Mon 19 Mar 2007
Mary Roberts Rinehart’s character called “The Bat” appeared in many formats over the years. Not only did “The Bat” make a lasting impression and appear in many venues, but Bob Kane, creator of the second most famous comic book character, the Batman, has been quoted as saying that the inspiration for his hero came from “actor Douglas Fairbanks’ movie portrayal of Zorro, and author Mary Rinehart’s mysterious villain ‘The Bat.’”
This post has been put together from a variety of sources, the first being Michael Grost’s Classic Mystery and Detection website, from which is gleaned the following information about the early career of mystery author Mary Roberts Rinehart:
The career of Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1957) can be broken up into a series of phases. The first was her pulp period (1904-1908), where she wrote her first three mystery novels and a mountain of very short stories. These stories have never been collected in book form, and are inaccessible today. The first two novels are classics, however, and are probably her best works in the novel form.
The Man in Lower Ten (1906) and The Circular Staircase (1907) are the earliest works by any American author to be still in print as works of entertainment, not as “classics” or “literature.” These novels, which combine mystery and adventure, show Rinehart’s tremendously vivid powers as a storyteller.
From the same page, but skipping over a few sections:
The Bat is a stage adaptation of Rinehart’s The Circular Staircase, written in collaboration with Avery Hopwood, the writer of popular Broadway comedies with whom Rinehart had collaborated before. The Bat introduced some new plot complexities into the original novel, especially a master criminal known as “The Bat.” It also includes plot elements reminiscent of her first Saturday Evening Post story, “The Borrowed House” (1909). The Bat shows Rinehart at the height of her powers, and in fact is her greatest work. A work of great formal complexity, The Bat is one of the few mystery stage plays to have the dense plotting of a Golden Age detective novel. Moreover, the formal properties of the stage medium are completely interwoven with the mystery plot, to form intricate, beautiful patterns of plot and staging of dazzling complexity.
According to the online Broadway database, The Bat ran for 867 performances between August 23, 1920 and September 1922.
Following the links will lead you to the IMDB pages for each.
His discussion is far too lengthy to repeat here, but Mike Grost goes into considerable detail in discussing director Roland West’s cinematic techniques in both of these movies, plus a number of his other films. If you’re interested in the early days of movie making, Mike’s website once again is well worth the visit.
Returning to the play itself, Mike continues by saying:
It should also be noted that the play itself was later published by French, in a 1932 softcover edition.
In 1959 The Bat was once again made into a film, this one starring Vincent Price and Agnes Morehead. Of this version, one viewer says: “I found this to be an inventive and disingenuous endeavor full of red-herrings and wrong turns. Figure this one out for yourself. Puzzle the clues, weed out the characters set here as distractions, look past the deliberate contrivances and solve the mystery on your own.”
By total coincidence, the way coincidences happen, as I was in the process of tracking down the details of all these various incarnations of the character, author Mary Reed sent me the following review of The Bat, the novel based on the play. I think it’s great when a plan comes together like this.
Review of THE BAT: The Novel, by Mary Reed
Everyone in the city, from millionaires to the shady citizens of the underworld, goes in fear of The Bat, a cold-blooded loner whose crimes range from jewel theft to murder and whose calling card is a drawing or some other form of expression of bathood.
We meet wealthy, elderly, and independent spinster Miss Cornelia Van Gorder, scion of a noble family and the last of the line. An adventurous spirit, at 65 and comfortably situated, she still longs for a bit of an adventure. It maddens her to think of the sensational experiences she is missing as she contemplates that “…out in the world people were murdering and robbing each other, floating over Niagara Falls in barrels, rescuing children from burning houses, taming tigers, going to Africa to hunt gorillas, doing all sorts of exciting things!” Why, she’d love to have a stab at catching The Bat!
Her wish is granted when she takes a house in the country for the summer and discovers it is located some twenty miles from an area where The Bat had committed three crimes. She is soon in the thick of mysterious events, including anonymous threatening letters, lights failing, a face at the window, and Lizzie Allen, her personal maid for decades, convinced she saw a strange man on the stairs. Most of the servants decamp, leaving Miss Van Gorder to manage with just a butler and Lizzie.
More characters appear: Miss Van Gorder’s niece Dale Ogden, Brooks, the new gardener, local medical man Dr Wells, Detective Anderson, and Richard Fleming, nephew of Courtleigh Fleming, deceased owner of the house and once president of a bank which has just failed. There is talk Mr Bailey, its cashier, has stolen over a million dollars. A man is shot and an unknown party is deduced to be hiding somewhere on the rambling premises. More than one person in the house is concealing facts, and the rising storm outside underlines the increasing fear and tension within.
Who is trying to scare Miss Van Gorder away and why? What if anything did Lizzie see on the staircase? Are any of the strange goings-on connected with the missing money? Who fired the shot? There is much flitting in and out of the doors and windows of a living room lit most of the time only by candle and firelight before everything is cleared up.
The Bat is an excellent example of an old dark house mystery, with enough obfuscation to keep the reader guessing, although one or two surprises are less well concealed. The menacing atmosphere events create in the house is conveyed and sustained well. I found it a light, diverting read which held the interest without taxing the attention too much. The Bat is an excellent cold-night-outside read, and indeed, although I know whodunit, I would not mind seeing the play!