Sunday, May 10, 2020

Wives, Mothers and Other Suspicious Characters: The Frightened Wife and Other Murder Stories (1953), by Mary Roberts Rinehart

Mary Roberts Rinehart's The Frightened Wife and Other Murder Stories (1953) contains two novellas and three short stories, as follows:

  • The Frightened Wife Saturday Evening Post 1953 nv
  • If Only It Were Yesterday Ladies Home Journal 1950 ss
  • The Scandal Saturday Evening Post July 1950 ss
  • Murder and the South Wind Good Housekeeping June 1945 ss
  • The Burned Chair 1953 nv

This was bestselling author Mary Roberts Rinehart's final published book of fiction, even though she lived on for five more years, until her death from a heart attack at age of 82.  (At least one additional criminous short story by her was published as late as 1955, however.)

Woman 1952
(Marilyn Monroe)
A half-century earlier, Rinehart had contributed a landmark of mystery fiction with the publication of her first novel, The Circular Staircase (1908).  It was published at a time when the Gibson Girl was the idealization of female beauty and "horseless carriages" were just starting to become a thing.  So it's perhaps not surprising that by the Fifties, a decade of atomic bombs and blonde bombshells bedecked in bullet bras, Rinehart was looking to mystery fans a bit, well, staid.

Rinehart had earned a fortune with lucrative serializations of her fiction, criminous and otherwise, in glossy, high-toned popular magazines like the Saturday Evening Post, but in the postwar era she found the new regime at the Post increasingly unwilling to take her work, much to her umbrage.

In 1945, for example, SEP serialized her mystery novel The Yellow Room, but five years later they refused serialization of her excellent novella "Episode of the Wandering Knife," just as seven years later they also refused serialization of  her final published mystery novel, The Swimming Pool, which an outraged Rinehart--who as late in life authors so often do believed herself very much still at the top of the writing game--pronounced "perhaps the best mystery novel I ever wrote."

Woman 1912
As you can see at the top of this piece, SEP accepted both "The Frightened Wife" and "The Scandal," but Rinehart had to place "If Only It Were Yesterday" and "Murder and the South Wind" in lesser publications, Ladies Home Journal and Good Housekeeping.  "The Burned Chair," for its part, appeared for the first time in The Frightened Wife collection, having never seen serial publication.  I think it and Murder and the South Wind are the standouts in this collection, much more so than The Frightened Wife.

"The Frightened Wife"

"Why does any girl marry any man?  Maybe it was the uniform."

"Never know what a woman will do, do you?" he observed.  "Looks like a nice girl, too.....she can probably plead self-defense.  Get off with a dozen years or so."

Reading the title story certainly gives one material with which to speculate concerning Rinehart's declining prestige with the SEP.  It opens in the offices of tax attorney Wade Forsythe II, "ex-lieutenant of Marines in the late if not the last war and now member of the bar.

Wade hates doing taxes, which makes his career choice odd, but this allowed Rinehart, a wealthy Republican, to shoot off some steam about predatory taxation.  Anyway, into Wade's office, in classic hard-boiled fashion, comes a disheveled dame in trouble.  And has she got a tale of woe!

Her name is Anne Collier, and she's twenty-seven and frightened of her husband, Wilfred Collier, ex-marine and awful bully.  Wade is favorably disposed to her from the start, because he can tell that "[s]habby or not, she was a lady."  However, when he discovers that she's the sister of his old Yale college chum, Bill Blake, and recalls that he shared a single dance with her at the prom, well!

Anne sure knows how to pluck the old heartstrings:

"[Y]ou were going to law school.  You'd played football, of course, and I almost died with excitement when you asked me to dance.  I always thought Bill asked you to....[Bill] was killed in the war.  If only I had him--"  
Unexpectedly she dropped her head on the desk, her shoulders shaking with repressed sobs.

