Wednesday, August 11, 2010

What you DIDN'T know about Mary Roberts Rinehart

By Joyce Tremel

If Sisters in Crime had been around at the turn of the 20th century, Mary Roberts Rinehart would have been an active member. Born in the North Side (then called Allegheny City) of Pittsburgh in 1876, Rinehart was the natural choice for a namesake when the Pittsburgh chapter of SinC needed a name.


Rinehart began writing after she and her physician husband lost their savings in the stock market crash of 1903. Often called the “American Agatha Christie,” she became a pioneer in the world of mystery fiction, and invented the Had-I-But-Known type of storytelling. Her novel, The Circular Staircase, the second in the Miss Cornelia Van Gorder series, propelled her to national fame. She was also a prolific short story writer and a regular contributor to the Saturday Evening Post. In true pioneer fashion, she became the first female war correspondent when she was sent to the Belgian front during World War I.

Rinehart was a pioneer in other ways, too. One of her novels, The Bat (which was made into a silent movie), featured a costumed supercriminal. Sound familiar? Although disputed in various sources, rumor has it that Bob Kane, the creator of the Batman comic, may have used the character as his inspiration for his superhero. Who would have figured a middle aged woman may have been responsible for Batman?

When Rinehart had a radical mastectomy for breast cancer, she went public with her story in an issue of Ladies Home Journal in 1947. She encouraged women to have breast exams at a time when this issue was not talked about in public. She also founded the New York publishing house Farrar & Rinehart with her sons, where she served as director.

One event in Rinehart’s life sounds like it came straight from a mystery novel. She owned a vacation home in Bar Harbor, Maine. One summer, as she sat in her library reading a book, her cook of 25 years entered the room. He walked up to her, pointed a gun at her head and pulled the trigger. The gun misfired and Rinehart ran for help. As she passed the front door to her home, a man standing there told her he was looking for work. She allegedly said, “Young man, you’ll have to come back later. There is a man here trying to kill me.” The cook then tried to attack her with knives, but was subdued by other servants. He committed suicide in jail, and the gracious Rinehart paid for his funeral.

Rinehart was awarded a Special Edgar by Mystery Writers of America in 1953 for her contribution to the field of mystery. She died in 1958 and is buried next to her husband in Arlington National Cemetery.

The Pittsburgh chapter is proud to carry on the legacy of Mary Roberts Rinehart. Please feel free to visit our web site.

12 comments:

Julie Hennrikus said...

I just downloaded some of her books on my Kindle. Thanks for this post, and for letting us know about your chapter's namesake! I agree, I think she would have loved this organization.

Clea Simon said...

How much fun is this? A few months ago, I was asked to write a new introduction to MRR's "The Man in Lower Ten" for a Barnes and Noble Essential Library re-issue, which resulted in me rediscovering her. A little dated, sure, and many of her characteristics have now become cliche. But she was there first! Thanks for posting this.
- Clea

Susan M. Boyer said...

A crazed, gun-then-knife-wielding cook? That is truly stranger than fiction. Enjoyed the post!

Catherine A. Winn said...

My mother loved this writer and all her books. I would hear her discussing her with others as I grew up. She was a mystery buff and that's how I became one.

Lorraine_Bartlett said...

Catherine, my mother was the one to introduce me to mysteries, too. I started off with Barbara Michaels' romantic suspense novels when I was 11 or 12 and never went back to kid-fic. I wonder how many other women were introduced to the wonderful world of mysteries by their mothers? Guys--was your mom the mystery reader in your families, too?

G.M. Malliet said...

You can visit the hilltop site of her house in Bar Harbor - there's a restaurant there now and has a fantastic view. That's where I first heard this story about her crazed cook. Thanks for this additional info - a fascinating lady.

Marcia Talley said...

My mother was a charter subscriber to EQ Mystery Magazine and typically checked 7 mysteries a week out of the library. Mysteries were always piled around the house. That, and my father allowing me to stay up late on Sunday (a school night! gasp!) to watch Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

PatRemick said...

Fascinating stuff -- thanks to Joyce (my fellow Working Stiffs blogger) for this mystery history!

Lynn said...

Wow -- now I will have to look into some of her work. My "to read" list only gets longer, sigh.

I love the information I get from the SinC list. Thank you!

Lynn

Susan Fleet said...

Thanks for the great tribute to MRR. She led quite a life! My mother loved all of her books and I've read a few myself.

Susan

Anonymous said...

I haven't read her in years, but I loved, loved her. Your blog makes me want to go back and read some of her books that I still have on my shelf. Gloria Alden

Kathleen Delaney Koppang said...

I was also introduced to her by my mother, and I still have some of her books somewhere on my shelves. We didn't have a lot of money when I was growing up and got most of our books from the library, arm loads of them every week. Mother let me read Rex Stout, Mr. and Mrs. North (although I wasn't supposed to listen to the radio program) and just about any other mystery on the library shelves. I was madly in love with Lord Peter Wimsey during my early teens. Only, she didn't approve of Nancy Drew. I've never figured out that one. mysteries, mothers and daughters, reading