Mary Roberts Rinehart

Citation metadata

Author: Michael Cisco
Date: 2003
Document Type: Biography
Length: 2,256 words

Document controls

Main content

About this Person
Born: August 12, 1876 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States
Died: September 22, 1958 in New York, New York, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Novelist
Updated:Sept. 5, 2003
 
PERSONAL INFORMATION:

Family: Born August 12, 1876, in Pittsburgh, PA; died September 22, 1958, in New York, NY; married Stanley Marshall Rinehart, April 21, 1896 (died, 1932); children: three sons, one daughter. Education: Attended public high school in Pittsburgh, PA; Pittsburgh Training School for Nurses, graduated, 1896.

 
CAREER:

Novelist, short story writer, playwright, and author of nonfiction. Internship at Pittsburgh Homeopathic Hospital, c. early 1890s; full-time writer, beginning 1905. Correspondent for the Saturday Evening Post during World War I; reported presidential nominating conventions.

 
AWARDS:

Litt.D., George Washington University, 1923; Mystery Writers of America Special award, 1953.

 
WORKS:

WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:

  • A Double Life (play), produced in New York City, 1906.
  • The Circular Staircase (novel), Rinehart (New York City), 1908.
  • The Man in Lower Ten (novel), Bobbs-Merrill (Indianapolis), 1909.
  • When a Man Marries (novel), Bobbs-Merrill (Indianapolis), 1909.
  • The Window at the White Cat (novel), Bobbs-Merrill (Indianapolis), 1910.
  • The Amazing Adventures of Letitia Carberry (short stories), Bobbs-Merrill (Indianapolis), 1911.
  • Cheer Up (play), produced in New York City, 1912.
  • Where There's a Will (novel), Bobbs-Merrill (Indianapolis), 1912.
  • The Case of Jennie Brice (novel), Hall (Boston), 1913.
  • (With Avery Hopwood) Seven Days (play; adapted from the novel When a Man Marries), produced in New York City, 1914.
  • The After House (novel), Houghton, Mifflin (Boston and New York City), 1914.
  • The Street of Seven Stars (novel), Houghton, Mifflin (Boston and New York City), 1914.
  • "K" (novel), Houghton, Mifflin (Boston and New York City), 1915.
  • Kings, Queens, and Pawns: An American Woman at the Front, George H. Doran (New York, NY), 1915.
  • Through Glacier Park: Seeing America First with Howard Eaton, Houghton, Mifflin (Boston and New York City), 1916.
  • Tish (short stories), Houghton, Mifflin (Boston and New York City), 1916.
  • The Altar of Freedom, Houghton, Mifflin (Boston and New York City), 1917.
  • Bab: A Sub-Deb (novel), Doran (New York, NY), 1917.
  • Long Live the King (novel), Houghton, Mifflin (Boston and New York City), 1917.
  • The Amazing Interlude (novel), Doran (New York City), 1918.
  • Tenting To-night: A Chronicle of Sport and Adventure in Glacier Park and the Cascade Mountains, Houghton, Mifflin (Boston and New York City), 1918.
  • Twenty Three and a Half Hours Leave (novel), George H. Doran (New York, NY), 1918.
  • Dangerous Days (novel), George H. Doran (New York City), 1919.
  • Love Stories (short stories), George H. Doran (New York City), 1919.
  • Affinities (short stories), George H. Doran (New York City), 1920.
  • (With Avery Hopwood) The Bat (play), Samuel French (New York, NY), 1920.
  • "Isn't That Just like a Man!, " George H. Doran (New York City), 1920.
  • A Poor Wise Man (novel), George H. Doran (New York City), 1920.
  • The Truce of God, George H. Doran (New York, NY), 1920.
  • The Breaking Point (novel), [New York City], 1921.
  • More Tish (short stories), George H. Doran (New York City), 1921.
  • Sight Unseen and the Confession (novels), George H. Doran (New York, NY), 1921.
  • The Out Trail, George H. Doran (New York, NY), 1923.
  • Temperamental People, George H. Doran (New York City), 1924.
  • The Red Lamp (novel), George H. Doran (New York City), 1925.
  • The Bat, George H. Doran (New York, NY), 1926.
  • Nomad's Land, George H. Doran (New York, NY), 1926.
  • Tish Plays the Game (novel), George H. Doran (New York City), 1926.
  • Lost Ecstasy (novel), George H. Doran (New York City), 1927.
  • Two Flights Up, Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1928.
  • The Romantics, Farrar & Rinehart (New York, NY), 1929.
  • This Strange Adventure (novel), Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1929.
  • The Door (novel), Farrar & Rinehart (New York City), 1930.
  • Mary Roberts Rinehart's Mystery Book, Farrar & Rinehart (New York, NY), 1930.
  • My Story (autobiography), Farrar & Rinehart (New York City), 1931, published as My Story: A New Edition and Seventeen New Years, Rinehart (New York, NY), 1948.
  • The Book of Tish, Farrar & Rinehart (New York City), 1931.
  • Miss Pinkerton (novel), Farrar & Rinehart (New York City), 1932.
  • The Album (novel), Farrar & Rinehart (New York City), 1933.
  • Mary Roberts Rinehart's Crime Book, Farrar & Rinehart (New York, NY), 1933.
  • The State vs. Elinor Norton (novel), Farrar & Rinehart (New York, NY), 1933.
  • Mr. Cohen Takes a Walk, Farrar & Rinehart (New York City), 1934.
  • The Doctor (novel), Farrar & Rinehart (New York City), 1936.
  • Married People, Farrar & Rinehart (New York, NY), 1937.
  • Tish Marches On (short stories), Farrar & Rinehart (New York, NY), 1937.
  • The Wall (novel), Farrar & Rinehart (New York City), 1938.
  • Writing Is Work (essay), The Writer, Incorporated (Boston), 1939.
  • The Great Mistake (novel), Farrar & Rinehart (New York City), 1940.
  • Familiar Faces: Stories of People You Know, Farrar & Rinehart (New York, NY), 1941.
  • Haunted Lady (novel), Farrar & Rinehart (New York City), 1942.
  • Alibi for Israel, (New York, NY), 1944.
  • The Yellow Room (novel), Farrar & Rinehart (New York City), 1945.
  • A Light in the Window, Rinehart (New York, NY), 1948.
  • Episode of the Wandering Knife (short stories), Rinehart (New York, NY), 1950.
  • The Swimming Pool (novel), Rinehart (New York City), 1952.
  • The Frightened Wife and Other Murder Stories (short stories), Rinehart (New York, NY), 1953.
  • The Best of Tish, Rinehart (New York, NY), 1955.
  • The Best Mysteries of Mary Robert Rinehart, Reader's Digest (Pleasantville, NY), 2002.