You get the picture.  If this really were  a hard-boiled story, chances are Anne would be a conniving femme fatale, taking in that poor sap Bill with some crocodile tears and an artfully concocted story that is more than slightly cock-and-bull.  But, no, Anne is as she appears: a frightened, helpless wet noodle, a limp dishrag of a "girl."  The question in the story will be not be what Anne can do to help herself, but whether Wade, former football player and marine, can manfully rescue her from whatever dire situation she finds herself in and put an end once and for all to her travails.

As to why she wed such a foul brute as Wilfred Collier, Anne can't really say:

"Why does any girl marry any man?  Maybe it was the uniform.  I don't know.  Bill brought him to see me before they went overseas.  I was working as a secretary then and I suppose I was lonely.  He wrote me all through the war, and--well, that's all.  We were married as soon as he came back."|

After the war, Anne "wanted [Wilfred] to be a get work and settle down."  He finally got a position selling secondhand cars, but he's also become a nasty drunk.  The two have a son together, but Anne, fearful of what her husband might do to the boy, sent him to live with her plucky maiden aunt in Connecticut (a sop, one presumes, to Rinehart's "maiden aunt" readers).

Meanwhile, Anne under a false name since the war's end has been secretly writing a hugely popular radio serial, Monica's Marriage, which has proven highly lucrative to her.  She wants to give it up but she has lots of money her agent as stashed away in a secret account.  Now she has come to Wade to get him to write her a will. 

In case Wilfred kills her, you see, she wants her boy, not her brute of a husband, to get her money.

Already in the first ten pages of this one hundred page novella, Rinehart had done a lot to set me off.  At this point I was like, Anne, girlfriend, you're rich, go get that damn money you earned, go to Connecticut, get your boy, fly to Reno, divorce Wilfred's worthless ass, and live your life! 

Then there's all the old school tie stuff....

Rinehart's own background was not old money (her father, a son of widowed dressmaker, owned, but later lost, a sewing machine sale agency), but she sure liked to write about it.  Probably this was a subject that was paling in interest with many readers after World War Two, but it sure never lost its fascination for Rinehart.  I think she was obsessed with wealthy genteel families who  had lost, or were losing, money and social postion.

So while in The Frightened Wife Rinehart incorporates some modern elements, it remains a highly traditional story with a manful, take charge hero and a helpless, wilting heroine, both of them, but naturally, from Social Register families (or at least Anne's was until the Crash, don't you know).  Hero Wade lives in New York in the old family home with a conveniently unmarried older sister to take care of him, and Rinehart drops casual mentions of butlers and "neat" maids and "the thousand and one people an eligible single man in New York always knew."  I can't help assuming that the word "eligible" in this context means old moneyed.

Anyway, there's more to the tale besides the Wade-Wilfred-Anne triangle, to be sure.  There are, after all, one hundred pages to fill.  So we have the suspicious agent, for example, as well as the suspicious tenants and and superintendent at Anne and Wilfred's apartment house.  Wade resorts to fisticuffs with Wilfred (getting the better of him, cause he's Wade Forsythe II good II be true) and someone tries to kill Anne, with that wheezy old dodge of rigging a thread on the stair banisters for Anne to trip over and break her neck.  Then, when that fails, Wilfred is found fatally shot in their apartment and Anne seriously wounded.  The cops think Anne shot Wilfred then herself and now are threatening her with the electric chair (!).  But, don't worry, Wade's got it tapped.  So should the reader as well.  I never had much doubt about what was really going on in this one.

Where I derived most of my interest was from the questions of whether Wade was going to stop treating Anne like a child and whether Anne would stop acting like one.  But nope, Wade won't tell her someone, presumably her husband, tried to murder her on the stairway, allowing her to think her fall was accidental:

What could he do....Tell her her husband was trying to kill her?  That he had tried it tonight, and would certainly try it again?  He was strongly tempted [to tell her], but she had already been badly shocked....  

Motto of the story: Ladies are better left stumbling in the dark!  The poor dears are delicate.  Those hardened low class tramps, now, you can tell them anything.  Wantons can take it.

Fortunately, I liked the all of the other tales in the collection much better than the title tale, especially the last two.

If Only It Were Yesterday

"It had been an impulse, dark and deadly, like the crash.  Only this was different.  This was death."

