the circular staircase

The After House by Mary Roberts Rinehart

The After House written by American mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart was published in 1914.

Ralph Leslie, a young doctor, is recovering from a bout of Typhoid. Partly to earn some money and partly to stay close to a girl he has espied through his hospital window, he gets a job on board a yacht named Ella. What promised to be a tranquil voyage soon turns into a nightmare as three of Ella’s passengers are found hacked in to pieces. With land nowhere in sight, the crew of Ella do all they can to reach the nearest port before the unknown assailant strikes again.

I read Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Circular Staircase (1908) last year and was not impressed. I still decided to give Rinehart another chance. I must say that I enjoyed The After House more than The Circular Staircase.

The atmosphere created by Rinehart is perfectly chilling! After the multiple homicides occur, I could totally feel the fear felt by the crew and the passengers.

I also loved the supernatural touch Rinehart added to the story. Floating in the lonesome sea on an isolated boat with dead bodies on board, people are bound to be more than a bit inclined to believe in the paranormal. It was quite effectively scary.

I read a lot of Classic literature, Mystery and Detective novels especially Golden Age Mysteries. By now I should get used to the attitudes from a different era. But for some reason I can’t. Racism and sexism bother me to no end. It gnaws at my brain until I cannot see straight. A lot of good and some very good mysteries are ruined by this problem of mine. The same problem plagues The After House.

In the story the protagonist treats the women like some sort of dumb dolls who should be protected from the ‘horrors’ of the crime at any cost. Most of the crucial evidence is cleared away so as not to offend their ‘delicate’ senses. They are ordered about and herded together like animals. They are portrayed as pigheaded individuals who see only one thing at a time and act accordingly. All of them want to protect one person it seems and they try to accomplish that by any means (destroying evidence, perjuring themselves, using their ‘feminine wiles’). I could understand if one of them was like that but nearly half a dozen women all acting alike is a bit too much to take.

And don’t even get me started on the racism! George Williams, the coloured butler, is used as a punching bag (both metaphorically and literally). He is portrayed as a cowardly snivelling fool. The ‘N’ word and ‘d…y’ are commonly used to describe him. This made me really uncomfortable and at times angry.

The romance, as usual, annoyed me. Well, at least the heroine wasn’t some pretty as a doll blonde who just says sweet things and faints. The conclusion of this romance is also unnecessary and irritating.

The court room scenes were pointless. They basically repeat everything we already know. I have seen Rinehart do this before in The Circular Staircase where the rather thin plot is stretched to the breaking point. She liked using fillers to draw out her stories it seems.

I enjoyed The After House more than The Circular Staircase but the two books share some common problems. Rinehart creates some really amazing spine chilling situations and parts of the books are great fun to read. But she also tries to extend her stories through tedious repetitions and needless twists, a practice that ultimately leaves the reader exasperated. I only wish her books stayed taut and thrilling throughout without all the superfluous parts. Then I definitely would have wanted to read more books by her.

(This review is offered as a part of Friday’s Forgotten Books meme. Check out what other reviews are up at pattinase.)

Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge 2011 – Completion

I participated on the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge 2011 hosted by the wonderful Bev Hankins of My Readers Block. My participation level was “In a Murderous Mood” where one had to read four-six books from the mystery category written before 1960,

I completed the challenge last month.

We had been told that we’ll be receiving prizes beforehand and I was pretty excited about it. And as promised I received The Crooked Hinge by John Dickson Carr.

For a mystery buff like me this is truly exciting! So, here’s a big ‘Thank you’ to Bev!

Books Completed:

1. Dead Man’s Folly. Agatha Christie.

2. The Mystery of the Yellow Room. Gaston Leroux.

3. The Circular Staircase. Mary Roberts Rinehart.

4. The Murder at the Vicarage. Agatha Christie.

5. Plot It Yourself . Rex Stout.

6. The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Agatha Christie.

The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rinehart

The Circular Staircase, published in 1908, is perhaps the best known work of the American mystery writer Mary Roberts Rinehart. It was chosen as one of the 100 best mysteries of the last century.

The narration is cosy and comfortable. The writing is easy to read.

The main problem with the story is that it has a rather thin plot which is stretched to the breaking point.

I know that this is fiction and everything is not supposed to be very realistic. But in The Circular Staircase every character behaves in such an unreasonable way!  The family living in the house are overall a very normal bunch of people caught up in a bad situation. But the way they all act and keep information and evidence from the investigators is atrocious to say the least. And all this without any tangible reason.

Everyone just keeps wondering and going round and round. Ladies go on fainting spells, people are tied up, detectives swarm the house and the mystery goes nowhere very fast.

A lot happens during the course of the book. The book is full of chases, people in disguise, mysterious ladies in black, secret passages and at least half a dozen deaths! And yet I felt bored at times. All of this action serves no other purpose than just to lengthen the novel.

None of the book’s characters are really likeable. Most of them are stubborn and short sighted.

The book does have certain situations that were quite spine tingling. But it could have been much shorter. The same things just seem to happen again and again and again…

By the time I finally finished The Circular Staircase, I no longer cared who did what. I was just glad it was over!

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