William F. Deeck

MARY ROBERTS RINEHART – The Door. Farrar & Rinehart, hardcover, 1930. Reprinted many times, in both hardcover and paperback.

   This is a typical Mary Roberts Rinehart production. Eschewing the latter-day Gothic type, as someone has described it, as “a girl gets a house,” Rinehart pretty much sticks with an elderly maiden lady gets, or has, a house. (The Red Lamp is about a man who gets a house, complete with haunt, but that was a one-time aberration.) And in that house peculiar and frightening things always happen.

   Well, at least the goings-on frighten the maids. The gentry, while aware that something peculiar may be taking place, generally deny it orally in the hope that it will go away or investigate it so surreptitiously or so cautiously or so stupidly that they might well not have bothered.

   In The Door, the family nurse leaves the house on a cryptic errand. She does not come back. Some days later her body is found.

   A man is seen upon the stair, and thereupon disappears. Someone is mysteriously wandering about the house at night. A woman who comes to the door and is turned away is subsequently found dead to the last drop. A young cousin of the lady of the house is attacked on the grounds, and later on her boyfriend is treated the same way.

   There is a great deal of people not telling other people things they ought to know, particularly concealing information that it would be helpful for the police to be aware of. Such clues as there are were not sufficient for this reader to figure out who was the murderer, but Rinehart has never been a fair-play author. Indeed, in her introduction to The Mary Roberts Crime Book, which contains The Door, The Confession, and The Red Lamp, she states: “… I shall probably always be known as a writer of detective books, which I emphatically am not.” It can’t be said fairer than that, Mary.

   Rinehart was certainly no literary stylist, but her writing has always been competent and maybe a little better than that of the general run of Gothic writers. She did, of course, have her weaknesses. One is her penchant for anticipation. She frequently tells us what her characters are going to encounter. This wouldn’t be so bad, but she then has to tell us what they encounter when they do encounter it.

   Another fault she is guilty of is having her main character draw up a list of questions about what has happened. She may do this because she thinks her readers are nitwits who can’t keep in mind all the presumed oddities or because the demands of serialisation, which is how many of her novels were first published, required that the readers’ memories be refreshed.

   Her novels do give you an upper-class picture of a bygone era when servants were numerous and the females among them were given to fainting fits and other manifestations likely to irritate the gentry. The novels should be read for this aspect and their atmosphere of suspense.

— Reprinted from CADS 21, August 1993. Email Geoff Bradley for subscription information.