This is a good inverted murder story, about Amy, a woman jealous of Jessie, her younger, better-looking half sister.  In a moment of mad impulse, Amy decides to get rid of Jessie by shutting the windows of her bedroom and turning on the gas taps, leaving her to die while she is away at a dinner party at her brother's house.  (Jessie is temporarily bedridden, recuperating from the time when Amy, in another of her mad moments, "accidentally" crashed their car.)

When Amy returns, already regretting her rash action, she finds her would-be victim is not actually dead and that the police are mightily suspicious.  There's a nice twist next, although I saw it coming.

The story also constitutes another expression of a theme which obsessed Rinehart: the sad fate of the unmarried genteel daughter who sacrificed marriage to care for a family member.  Often it's a daughter caring for a mother, but here it's a half-sister who had to become a substitute mother for her sibling.  There's a feminist message of a sort here, I suppose: Women should get the chance to live their own lives, not stay chained forever to a parent or other family member.  Although here "live their own lives" invariably means marrying and starting their own families.  The idea of of a genteel woman having her own career (like Mary Roberts Rinehart) generally seems to be anathema.  (Frightened Wife is an exception, although Anne doesn't really seem to enjoy her work.)

Ultimately, then, the tale feels anachronistic for 1950.  There's also the usual retinue of butler and maids, in a decade when even Agatha Christie was omitting butlers from most of her books and her maids had become, well, simply hopeless.  Just recall what it's like trying to get good servants in Christie's classic A Murder Is Announced, published the same year as Yesterday.  Of course Christie was fourteen years younger than Rinehart, and that age difference shows.

"The Scandal"

"....she was quite a pretty girl, but then he had heard that love children often were."

Here's another story where Rinehart is trying to be "up to date."  Unfortunately for mystery fans, it's only peripherally a crime tale and more an emotional melodrama, reminiscent of Peyton Place and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, about another rich old biddy who two decades ago did her best to ruin her daughter's life. 

In this case it's Caroline Coleman and her daughter Jennie, who fell for the handsome family chauffeur, Chris Burton, and was going to run off with him to get married.  Instead Chris died in a  mysterious garage fire and Jennie left town to give birth to an illegitimate daughter, Edith, after which in deference to Caroline the mother and daughter were ostracized by the groveling townspeople. 

How does young lawyer Steve Wallace, who has fallen for Edith, achieve some measure of justice in this shameful affair?  That is the main question.  (Like Wade in Frightened Wife, by the way, he's another highly eligible bachelor who lives with an older unmarried sister.)

Rinehart attempts to take a 'bold" social stance: illegitimate children should not be ostracized.  At least if her parents were going actually to marry, after all (had one of them not been bumped off), and the chauffeur father had been listed on the Social Register before the Crash (that again).  If this were a Moray Dalton mystery, for example, the chauffeur might have been allowed to be of humble station, but Rinehart, presumably thinking of her own history, won't have that.

"Murder and the South Wind"

"But this is only incidentally a tarpon story.  Actually it is about  a murder."

"Anyway, I guess divorce isn't a cause for murder anymore.  Time was when--"  He let that go.

"Does that girl live with that old woman all the time?" he asked.
"She's her mother.  What else can she do?"

Useppa Island, Florida
unnamed setting of "Murder and the South Wind"
This one takes place at a wealthy Florida tarpon fishing resort, which Rinehart based on eighty- acre Useppa Island, near the city of Fort Myers.  Since 1912 the tiny island had been a vacation destination of such varied notables and celebrities as Teddy Roosevelt and Herbert Hoover, western write Zane Grey, boxer Gene Tunney, actresses Hedy Lamar, Gloria Swanson and Shirley Temple, and assorted Vanderbilts, Rothschilds and Rockefellers.  Rinehart was introduced to the island by Hoover, whom local gossip suggested might be romantically interested in the bestselling author.*

*(Like Hoover's presidency, Rinehart's husband had passed away in 1932.)

