Friday, December 6, 2013

Mary Roberts Rinehart, Golden Age Crime Queen

The real Crime Queen in the decade of the 1930s, in terms of money and sales anyway, was not, I suspect, Agatha Christie (brilliant as she was), but the American writer Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958).  At this time her books, which included mainstream novels as well as mysteries, regularly sold over 100,000 copies per title in the United States (this in a period when people mostly rented mysteries for a few cents a day from libraries).

with her book earnings in the 1930s
Rinehart could buy lots of sheet music
--not to mention grand pianos
Moreover, Rinehart's serialization figures are awesome.  The real price of the serializations of her crime novels The Door (1930), Miss Pinkerton (1932), The Album (1933), The Wall (1938) and The Great Mistake (1940) in The Saturday Evening Post was something close to five million dollars today. Then there were her serializations of the many short stories she wrote.  These were primarily non-criminous, but among the crime shorts "The Lipstick," for example, was purchased by Cosmopolitan for about $70,000 modern USD (compare this with a dozen years later, in 1954, when Rinehart published "The Splinter" in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine for about $3500 modern USD, chump change for this author; this story was published, by the way, in the Fall 1955 issue of EQMM and a list of its contents can be found here).*

*(figures drawn from Jan Cohn's 1980 Rinehart biography, Improbable Fiction)

There was really no one to compare to Rinehart in terms of classical mystery fiction sales during the Golden Age, I think, unless it was S. S. Van Dine, briefly, in the 1920s. Rinehart's fans considered her something more than a "mere" mystery writer (as did Rinehart herself), someone concerned with the emotional impact of crime rather than puzzle mechanics.

Julian Symons once rather patronizingly termed Rinehart's audience as "maiden aunts"; but in fact I think Rinehart's popularity encompassed a much broader demographic. Her mystery fiction not only sold well, but it was well-received by (predominantly male) newspaper book reviewers, despite Ogden Nash famously ridiculing Rinehart's sort of "Had I But Known" mystery fiction [HIBK] in his satiric poem "Don't Guess Let Me Tell You."

I'll be saying more about Rinehart in a few days, when I talk about one of those 1930s mystery novels.


  1. Mary Roberts Rinehart is one of my favorite vintage authors! I have many of her books! She is from Pittsburgh Pa. which I live just north of. And she is buried in Arlington National Cemetery! I will definitely be on the look out for Gruber too. Enjoyed this post! Thanks.

  2. Good-oh, Peggy Ann! My mom is from Pennsylvania, small town north of Harrisburg. Great old place. Thanks for the comment. I recently got several Rineharts in the big cyber sale and wanted to write about her. A lot of people today seem to have forgotten what a big deal she was,