Contributor to periodicals, including Munsey's Magazine and the Saturday Evening Post.

 

Sidelights

Mary Roberts Rinehart was a popular writer of mystery and romance novels during the first half of the twentieth century. Best known for her novel The Circular Staircase, she contributed significantly to the development of the mystery genre in the United States. Although her work has been criticized as unrealistic and improbable, she has also attracted praise for her exceptional abilities as a storyteller and for her distinctive combination of suspense, humor, and the macabre.

Rinehart's uneventful childhood began on August 12, 1876, when she was born into a poor family in Pittsburgh. Her father made a modest living building sewing machines and tinkering with unsuccessful inventions on the side. Mary attended her local high school and trained as a nurse at the Pittsburgh Homeopathic Hospital for several years--she left without graduating, having met and fallen in love with Dr. Stanley Marshall Rinehart, whom she married in 1896.

Rinehart might never have written a word, having immersed herself in the usual role of wife and mother to their three sons, had her husband not invested their savings. In 1903, the stock market crashed: the Rineharts were bankrupted, and burdened with a twelve thousand-dollar debt as well. To help make ends meet, Rinehart began writing for the magazines, selling her first story to Munsey's Magazine for thirty- four dollars. She continued to write, and her writings continued to sell, steadily, for the rest of her life.

