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The Enduring Mystery of Mary Roberts Rinehart, America’s Answer to Agatha Christie

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If ever a novel could evoke a simpler, gentler time, it is Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Wall, written at the peak of her powers and success in 1938.


The story takes place in a large seaside house in a New England town that is a summertime destination for the well to-do, if not the rich, who flocked to Newport, Rhode Island, in those days. The family had lived in the sprawling, ten-bedroom house for generations but the Great Depression had wiped out much of its wealth, so its only full-time occupant was the lovely, twenty-nine-year-old woman who owned half with her brother, who had moved away.

The slow, easy days are devoted to swimming, reading, horseback riding, golf, walks, boating—the activities varying mainly according to the season.

Marcia did not quite live alone. The family fortune may have been largely gone, but the servants remained, though only four were still employed, down from the ten who had looked after the family in its halcyon days. Things were a little different for that clan than for most of us. When Marcia’s mother died, she left behind a house in New York, the summer place, and a modest trust fund—“the usual assets of her generation.”

Usual, perhaps, for Mary Roberts Rinehart, if not for everyone of that generation.

Like so many families, it should be no surprise that all its members were not loved equally, and none were less loved than Juliette, the former wife of Marcia’s brother. When she showed up unexpectedly, uninvited, and unwanted one day, she quickly reminded everyone she encountered of how much they despised her. If anyone introduced in a Rinehart novel seems a likely victim, certainly the greedy and arrogant Juliette fills the bill.


During what is often called the Golden Age of mystery fiction, the years between the two World Wars, one of the handful of the best-selling writers in America was Mary Roberts Rinehart. Not a bestselling mystery writer—a bestselling writer. The list of the top ten bestselling books for each year in the 1920s showed Rinehart on the list five times; only Sinclair Lewis matched that impressive feat. The only mystery titles that outsold her in those years were Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and two titles by S.S. Van Dine, The Greene Murder Case and The Bishop Murder Case.

In many regards, Mary Roberts Rinehart was the American Agatha Christie, both in terms of popularity and productivity. Like her British counterpart, the prolific Rinehart wrote a large number of bestselling mysteries, short stories, straight novels, an unrevealing autobiography, and stage plays, some of which were hugely successful—”The Mousetrap” for Christie and “The Bat” for Rinehart.

Unlike Christie, however, Rinehart’s popularity waned after her death in 1958. The lack of a long-running series character (although Miss Letitia Carberry, known as Tish, appeared in several books, she was not strictly a detective, and Nurse Hilda Adams, dubbed “Miss Pinkerton” by the police for her uncanny ability to become embroiled in criminal activities, had few appearances) undoubtedly hurt, but so did changing reading tastes in the United States. While Christie’s detectives, notably Hercule Poirot, were reasoning creatures largely lacking in emotions, Rinehart’s characters were swept up in the very human responses of romance, curiosity, fear, and tenacity.

A common element in Rinehart’s mysteries was the author’s penchant for moving the storyline along with foreshadowing. While this is a frequently used device in contemporary literature, Rinehart often employed a method that has become mocked by some, partially because of its simplicity as well as so much overuse that it has been defined as a cliché in her work.

In just the first few chapters of The Wall, there are such portentous warnings as “in spite of what was to come”; “we know now that she had her warning the day before”; and, referring to a left-behind hatchet, “it did not seem important at the time.”

Rinehart’s use of this contrivance is now famously credited (or blamed, depending on your point of view) for creating the “Had-I-But-Known” school of fiction. Straightforward detection is less evident in Rinehart’s mysteries than in the works of her predecessors, which generally concentrated on the methods of eccentric detectives. Rinehart’s stories involve ordinary people entangled in a situation not of their making that could happen to anyone.

The heroines of these books often have poor judgment. Warned never—never—to enter the basement under any circumstances, for instance, they are absolutely certain to be found there within the next few pages, only to be rescued at the very last instant, generally by their lovers. These heroines often have flashes of insight—just too late to prevent another murder.

The statement (and its numerous variations) “had I but known then what I know now, this could have been avoided,” often creeps into her books and has given its name to a school of fiction that has produced innumerable followers.


Born to a poor family in Pittsburgh, her father committed suicide just as she was graduating from nursing school, where she had met Dr. Stanley Marshall Rinehart, who she married in 1896 at the age of twenty; they had three sons. Because of poor investments, the young nurse and her doctor husband struggled financially so she began to write, selling forty-five stories in the first year (1903). The editor of Munsey’s Magazine suggested that she write a novel, which he would serialize, and she quickly produced The Man in Lower Ten, followed immediately by The Circular Staircase, which was published in book form first, in 1908. After her husband died in 1932, Mary Roberts Rinehart, now a fabulously wealthy woman from the sales of her books, moved into a luxurious, eighteen-room Park Avenue apartment where she lived alone for the rest of her life.

A consistent best-seller from that point on, Rinehart’s mysteries have a surprisingly violent side to them (though never graphically described), with the initial murder serving as a springboard to subsequent multiple murders. Her tales are unfailingly filled with sentimental love stories and gentle humor, both unusual elements of crime fiction in the early decades of the twentieth century.

Describing some of her books, Rinehart displayed a sly sense of humor while conceding the levels of violence and the body count are not entirely expected from an author known for her romantic, humorous, and heart-warming mystery fiction. Here are some selected titles about which she warned readers:

The After House (1914): “I killed three people with one axe, raising the average number of murders per crime book to a new high level.”

The Album (1933): “The answer to four gruesome murders lies in a dusty album for everyone to see.”

The Wall (1938): “I commit three shocking murders in a fashionable New England summer colony.”

The Great Mistake (1940): “A murder story set in the suburbs, involving a bag of toads, a pair of trousers and some missing keys.”

Although some of the mores and social niceties of her time have changed, Rinehart’s greatest strengths as a writer were her ability to tell a story that compelled the reader to turn the page, and to create universal characters to which all of us can relate. That ability never goes out of style and, as long as people read books, neither will Mary Roberts Rinehart, the universally beloved writer who, for two decades, was the best-paid writer in America.



From the introduction, by Otto Penzler, to The Wall, by Mary Roberts Rinehart, published by American Mystery Classics. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. Copyright 2021. All rights reserved.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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