Rinehart, Mary Roberts

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RINEHART, Mary Roberts

Born 12 August 1876, Allegheny, Pennsylvania; died 22 September 1958, New York, New York

Daughter of Thomas B. and Cornelia Gilleland Roberts; married Dr. Stanley M. Rinehart, 1896

Mary Roberts Rinehart began her career in 1903, publishing short stories in magazines like All-Story and Munsey's. In three or four weeks in 1905, Rinehart wrote The Man in Lower 10 for serialization in All-Story, and she followed it the next year with The Circular Staircase. When Bobbs-Merrill published The Circular Staircase in 1908, Rinehart's long period of success began.These mysteries fleshed out the novel of deduction with fuller if somewhat stereotyped characters, a second, romantic plot line, a good deal of gothic atmosphere, and frequently comic elements.

Rinehart essentially stopped writing mystery novels after 1914, returning to the form in 1930 with The Door, her first novel to be published by her sons' new publishing house, Farrar and Rinehart. In the next 23 years, Rinehart published 11 full-length mysteries in which she fully exploited the "buried story"—a sequence of events never narrated in the novel and emerging only as "outcroppings," places at which material about the past of the characters supplies clues to the solution of the mystery. Rinehart's buried stories most often center on errors of passion leading to sexual alliances across class lines and leading inexorably to crime some years later.

The villains in Rinehart's mysteries are frequently lower-class women who have ensnared richer, more aristocratic men. The heroines most often are unmarried young women with little money but of good family, who serve as the center of the romantic plot as well as the focus of the murder story. Her intention in establishing the young female narrator was to link her mystery plot as closely as possible with her romantic plot; however, the use of this central character type has had the effect of placing her work, erroneously, in the class of gothics.

Although Rinehart is remembered today as a writer of mysteries, she was more popular in her own time for her serious novels. Beginning with The Street of Seven Stars (1914) and "K" (1915), Rinehart produced romances with some attention to contemporary problems. This emphasis became stronger with World War I; she depicted life near the western front in The Amazing Interlude (1918) and sabotage and attempted insurrection on the home front in Dangerous Days (1919) and A Poor Wise Man (1920). Both critical and popular success eluded Rinehart in her most serious attempt at fiction, This Strange Adventure (1929), a dark look at the life of a fairly typical married woman. Rinehart recouped in 1931 with her fine autobiography, My Story.

Rinehart's humor was not restricted to isolated episodes in mystery novels. With the creation in 1910 of Letitia Carberry, "Tish," Rinehart produced a character who would remain a staple of the Saturday Evening Post and a favorite of American readers for nearly 30 years. Tish is an undaunted spinster of about fifty who with her two companions travels America and Europe, resolving lovers' problems, rounding up bandits and kidnappers, once capturing an entire German company, and maintaining throughout her own slightly askew brand of absolute moral rectitude.

Rinehart also achieved considerable success in the theater. In collaboration with Avery Hopwood, she wrote Seven Days (1909), with nearly 400 performances, and The Bat (1920), with 878 performances and six road companies. The Bat, with close affinities to The Circular Staircase, mixes murder, romance, and comedy.

From 1910 to 1940, Rinehart was America's most successful popular writer. Eleven of her novels were among the 10 top bestsellers of the year they were published, and in the 1930s, mass-circulation magazines paid as much as $65,000 to serialize her novels. From its infancy, the movie industry sought her work, and later radio and television used her material. Today Rinehart's serious novels are dated by her cautious attitude toward popular morality; she was careful to offend neither editors nor audience. Rinehart's mystery novels have fared better with time, continuing to sell well in reissue. The Circular Staircase has achieved the status of a classic in the genre.

Other Works:

When a Man Marries (1909). The Window at the White Cat (1910). The Amazing Adventures of Letitia Carberry (1911). Where There's a Will (1912). The Case of Jennie Brice (1913). The After House (1914). Kings, Queens, and Pawns (1915). Through Glacier Park (1916). Tish (1916). The Altar of Freedom (1917). Bab: A Sub-Deb (1917). Long Live the King (1917). Tenting Tonight (1918). Twenty-Three-and-a-Half Hours Leave (1918). Love Stories (1919). Affinities (1920). Isn't That Just Like a Man? Well! You Know How Women Are! (with I. S. Cobb, 1920). The Truce of God (1920). The Breaking Point (1921). More Tish (1921). Sight Unseen and the Confession (1921). The Out Trail (1922). Temperamental People (1924). The Red Lamp (1925). Nomad's Land (1926). Tish Plays the Game (1926). Two Flights Up (1926). Lost Ecstasy (1927). The Trumpet Sounds (1927). The Romantics (1929). Mary Roberts Rinehart's Mystery Book (1930). The Book of Tish (1931). Mary Roberts Rinehart's Romance Book (1931). Miss Pinkerton (1932). The Album (1933). The Crime Book (1933). The State v. Elinor Norton (1933). Mr. Cohen Takes a Walk (1934). The Doctor (1936). Married People (1937). Tish Marches On (1937). The Wall (1938). Writing is Work (1939). The Great Mistake (1940). Familiar Faces (1941). Haunted Lady (1942). Alibi for Isabel, and Other Stories (1944). The Yellow Room (1945). A Light in the Window (1948). Episode of the Wandering Knife (1950). The Swimming Pool (1952). The Frightened Wife, and Other Murder Stories (1953). The Best of Tish (1955). The Mary Roberts Rinehart Crime Book (1957).

The papers of Mary Roberts Rinehart are housed in the Special Collections unit of the Hillman Library, University of Pittsburgh.


Cohn, J., Improbable Fiction: The Life of Mary Roberts Rinehart (1980). Disney, D. C., and M. Mackaye, Mary Roberts Rinehart (1948). Doran, G. H., in Chronicles of Barrabas (1935). Overton, G., et al., Mary Roberts Rinehart: A Sketch of the Woman and Her Work (circa 1921). When Winter Came to Main Street (1922).

Reference works:

Detecting Women (1994). Encyclopedia Mysteriosa (1994). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers (1996).

Other references:

American magazine (Oct. 1917). Boston Evening Transcript (12 June 1926). Good Housekeeping (Apr. 1917). Life (25 Feb. 1946). Writer (Nov. 1932).