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Mary Roberts Rinehart: Grande Dame of American Crime Fiction

I have always been a fan of superheroes. I was a Justice League kid before the Marvel Cinematic Universe made it big, and deep down, I think I still have a soft spot for the DC Comics universe. My favorite superhero was, is and always will be Batman: The World’s Greatest Detective.

One can surely imagine the joy and inspiration I experienced when I discovered that the great comic book hero-detective would not exist if not for the lovely and brilliant Mary Roberts Rinehart.

Mary Roberts Rinehart (August 12, 1876 – September 22, 1958) was frequently regarded as the “American Agatha Christie,” “queen of the mystery novel,” and the “grande dame of American crime fiction.” She was a prolific author and playwright who would eventually become one of the most widely regarded pioneers of mystery fiction as we see it today.

Have you ever heard the phrase “the butler did it?” What about when the narrator of a mystery or thriller dramatically laments to the audience or reader “had I only known then what I do now?” Mary Roberts Rinehart did that.

Around two years before Rinehart published her novel The Door (1930), detective fiction writer and literary critic SS Van Dine explained in his essay “Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories” that the decision to make a servant the murder culprit or villain was too cliché and “easy” of a scapegoat. Nonetheless, Rinehart’s The Door flaunted its commercial success and critical acclaims in spite of its “cheap” ending and decision to make the butler the culprit.

Another famous trope claimed by Mary Roberts Rinehart is the “Had-I-But-Known” school of mystery writing, which appeared in her most famous work, The Circular Staircase (1908). This form of foreshadowing is when the first-person narrator proclaims regret or guilt for an action that will eventually lead to some looming tragedy or disaster the reader is not yet aware of. An example would be, “had I but known the events that were to transpire that night, I never would have stepped foot in the Everett family manor.”

The Circular Staircase would eventually inspire Mary Roberts Rinehart’s three-act play known as The Bat, a commercial and critical success featuring a masked criminal known as “the Bat.” The play would eventually receive three film adaptations, and the costumed criminal would serve as a critical character of inspiration for Batman and the Caped Crusader.

The effects of Mary Roberts Rinehart’s are still present in popular media and fiction today. She is an icon of American crime fiction, and I will stand by my opinion that she definitely does not get the recognition she deserves. We really should be reading more of her work.

Kyra Rickman

Chapel Hill '21

Kyra Rickman is an aspiring writer from Morehead City and a senior studying English and Studio Art at UNC-Chapel Hill. Her love for the ocean back home is almost as big as her love for words, and her dream job is to work in a publishing house where she can write and illustrate her own novels.
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