Saturday, July 18, 2020

46. The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rinehart

I guess this is or was considered a real-classic, at least according to the hype on this Canadian Pocket Books version I found at S.W. Welch.  I went in there after they had been re-opened for a couple of weeks and found this and two other paperbacks, for which I paid $25!  This pandemic has changed everything.  I needed something shorter before I get back into the second book of the Liveships trilogy. 

I was quite looking forward to a nice little murder mystery, written by a woman.  It started off in an entertaining fashion, with a dry, self-deprecating humour from the narrator and protagonist/detective, the old patrician aunt, Mrs Innes, who takes a large summer estate in the country.  Things go bad and scary right from the beginning as the help doesn't want to stay, they hear strange noises and wake up in the morning with a dead man in the billiard room. 

Unfortunately, early on too much of the mystery was maintained by main characters having secrets but refusing to talk. And these were clearly sympathetic characters, such as the niece and nephew of Mrs. Innes. There were also quite a few characters, many of whom appeared all of a sudden but were presented as if we should know who they were.  This all led up to me not feeling like making much of an effort to try and figure out what was going on. When the solution was finally revealed, it was convoluted, with several backstories that were filled out.  The ending was somewhat adventurous and there were a couple of good moments. The tone throughout of this mannered upper-class lady was entertaining, but not enough to make this "the most significant single advance in American crime and detective fiction since Edgar Allan Poe" as it says on the back.

There is also some casual yet pretty painful to read racism.  It is always in the dialogue of the characters and the black characters themselves are portrayed no better or worse than any of the other side characters, so I think it is fair to say that the racism here is very much a product of its time.  There is likewise a passive classism as well, but it is nowhere near as ugly and jarring.  Be aware.

As an artifact, the book is particularly cool and I will keep it.  The address for Pocket Books is 6306 Park and I rode my bike by there yestrerday.  That actuall address no longer exists, but I suspect it was in the same building that is currently 6300 Park avenue (which takes up the entire block; the next block jumps to 6522).  I am not sure if those were just the editorial offices or the actual production and distribution warehouse, but tantalizing to imagine the building was full of brand new Pocket Books less than a century ago.

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