Her initial interests ran toward drama, and her first play, A Double Life, was successfully produced in 1907. Serialized fiction was more reliably lucrative work, and she began writing mysteries for periodicals in the same year. Her first novel, which appeared in installments of Munsey's Magazine, was published in a single volume in 1908 as The Circular Staircase. A reviewer for the New York Times Book Review characterized the novel as "a tale of mystery with a new piquancy," and went on to say that "it might be possible, though it would be difficult, to contrive a more involved network of circumstances and to create a more hopeless mystification. But it would not be possible to invent a more pleasantly diverting character than the lady who is at the centre of the mystery." A reviewer for Arena called it "by far the best mystery or detective story of recent years." The public received The Circular Staircase at least as warmly as did the critics, and it eventually became an all-time best-seller, topping sales of eight hundred thousand copies in the mid-1950s. This major success established both Rinehart's enduring fame and the so-called "Rinehart formula," the pattern that almost all of her mysteries would follow.

Highly influential in the development of twentieth-century detective fiction, Rinehart's narrators are generally vivacious, intuitive, middle-aged spinsters whose leaps of insight would complement the more systematic and thoroughgoing work of an official detective. Rinehart's style is further distinguished by the ongoing nature of the crimes: whereas most mystery novels revolve around a single initial murder, Rinehart's villains are steady killers, piling up victims and closing in on the narrator herself. In The Circular Staircase, the narrator, Rachel Innes, finds herself climactically trapped in a secret room with the murderer. Rinehart also believed in character development--in Rachel Innes's case, she transforms, over the course of the novel, from a somewhat aloof and naive socialite to a more astute observer of human nature, a person less likely to be taken in by apparently untroubling facades, and she also grows closer to her niece, who is nearly a victim herself.

However, Rinehart's methods did not go entirely uncriticized, especially as her formula continued to be played out in subsequent mysteries. Howard Haycraft, in a generally positive essay published in his Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story--he refers to her as "one of the great story-tellers of the age"--makes these criticisms: "Foremost in any catalogue of these flaws must be the manner in which romantic complications are allowed to obstruct the orderly process of puzzle-and-solution. Similarly, the plots are always being prolonged by accidents and `happenstances' . . . unmotivated interferences and lapses on the part of the characters." Early critics, in describing her style, spoke of the "Had I But Known" school; in reference to her not infrequent use of such phrases as "Four lives might have been spared if I had only remembered." Nevertheless, while some of her methods struck these reviewers as obvious and straining somewhat, none failed to approve of Rinehart's brisk pacing, intricate plots, and, more unusually, her wry flair for comic relief.

While she enjoyed a slow ascent with The Circular Staircase, Rinehart's The Man in Lower Ten, which had been serialized in 1907, met with a far more rapid success when it appeared as a novel in 1909. It was the first detective novel by an American author to appear on the best-seller list. At this time, she also began writing romantic short stories for magazine publication. While she is best remembered as a popular and influential writer of mysteries, eight of Rinehart's eleven best-sellers were romance novels.

Of the next major phase in her career, Rinehart said in Writing is Work, "I must have been writing for eight years or so before I dared to submit anything to the Saturday Evening Post." She sent them a story centered around Tish, a middle-aged woman and amateur detective: "The editors not only took the story; they sent an associate editor all the way to my home to see me. . . . What he wanted was more Tish stories, and the Post has had them--at intervals for twenty-five years." Tish is one of Rinehart's most enduringly popular creations, something like a more daring and active (and younger) version of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple.

When World War I broke out in 1914 Rinehart went to Europe to serve as a war correspondent, and a novel set on the Western Front, The Amazing Interlude, was the result. Her own personal accounts of the war and her adventures in Europe, which included smuggling herself across the English Channel as a stowaway, and her encounters with various crowned heads, appear in a number of collections. Her nonfiction work expanded to include sentimental descriptions of her excursions in nature, at Glacier Park and elsewhere.

