What’s Old Is New Again

by Janis Patterson

I don’t have much time to read, but for various reasons not long ago I agreed to review a few books. Two were okay – nothing to write home about, but at least grammatical and spelt correctly, with not-totally-stupid plots. The third… well, to call it puerile and sophomoric would be flattering it. If I hadn’t promised a review on it I wouldn’t have gotten beyond the third page. How can anyone think such a train wreck of a book is ready to be released is beyond me. Either they are supremely ignorant or totally ignorant.

Once my duty was done, though, I needed to clear my mental palate, and thought that something classic might soothe my outraged sensibilities. So I picked up a Mary Roberts Rinehart (one of my all-time favorites) mystery.

I really only intended to read one, but found out that’s sort of like eating a single peanut or potato chip. I happened across an omnibus of all of her long fiction on Amazon – and free, yet! It was a mixed blessing, though. It did contain books I had never heard of, but as I steadily munched through them I noticed a wildly varied level of editing quality. Some were wonderful; some were obviously edited by a set of drunks to whom English was not a first nor even a second language!

That’s neither here nor there, though; in the face of Rinehart’s genius even the editing errors were nothing more than a mild annoyance – and those of you who know how completely inflexible I am about proper spelling and editing will doubtless find that statement amazing if not downright incredible. But in the case of Rinehart’s genius it really doesn’t matter. No matter how badly they are misspelt they are some of the most fascinating books in the language.

Rinehart wrote in a number of fields, including short pulp fiction (by which she supported her husband and family during a time of need) as well as novel-length romance and mystery. I write romance and mystery myself and know how difficult that can be; she made it seem easy.

Her books will not, however, appeal to everyone. Contemporary to the time they were written – just before and just after World War One – they reflect both the style and the ethos of the era. No conscious, mad scientist style murders, no lascivious young lovers experimenting in athletic sex. Most characters are repressed, if anything, obsessively proper and yearning for respectability. A kiss on the hand becomes as emotionally satisfying as a two-chapter roll in the hay out of a modern romance novel. Solving a murder becomes not only a legal imperative, but a moral one as well. What’s worse is her writing style is equally dated, reflecting the usage of the times, and done – most of the times – in a measured and omniscient voice, now sadly unpopular, but one which I have always liked. She wrote from 1908 to the mid-1950’s (she died in 1958) – at least, those are the most accepted dates.

With all these drawbacks, why is Rinehart so prized and such a delicious read?

Two reasons – characterization and plot. Her plots are convoluted and impeccable and delicious. During her career she was called ‘the American Agatha Christie.’ I personally think in many cases she is the superior. Her characters are spot on. There is no endless repetition of hair or eye color, descriptions of physical flaws or rippling whatevers; to be sure there are descriptions, but minor ones, and usually at the beginning of a book. Her characters are not just compilations of attributes, but living, breathing people. I would know them if I met them on the street. Two of the ones I remember the most are a Belgian spy during the trench warfare of World War One, suave, outrageous and highly courage, and the other a teenaged girl of the pre-war period, who can and does cause chaos without ever trying.

Not only was Rinehart a gifted writer, she was an amazing woman. Married to a doctor, mother of three sons in an era when women were not supposed to be much else, she paid her own way (with a car, no less) to the Front in France during the War, where she not only acted as a war correspondent but drove food and supplies for the soldiers to obscure and remote outposts. She also became a well-known New York literary hostess.

It isn’t often I have such public fangurl moments, but it’s better than when I cry with regret or shake with anger that such a consummate craftsman is lost in the dust of history. Now, if you will excuse me, I am only half-way through THE AFTER HOUSE, and just have to find out how she’s going to work her way out of this tangle!