Title: The Man in Lower Ten
Author: Mary Roberts Rineheart
Year of Publication: 1909
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.58
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 2
Plot Description: A mystery novel involving a murder, a theft, two cases of switched berths, cases of mistaken identity, a train crash, multiple women that the protagonist cannot distinguish properly between due to a condition known as casual-sexistitis, dated English, and an idiot who thinks he’s in love.
[Insert Spoiler Alert here]
This book appeared in my collection of Agatha Christie novels, and I began to read it under the assumption it was by Christie herself. Being an old mystery novel by a female author, I suppose someone somewhere found it easy to confuse them. Even the title sounds like something Christie would have come up with.
Unfortunately for me, I carried forward my Agatha Christie mindset even after discovering my mistake. With Christie, the secret to solving the murder is to pin it on the least likely character. In this case, that character was Alice West. I now understand what a review of Christie that I read recently meant when it said that she showed no compassion for love interests. In this novel, the real twist would have been if Alice West was the murderer, but as the love interest for multiple characters (seriously, they’re all trying to get married to her) she was spared that dubious honour.
Having cut my teeth on my local library’s entire collection of Nancy Drew books, I have long been a fan of good mysteries. I even had a fanatic phase where I read only Agatha Christie. And to me, this was a very middling book. Poor, even, considering that it falls neatly into the classic format of too many crimes, confusion in the dark, person who was attempting to commit one crime finding a different crime already committed, and so forth. In the end, there was no real twist. The murderer is already dead, the beneficiary of the theft also already dead. Lots of dead people, no prosecution, and this is what passed for a “happy ending” in 1902. You know, so long as Whiny McWhiny gets to marry a girl ten years younger than he.
Indeed, romance is the weak point for many of the older novels I’ve read. Or perhaps it feels that way to me because of how different their patterns of courting were. Very little emotion is expressed, especially on the part of the women. They could all be replaced with walking, talking mannequins and I doubt anybody would notice the difference. Sex is barely ever even hinted at, except in the form of actual babies or pregnancies. What is mystifying to me, under such circumstances, is how these women managed to gain any semblance of a satisfactory sex life when they never actually talked about it, and pretended not to even think about it until the day they were married.
Against this backdrop, those rare expressions of emotion sound odd, forced and unnatural. Too much exposition is needed to explain it to the reader, because the author, the reader, and the characters themselves are all completely emotionally stunted.
Or so it seems to me, who am as outsider as it gets. Seriously, the only person in this book who is not white is Euphemia, Whiny McWhiny’s “colored” housemaid. I can’t imagine what character or role I’d fill, where I to have lived in the time and place this book is set in.
Perhaps the people living during that time had their own ways of knowing, their own little understandings. But as we all know, silence is how most forms of oppression thrive, and God forbid any of us return to such a time.
The writing was messy and scrambled, as though the author were piling misdirection upon misdirection. It made it hard to keep reading, and the casual sexism of the protagonist made it even harder. The coincidences that keep piling up – the idea that a girl, her fiance, fiance’s sister, fiance’s wife, fiance’s father in law, her boyfriend’s business partner (who is also her uncle’s lawyer), the accomplice of the forger that her uncle, boyfriend and boyfriend’s business partner are litigating against, forger’s girlfriend, and a random private detective should all be on the same goddamn train – well, that was the icing on the cake.
Told you it was hard to read.
That being said, this was apparently M.R.R’s debut novel, so a lot may be forgiven. I find the life of the author far more intriguing than her work itself – she wrote to support her family, singlehandedly renovating their house, among other things, with the money she received from her writing. She may have been fond of poking fun at traditional detective novels written from the masculine perspective, and spoke out about her radical mastectomy and cancer diagnosis more than a century before Angelina Jolie did. It says nothing positive about our society that Jolie’s decision to discuss her procedures caused as much of a stir as Rineheart’s did.