After the War ended, Rinehart returned to Sewickley, a suburb of Pittsburgh. By this time, she was well established and assured of a wide audience, which included an enthusiastic Herbert Hoover and Gertrude Stein. Half of her best-selling titles had already appeared. When her husband died in 1922 she left Pennsylvania and moved to Washington, D.C.

Gradually, Rinehart's romantic short stories were turning into full-length novels whose outcomes were determined by a more elaborate set of formulas, mostly dependent on whether the narrator was male or female. Journal of Popular Culture contributor Jan Cohn summarized: "Good women will be made to suffer and their reward will be hard-won, tranquil contentment. Good men may have to suffer, but that suffering will win them happiness. . . . The major lesson of life is that love is the greatest gift, but that work is the only good on which one may absolutely depend." Generally, Rinehart's female narrators were already married, facing temptation and ultimately resisting it, although not without disappointment. Male narrators, more often than not, were rescuing the objects of their affections from bad engagements. In general, Rinehart's sexual ethics underwent some relaxation and adjustment as time progressed, taking the largest steps arguably in the 1920s, but still remained fairly conservative. Work remained her chief virtue--according to one reviewer, this motto hung on her office wall: "Ideas and hard work are the keys to all success."

After ten years of residence in Washington, D.C. Rinehart moved to New York in 1932, to be close to her sons, who had established the Farrar & Rinehart publishing company, that published the bulk of her work from then on, beginning with The Door in 1930. Although she endeavored to participate in the events of World War II, ill health kept her in the United States. She continued, indefatigably, to write, extending the size of her catalog to over sixty titles. In 1950 Newsweek reported that her works had sold over ten million copies worldwide. Rinehart died in New York, in 1958, at the age of eighty-two.

FURTHER READINGS:

FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

BOOKS

  • Bachelder, Frances H., Mary Roberts Rinehart, Mistress of Mystery, Brownstone, 1993.
  • Cohn, Jan, Improbable Fiction: The Life of Mary Roberts Rinehart, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1980.
  • Davis, Robert H., editor, Mary Roberts Rinehart: A Sketch of the Woman and Her Work, Doran, 1924.
  • Doran, George H., Chronicles of Barabbas, 1884-1934: Further Chronicles and Comment, 1952, Rinehart, 1952.
  • Downing, Sybil, and Jane Valentine Barker, Crown of Life: The Story of Mary Roberts Rinehart, Roberts Rinehart, 1992.
  • The Encyclopedia of Mystery and Detection, McGraw, 1976.
  • Haycraft, Howard, Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story, Biblo and Tannen, 1972.
  • Hoffman, Arnold R., New Dimensions in Popular Culture, edited by Russell B. Nye, Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1972.
  • MacLeod, Charlotte, Had She But Known: A Biography of Mary Roberts Rinehart, Mysterious Press, 1994.
  • Maio, Kathi L., The Female Gothic, edited by Juliann E. Fleenor, Eden Press, 1983.
  • Overton, Grant Martin, When Winter Comes to Main Street, Doran, 1922.
  • Overton, Grant Martin, The Woman behind the Door, Farrar & Rinehart, 1930.
  • Overton, Grant Martin, The Women Who Make Our Novels, Dodd, Mead, 1928.
  • The Oxford Companion to American Literature, fourth edition, Oxford University Press, 1965.
  • Rinehart, Mary Roberts, Writing Is Work, The Writer, Incorporated, 1939.
  • Symons, Julian, Mortal Consequences: A History--From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel, Harper & Row, 1972.
  • Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers, St. Martin's Press, 1980.
  • Twentieth Century Literary Criticism, Volume 52, Gale, 1994.
  • Williams, Blanche Colon, Our Short Story Writers, Moffat, Yard, 1920.

PERIODICALS

  • Arena, October, 1908, pp. 394-395.
  • Armchair Detective, winter, 1989, pp. 28-37.
  • Journal of Popular Culture, winter, 1977, pp. 581- 590.
  • New York Review of Books, July 6, 1919, pp. 357-358.
  • New York Times Book Review, August 22, 1908, p. 460.*

 

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1000083069