Title: The Circular Staircase
Author: Mary Roberts Rineheart
Year of Publication: 1908
Goodreads Rating (Avg): 3.66
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 3
Plot Description: A spinster aunt, her inseparable companion, and her adoptive children (niece and nephew) rent a house in the country for a few months. Almost immediately, there is a murder in the house – the son of the owner is dead. What’s more, the servants believe the house is haunted, due to mysterious noises and intruders who somehow manage to get into the house no matter how many windows are barred, how many doors locked, and how many armed men keep watch.
This made for an enjoyable read, although I was under the impression that I was reading an Agatha Christie novel from start to end. The same thing happened when I read “The Man in Lower Ten,” although in that case I figured out halfway through the book that it was a different author.
It’s hard to imagine a book written a hundred years ago managing not to sound entirely too alien, but I guess this explains all the constant hysteria on the part of the women in the book. I’m rather glad that the female characters – and specifically, protagonist Rachel Innes – dominate the storyline entirely. Lady’s maid Liddy and niece Gertrude also play significant parts in the novel, and the book tends to focus on their perspectives and interests, as well as those of the numerous interchangeable (mostly female) servants and the delicately ill Louise Armstrong.
It is quite annoying to watch these women hear strange sounds in the night and then immediately rush into their rooms and bolt the doors, rather than go out and catch the culprits red-handed. It’s equally annoying that on the few occasions where they actually go out to try and catch the culprits red-handed, they faint with amazing promptness at the slightest whisper of contact with said culprits. All this serve as narrative devices that stretch the mystery out, and while they may have been believable plot devices in Rineheart’s head, they’re rather pathetic plot holes now.
The book rushes headlong through numerous twists, some of which would be easily guessed by a veteran reader of detective fiction. To be honest, I was more interested by Rachel Innes – her nosiness and spirit for adventure, despite the ever present danger of spontaneous fainting. Miss Innes is exhilarated by the prospect of going on an adventure involving midnight grave desecration and mischievously enjoys Liddy’s confusion at finding her mistress’ boots covered in dirt and smelling of the graveyard.
The description of Thomas Johnson (“the Armstrongs’ colored butler”) was something else I found interesting:
“Mrs. Watson had been glad enough, I think, to turn Louise over to our care, and Thomas went upstairs night and morning to greet his young mistress from the doorway. Poor Thomas! He had the faculty–found still in some old negroes, who cling to the traditions of slavery days–of making his employer’s interest his. It was always “we” with Thomas; I miss him sorely; pipe- smoking, obsequious, not over reliable, kindly old man!”
A perspective from the 1900s, written by a white woman, telling of the more “benevolent” conceptions of race and of black people in those days. At any rate, “poor Thomas” did not survive the novel – he had a heart attack upon seeing what he thought was a ghost, and died hiding in a cupboard. “Poor Thomas” was a complete narrative device – one dimensional and existing to enhance parts of the mystery through his actions, all of which were born of selfless devotion. I particularly dislike his thieving employer for having caused Thomas’ death – the man had faked his death, and then returned to search the house for his ill gotten goods, causing Thomas to assume that he’d seen a ghost.
I enjoyed this book much more than I did The Man in Lower Ten, quite possibly because this story wasn’t being narrated by a pompous prat of a man who seemed incapable of telling women apart, and incapable of assessing the female personality on any grounds except that of physical attractiveness. Rachel Innes is a great narrator and protagonist, her inquisitiveness and nose for adventure giving fresh breath to what would otherwise have been a very stuffy enterprise indeed.