Friday, December 13, 2013

Life and Death at Sunset: The Wall (1938), by Mary Roberts Rinehart

"Maybe we'd better get at it from the start.  It's not a pretty story; but as a matter of human interest and--well, human motives, it's a humdinger."

the excellent Mysterious Press
kindle edition
Our twenty-nine-year-old heroine-narrator, Marcia Lloyd, is quoting local good old boy sheriff Russell Shand (a quite appealingly-presented character, by the way), about the murderous goings-on in the 1938 Mary Roberts Rinehart novel The Wall.

In 1937, Rinehart bought a house, Fairview, in Bar Harbor, Maine, so I suppose it only makes sense that she set her 1938 murder mystery there, in a suitably fictionalized version (the house burned in 1948, a year after Rinehart was nearly killed there by her deranged cook; see more on Rinehart and Bar Harbor here).

A great part of the appeal of the novel is Rinehart's portrayal of this setting; it will be a rare reader who won't want to make a visit to Maine after reading this book.

I think The Wall is the sort of mystery novel to which the term cozy applies.  Despite unpleasantness and nasty murders, order is restored by the end in classic fashion.

"It is all familiar and friendly again," Marcia Lloyd writes, "this rambling old house, built by my grandfather in the easy money days of the nineties, and called Sunset House, generally corrupted to Sunset."

Of course with the Depression and all, life is somewhat tougher for Marcia and her brother Arthur. Mainly she worries about being able to keep up her retinue of servants--what would they do without her?  I know this sort of thing can sound self-serving, but, I will give Rinehart credit, she presents Marcia's paternalism in a much more sympathetic light than does, say, Theodora DuBois with her insufferable Anne McNeill, who comes off simply as a snob.  I think most readers will like Marcia and want things to work out for her.

1940s mapback edition
with an inaccurate Victorian house
As nice as the island is, there is a serpent that comes slithering into Marcia's midst at Sunset, her brother Arthur's scheming, common hussy of an ex-wife, Juliette Ransom (aptly named, because she is always demanding more money from Arthur).

Juliette soon gets fatally dispatched (with a golf club) and Marcia and the readers are off on a murder-go-round that doesn't come to a stop until there are three more deaths.

Rinehart said that for her crime novels she first wrote out the "buried story" (the true events of the mystery we don't know about until the end), then overlaid it with the surface story. Her narrators offer teasing hints and foreshadowing of things that were to come in a dramatically effective way, in my view.

Some critics mocked this as "had I but known" narrative, but it's simply a tool of suspense. Yes, with some writers it could get silly, but Rinehart was the master at this sort of thing and does it well.

Rinehart received the modern equivalent of over one million dollars for the serialization of The Wall in the Saturday Evening Post, so I can't blame her for taking a leisurely pace.

the frightened lady in nightgown motif
popular in late 60s/early70s "Gothic"
paperbacks--seemingly the setting
has changed to somewhere in Europe!
The novel is long by the standards of the era, about 120,000 words.  Yet there's a richness to the milieu that compensates for any slowness.

Dorothy L. Sayers appreciated this quality, comparing Rinehart's novels to the three-deckers of Victorian sensation writers like Wilkie Collins.  Rinehart isn't that good a writer (few people are) but I can see why Sayers made the comparison.  I'm reminded somewhat of the Barbara Vine novels of Ruth Rendell, though Rinehart is more cozy and genteel.

Considering how popular she once was and that she wrote books that are more like modern-day crime novels, focusing on characters and emotions more than physical clues, it seems odd that Rinehart isn't so well-known today, compared with contemporaries like Sayers and Agatha Christie.

It probably didn't help that Julian Symons was so dismissive of Rinehart in his influential Bloody Murder (published in three editions between 1972 and 1993) and that in Talking about Detective Fiction P. D. James doesn't even mention her (James seems to think Americans of that era wrote only hard-boiled crime fiction).  But for mystery fans who like older fiction Rinehart's criminous works (by my count 16 novels and 6 novellas, as well as short stories, written between 1906 and 1953) are a rich legacy, to be enjoyed at leisure.


  1. IF I have read Mary Roberts Rinehart, it is so far back in my youth that I do not remember it. But these are gorgeous covers that I would love to own. And this particular novel sounds interesting, worth a try.

  2. I'm going to be back with another one over the holiday.