Original date of publication: 1908
My edition: 2009 (Barnes and Noble)
Why I decided to read: it was on a list of 100 best mysteries of the 20th century
How I acquired my copy: Barnes and Noble, May 2010
The plot of The Circular Staircase is, like the staircase of the title, rather roundabout. There are a lot of elements in this novel—murder, embezzlement, robbery, and arson, just t name a few of the crimes perpetrated by the characters in this book. Rachel Innes is a rather prickly middle-aged spinster and the aunt of Gertrude and Halsey. After renting a house in the countryside one summer, in which ghosts are said to live, a man is shot dead at the foot of the house’s circular staircase. The dead man is the son of the owner of the house, and he and Jack Bailey (a friend of Halsey’s who also happens to be engaged to Getrude) may or may not have been involved in a bank scandal.
Rachel, who claims that the detecting gene is in her blood, spends the course of the novel pursuing clues, most of which are red herrings. It turns out that every person involved in this story has a piece of the puzzle; and Rachel spends most of the story saying “if only I had known…” The “Had I But Known” plot is apparently pretty characteristic of Rinehart’s novels, but in this book I kept feeling that Rachel as just moving in circles, never really solving any part of the mystery until the very last minute. Also, I didn’t particularly care for the narrator of the story: Rachel is so sharp-tongued that she’s actually rude to pretty much everybody at one point or another. Mr. Jamieson, the detective, is much more likeable, but he sometimes allows Rachel to walk all over him.
Mary Roberts Rinehart has been credited with coining the phrase “the butler did it”—though the phrase never appeared in any of her mystery novels. Her books were bestsellers in the United States for a long while in the early 20th century, probably because they were so readable; certainly not “high literature” in an sense of the word. The Circular Staircase is a prime example of this; but nonetheless it works well as a suspense novel.