Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Confession (1917/1921), by Mary Roberts Rinehart

This 1917 Mary Roberts Rinehart novella is one of her earlier criminous works, following the better known novels (all originally serialized) The Man in Lower Ten (1906/1909), The Circular Staircase (1907-08/1908), The Window at the White Cat (1908/1910), The Case of Jennie Brice (1912-13/1913) and The After House (1913/1913) and the Nurse Hilda Adams novellas The Buckled Bag and Locked Doors (both 1914).  In 1921 it was published in book form with another novella, Sight Unseen (1916) as part of the series The Works of Mary Roberts Rinehart.

The Confession is a Rinehart work I had not heard of until fairly recently, but now having read it I find it one of her best tales.  Though Mary Roberts Rinehart was one of the most popular American mystery writers from the first half of the twentieth century (indeed, she was one of the most popular American writers in general), critics, often male, over several decades disparaged her as a "Had I But Known," or what might be termed "feminine anxiety," writer.

"It's nothing human that rings that bell."
An HIBK heroine strikes a classic pose.
The term--HIBK in short form--came into currency in the 1940s after the publication of an Ogden Nash poem, "Don't Guess, Let Me Tell You."

Nash's poem ridiculed the sort of mystery fiction associated most strongly with Mary Roberts Rinehart--most stereotypically that in which a wealthy, inquisitive middle-aged spinster gets involved in the events surrounding a murder mystery, all of which she narrates in a tone of breathless foreboding:

Had I but known on that Monday afternoon that by wearing my blue boa I would set in motion a monstrous train of events that would lead to the horrid butcherings of seven people, three fiendish abductions, the burning utterly to the ground of a stately ancestral home and the theft of my family Bible, I imagine that I would have gasped in horror at the prospect of all this ghastly impending carnage raining down upon my head, immediately run back to bed as fast as my legs could carry me and stuck my head under the covers all day!  But, alas, Bridget was pestering me with a question about the fruit preserves and I didn't give my blue boa anything more than a passing thought....

Mary Roberts Rinehart
Now this is something of an exaggeration (unless the author was simply deliberately engaging in deliberate parody, as I just was), but there was definitely a sort of HIBK style in the day.  Other HIBK writers from the Golden Age include Mignon Eberhart, who came to specialize in frightened ingenues, and Leslie Ford, the great mistress of southern HIBK (also see my discussions of two lesser known HIBK writers, Anita Blackmon and Margaret Armstrong).

However, HIBK will pop up in unexpected places--there are HIBK passages, for example, in such Freeman Wills Crofts novels as Inspector French and the Starvel Tragedy, Sudden Death and Man Overboard!  Yes, the fact is, you can have male HIBK writers as well as female ones.  HIBK knows no gender restrictions.

The truth is, HIBK merely is a lineal descendant of the great Gothic novel (one wag once defined a Gothic novel as a story about a woman who buys a house) and the first person narration so often found in HIBK simply is a tried and true suspense-building technique.

To be sure, some male critics sneered at HIBK--as late as 1972 Julian Symons, a late representative of this critical strain, wrote that Rinehart's works "are the first crime stories which have the air of being written specifically for maiden aunts"--but in the last forty years, with the rise of feminist criticism, there has been a pronounced tendency to reevaluate and upgrade Mary Roberts Rinehart and the school of mystery genre fiction that she represents (see most particularly Catherine Ross Nickerson's The Web of Iniquity: Early Detective Fiction by American Women, 1998).

Julian Symons (1912-1994)
not an HIBK fan
My biggest complaint about Rinehart's work has more to do with what I see as its often excessive length (something I suspect arose out of its lucrative serialization).  However, I have no such complaint about The Confession, a succinct 132 page novella.

I'm no maiden aunt (you should see my five o'clock shadow!), but I enjoyed The Confession a great deal.  Not only is it entertaining and suspenseful, but it's ultimately a rather moving and psychologically penetrating tale--a forerunner, I would say of the sort of psychological crime fiction associated most prominently today, perhaps, with Ruth Rendell.

[T]he house was cheap.  Unbelievably cheap.  I suspected sewerage at once, but it seemed to be in the best possible order....

Of course that incisive, wealthy spinster Agnes Blakiston is right to be suspicious of the terms of her rental.  There is something wrong with the house.  But the rot Miss Agnes finds in the house is not in the wood moldings or floorboards.

Spurred on by the mystery of the telephone that keeps ringing in the night (with no answer coming forth on the line when the receiver is picked up) and the small objects that move overnight, Miss Agnes starts to investigate the history of the house.

She finds some some shocking things....

This is a pretty vague description of the novella so far, I'll admit.  But I do not want to spoil the tale for those of you who have not read it.  It is really quite engrossing.  Additionally, Rinehart provides some interesting and rather subversive commentary on genteel family relationships, patriarchy and religion before the Jazz Age (and the Golden Age of the detective novel). Critics like Julian Symons, who I think tended somewhat unfairly to view women crime writers like Mary Roberts Rinehart as complacent apologists for the conservative social and political status quo, might have adjusted the verdicts they rendered on her had they read her Confession.

Yes, there's a creeping cat too!
Characterization in The Confession is excellent and the psychology is acute. At the heart of the narrative are three spinsters: Agnes Blakiston herself, her "old servant" Maggie and the elderly (about sixty, I think!) Emily Benton, who lets the house. They are all quite convincing. The mistress-servant relationship between Miss Agnes and Maggie is interesting too.  Agnes sometimes is condescending to Maggie, Maggie mutinous, but you can tell the two women have a very close bond.

A few men wander in and out of the mystery, confidently render opinions, and most often are completely wrong in what they pronounce.  Oddly, not one of them is named Julian (a joke!).

The Confession
is female-centered, unapologetically domestic...and entirely gripping, I should think, whatever the reader's particular gender may be.  Look it up.  It's even free on the net.


  1. Curt - I'm glad you've profiled Rinehart. As you say, she often hasn't gotten the recognition that time has shown she probably deserves.

  2. Margot,

    Thanks! I found this novella very interesting. I do think critics like Symons tended to overlook her real merits.