there until morning, wondering if the candle would last until dawn, and arranging what trains we could take back to town. If we had only stuck to that decision and gone back before it was too late!’

True to form, Rachel doesn’t reveal what disasters will actually occur.

Rinehart also builds tension through the setting. Sunnyside is a large, potentially beautiful country home that’s perfect for a summer getaway. But it’s also older, and Rinehart depicts it as a truly creepy place – one with a lot of secrets.

‘From where I stood I could not see beyond the door, but I saw [police detective] Mr. Jamieson’s face change and heard him mutter something, then he bolted down the stairs, three at a time. When my knees had stopped shaking, I moved forward, slowly, nervously, until I had a partial view of what was beyond the door. It seemed at first to be a closet, empty. Then I went close and examined it, to stop with a shudder. Where the floor should have been was black void and darkness, from which came the indescribable, damp smell of the cellars.’

There are eerie trunk rooms, dank basements, scary laundry chutes, and of course, a circular staircase. This is one of those novels where the house almost has a personality of its own.

The mystery itself is complex and follows several story threads. I can say without spoiling the novel that besides murder and theft, it involves blackmail, issues of identity, secret relationships, and threatened young love, among other things. And just about everyone keeps at least something back.

As with many ‘Had I but known’ stories, this one is narrated by the protagonist. So we learn quite a lot about the character of Rachel Innes. She’s practical and pragmatic – hardly the type to quake with fear. She is also wealthy and of high social standing; and in her interactions with other characters, we see the social attitudes and divisions of the times. She is often high-handed and sometimes brusque to the point of rudeness as she deals with servants and others not of her class. That said though, she is devoted to her niece and nephew, and she shows compassion and generosity more than once. She also has a wry kind of wit. Here’s how she describes herself after her niece and nephew have finished their schooling and returned home to educate her in modern ways (before the events of the story really begin):

‘The additions to my education made me a properly equipped maiden aunt, and by spring I was quite tractable.’

She can also be sarcastic in her views about others. In short, she’s an intelligent, opinionated, strong-willed representative of her gender and social class.

It’s also worth noting that her comments and attitudes (and those of others in the novel) at times reflect the ugly racism of those times. Readers who dislike racial stereotypes and racist remarks will notice this. They are offensive by today’s standards, but they are probably authentic depictions of that era.

The Circular Staircase is a clear representative of the ‘Had I but known’ suspense novel. It features a strongly-depicted protagonist, several inter-related mysteries, and a very eerie setting. But what’s your view? Have you read The Circular Staircase? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

Monday 6 April/Tuesday 7 April – Old City Hall – Robert Rotenberg

Monday 13 April/Tuesday 14 April – The Corpse With the Silver Tongue – Cathy Ace

Monday 20 April/Tuesday 21 April – The Hanging Shed – Gordon Ferris


Filed under Mary Roberts Rinehart, The Circular Staircase

31 responses to “In The Spotlight: Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Circular Staircase

  1. Thanks Margot – this is sitting on my Kindle right now.

  2. I have a big gap in my knowledge when it comes to American Golden Age type writers, so thank you for introducing Mary Roberts Rinehart to me. I know her name but have never read anything by her.Would you say she focuses more on the psychology or the plot?

    • I think her focus is more on the plot, Marina Sofia. I won’t pretend to be an expert on her work; however, what I have read is more plot-oriented. Interestingly, this one was published in 1908, and is an authentic look at that era, I think.

  3. I also have this on my Kindle. Not sure I will like it but definitely want to try it.

    • I honestly don’t know that it’ll be your cupaa, either, Tracy. But it is (in my opinion) worth a look – even if you don’t finish it – at a certain kind of suspense fiction.

  4. Thank you for introducing us to another author that I’ve not heard of. I do like reading these books that reflect the views of the times even when they aren’t palatable in the modern world. I also like the ‘Had I But Known’ aspect too.

    • You’ll certainly find both here, Cleo. Rinehart does, I think, an effective job of placing the reader in terms of era, social strata and so on. And that can be a very effective way to get a look at life at (in this case) the turn of the 20th Century.

  5. I read this years ago, and remember being favourably impressed – it was much better than I expected from its legendary status as a cliche!

    • Moira – I think that’s a fine way to put it. It may have cliché status, but there’s some solid stuff there too. And the setting is done well too, I think.

  6. Penny Pearlman

    The first mystery I read- after Nancy Drew of course. I’ve been hooked ever since! Your summary of it is quite on target I feel.

  7. Sounds interesting! I always think the ‘Had I but known’ style of writing has to be handled quite carefully for fear of building too high expectations. It can be really effective, especially in book with an element of horror, but it can also lead to a feeling of being let down if the foreshadowed event doesn’t succeed in shocking…

    I loved the description of the closet. I once lived in a rented flat with an unfloored cupboard that looked down into the foundations of the house, and always had spiders in it! It was known as ‘The Cupboard into Which We Do Not Go’…

    • FictionFan – Oooh, that’s a creepy name for a cupboard!! I can see why you’d avoid it *shudder.* And I think you’re absolutely right about the risk of that ‘Had I but known’ foreshadowing. If what actually happens isn’t sufficiently scary, dangerous, or in some other way jolting, then the book falls utterly flat.

  8. Margot a couple of year ago I read The Bat – which I think is a re work(?) of the stage play based on the Circular Stair Case? I enjoyed this read and at the time didn’t realise it was actually written in the 1920’s – thought it was written about the 1920’s 🙂

  9. Really enjoyed your review Margot, thanks. It’s been decades since I read this one (in fact it would have been in an Italian translation in fact, back in the 80s …) – at the time I think I got it mixed up with THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE! Must admit, I am not sure I would want to go back to it – but as I say, really enjiyed the review though – thanks Margot.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Sergio. It’s not a book for everyone (I don’t think any book is, really). But it’s got some good features I think, and it’s definitely one of those classic novels that have helped shape the genre as it is now.

  10. I remember reading this but not much else.It is shocking to see the casual racism that inhabited so many novels from before 1970. Sadly I remember it in life tool

  11. I don’t normally read books written so long ago, but this sounds interesting. Loved the quotes!

  12. Sounds like another interesting book I need to add to my TBR list. Thanks for the introduction.

  13. Col

    Probably not an author that appeals to me. If we all liked the same thing it would be a dull old world!

  14. I love this book, Margot and it seems quite a modern tale. I have the book on my shelf somewhere.

  15. Pingback: Avery Hopwood: The Bat | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

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