Friday, January 21, 2022

The Circular Staircase


The Circular Staircase / Mary Roberts Rinehart
NY: Carroll & Graf, 1991, c1908.
362 p.

Another classic mystery in the pile of older books off my shelves that I've been reading lately, this one was entertaining but certainly dated and reflective of its decade. It's been reprinted hundreds of times, including versions with rather bizarre covers. 

The Circular Staircase features Miss Rachel Innes, a spinster who rents a country house for the summer on the advice of her adult niece and nephew. She's never been inclined to leave the comforts of the city before, but the children need a rest. She's a tough woman who is quite independent, so when it turns out that Sunnyside isn't as sunny as expected, she doesn't run away.

The house is full of mystery and intrigue; shortly after they settle in, the owner's son is found shot dead at the base of the staircase. A detective is called in, but doesn't seem to have much authority - he works alongside Rachel and treats her like an equal rather than as a suspect. As an amateur sleuth, she is definitely in control of her living space. 

The mystery is a bit convoluted and I think a wee bit unlikely. Her niece and nephew seem to be connected to the dead young man in every way possible, with every action making them look more suspicious. Rachel is certain that HER relations aren't involved, so hides and conceals evidence at every turn. How in the world she has free rein to do so, the reader isn't quite sure. 

I liked the tenacity and toughness of this female spinster lead though, she was funny at times and didn't take any crap. Being asked to vacate early so the family could return unexpectedly, she says a flat no, since she's paid for the full summer rental. But that self-centred stubborness comes out in other ways that aren't so complimentary. However, as the reader might expect, she takes great risks and in the end solves the puzzle herself. 

In any case, it's a good read in the sense that it's considered a foundational American mystery. It sets up some mystery tropes that are carried through future mystery writing -- some of those not the strongest or most loved of tropes, but there you have it. But there are some nasty racist scenes and commentary in it. There's a black servant who Rachel hires to stay on when they arrive and the poor guy doesn't get a break. Dialect and thoroughly revolting descriptions appear whenever he is mentioned. It really soured my reading of this one, despite knowing that a book exists within its historical moment (this moment wasn't so hot apparently). 

So it's an interesting read, if you remember that it was written over 100 years ago and allow for that. There are some unique and satisfactory elements, but the claim that this novel is an early feminist mystery is a weak one, for me.

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