Sadly, this titillating notion has been scotched by a Rinehart grandson, who has declared: It's hard for me to imagine my grandmother and Hoover generating much steam, particularly Hoover.  Hoover was a friend of mystery writer Carolyn Wells as well, incidentally, so I guess you could say he was a magnet for mystery writing Republican matrons.

tarpon fishing off Useppa Island
Certainly there is steam in the story, or at least heat generated by romantic friction, this being the friction generated among Fanny Raeburn, Pat Wilson and Captain Hugh Gardiner.  Fanny has divorced Hugh and Pat is planning on marrying him, but has Fanny really gotten over the dashing captain?  It becomes a very pertinent question when Hugh is shot dead while tarpon fishing.  The immediate suspect is the only other person on the boat: his guide, Bill Smith, with whom he had quarreled.  However, it's also possible that Hugh was felled by a bullet fired from a plane on a practice flight from nearby Buckingham Army Airfield.  (The story being set during World War Two.)  Or could someone simply have potted Hugh from the beach?

Other characters in the story are the bright narrator, Peggy, and her husband, Tom; Peggy's mother, Mrs. Hull; Fanny's brother Roy, "an authority on shells of all sorts" (this is a genteel mystery so naturally he is); Peter Randolph, an "old friend" of Tom's whom Peggy has never seen or heard of before; Mrs. Wilson, Pat's querulous, invalid mother; and Mary Pearl, Lulie, and Lindy, black servants who cater to the wealthy white season visitors and gossip about them behind their backs.

This is suspenseful, well-told mystery story with excellent local color.  I really felt I was on that island.  The story also feels a bit more up-to-date, like, say, a Mignon Eberhart piece.  (Except the heroine isn't a nudnik.)  Rinehart manages to pack in a lot of event into twenty-five pages.  Bravo.

Useppa Inn where MaryRoberts  Rinehart stayed with her family on her first visit.
They later annually rented a guest cottage.  

"The Burned Chair"

They all rang bells, the Jewetts.  They had been raised that way.  They rang and someone came running.

It seems to me that Rinehart could have expanded this fine novella into a full novel, but such was not to be.  It's another one set in a fictionalized Bar Harbor, Maine where Rinehart had owned a vacation "cottage" and almost been murdered by her Filipino cook.  As the third person narration puts it: "The millionaire colony was slowly dying, of two wars and high taxes.  But its houses remained, huge and burdensome to those who still came to spend the summer in them."

The main character is Jessica Jewett, wife of war veteran Tommy Jewett.  They live in one of the big, antiquated houses, along with Julia, Tommy's haughty elder sister, of late divorced from bank vice president Don Cameron; Henry, his elder brother; and Marian, Henry's beguiling but flippant wife, formerly a "dancer in a nightclub."  (Oh dear!)  In the house next door there resides the Jewett patriarch, Horace, with his live-in nurse, Miss Scott. 

1910 mansion at Bar Harbor

When the story opens, Jessica, responding in the morning to the importuning of the nurse next door, finds old, sickly Horace dead in his big chair in his sitting room, his wheelchair upset, the windows open and the lights off.  Jessica thinks the situation is strange, but the family and the police consider it a natural death from heart failure.  But then why did someone set fire to Horace's chair late at night?  And isn't it queer that Horace's nurse soon manages to fall into the ocean and drown?  Jessica, the daughter of a noted criminologist, is soon investigating matters herself....

I really liked this one.  It's a nice, meaty mystery with both physical and psychological clues.  Jessica Jewett is one of Rinehart's better heroines, at least in my view.  She's more capable than a lot of Eber-Rinehart heroines, having served as a nurse's aide during World War Two and having a sleuth father.  Also, the servant problem being what it is (it's acknowledged in this story), she's not afraid to cook and wash up, even at the risk of getting "dishpan hands."  Mike Grost argues that the story probably was actually composed in the late Forties, with the Korean War references added when it was finally published as part of the Frightened Wife collection in 1953.

A product of the author's twilight, "The Burned Chair" makes a fine farewell from Rinehart to the formal mystery in the novel/novella form.  For the book as a whole Rinehart was awarded a special Edgar by the Mystery Writers of America.  It was the only occasion on which she received this award.

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