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"The Circular Staircase" by Mary Roberts Rinehart

The Circular Staircase may be downloaded for free from our ebook catalog.

“But being an unmarried woman, with the handicap of my sex, my first acquaintance with crime will probably be my last. Indeed, it came near enough to being my last acquaintance with anything.”—Rachael Innes in The Circular Staircase

Perhaps Rachael Innes would not have taken a summer rental on a sprawling mansion by the sea if she had known it was haunted. By the time she had spent the second--mostly sleepless--night in “Sunnyside”, the house proved not only haunted but the site of a murder. To make matters worse, that very night she received news of a spectacular bank failure whose engineer might be under her roof.

Disembodied souls manage to fling golf clubs, cuff links, a revolver, and iron bars into the night; more bodies drop; and Rachael’s hope for a peaceful summer at the shore turned to chaos. Whether Rachael has nerves of steel or is just plain stubborn could be the subject of a dissertation. Most likely both premises are true, although her ostensible reason for staying was that her home in town was under renovation.

A welcome turn of events led me to read Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Circular Staircase immediately after I reviewed Anna Katharine Green’s That Affair Next Door and bought Dorothy Sayers’ The Complete Stories at a library sale. Mary Rinehart is often called “The American Agatha Christie,” but she has much in common with both Anna Katharine Green and Dorothy Sayers, both of whom compare favorably with Ms. Christie.

Like Sayers, Rinehart exhibits a wry sense of humor, enhanced by a clever turn of phrase. Like Green, Rinehart offers an elaborate array of seemingly unrelated clues that eventually come together like a jigsaw puzzle, each piece with a reasonable and sometimes detailed explanation.

The narrator and protagonist of The Circular Staircase, Rachael Innes, could have become great friends with Amelia Butterworth from That Affair Next Door. Both protagonists are unmarried women in their fifties who find themselves bystanders to a murder investigation. Both surreptitiously start their own investigations. Both find crucial pieces of evidence that aid detectives Jamieson and Gryce in solving the crimes. Both use their own resources to provide humanitarian aid to the innocents unwittingly involved with or victimized by the perpetrators. And neither flinches in the presence of a suspect.

Mary Rinehart went on to write many well-received novels, and by 1940 earned as much as $65,000 for a serialized novel. After reading The Circular Staircase I am not surprised.

Cover art by Janice Tarver, for sale at Etsy.

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