Saturday, October 30, 2021

The Monday Club Murder: "Sight Unseen" (1916/21), by Mary Roberts Rinehart

The body lay in the room overhead.  But what of the spirit?  I shivered as I thought that it might even then be watching me with formless eyes from some dark corner.

--"Sight Unseen," Mary Roberts Rinehart

In "Sight Unseen" by American Crime Queen Mary Roberts Rinehart the Neighborhood Club meets weekly on Monday nights to discuss topics of current interest.  The club is composed of six well-off suburbanites, three men and three women.  These are:

first American edition, 1921

  • stolid Horace Johnson, an attorney and the narrator of the tale, and his wife, "known throughout the neighborhood as a perfect housekeeper"
  • literary editor Herbert Robinson and his sister Alice, "not a young woman, but clever, alert and very alive"
  • Sperry, a heart specialist and "bachelor still in spite of much feminine activity"
  • elderly but engaged Mrs. Dane, who, although confined to a wheelchair, is "one of those glowing and kindly souls that have a way of becoming a neighborhood nucleus"

The "fun" begins when the Neighborhood Group, on a Monday evening on November 2, has as its special guest Miss Jeremy, an attractive young woman spiritualist.  A séance is held, at which Miss Jeremy seems to channel a woman who has just committed, or at least been very recently on the scene of, a shocking murder! 

Later that night, Horace learns that one of their neighbors, fast living Arthur Wells, has died, ostensibly by a self-inflicted shooting.  Was is really suicide, however, or murder???

Avon paperback edition, 1946

Could this have been the murder that the medium Miss Jeremy seemed to be experiencing?  Both events took place around the same time, about 9: 30 in the evening.  Horace and his friend Speer, who starts falling for the pretty spiritualist, begin to investigate and come up with some shocking answers.

This is an entertaining murder story, especially original for its time I would think.  Does anyone know of a situation like this in an earlier story?  

I know of mysteries where murders are committed in the same room during seances, but I'm blanking on mediumistic revelations about murders which are taking place elsewhere while the séance is being held.  There's Agatha Christie's The Sittaford Mystery, but that dates from 1931.

Mary Rinehart knows how to spin an engrossing tale and "Sight Unseen" certainly is one.  Nor is it disadvantaged by its shorter length than much of her work--indeed, rather the contrary I think.  (By my count it's just shy of 40,000 words, so it's a long novella.)  

I'm struck again, however, by how Rinehart was more interested in writing stories about crime and character than meticulously clued puzzlers of the Agatha Christie sort.  There's some spiritualistic activity in Christie's detective novel Dumb Witness, which I reviewed recently, and you can bet that when there's a séance in that book there's a good fair play style clue wedged in there!  With Rinehart you don't really get that; it's more a parade of revelations.  And while the mystery is fine and engrossing, there's no shocking twists in culpritude.  

1989 Zebra paperback edition,
which gives "The Confession"
top billing

Indeed what I probably enjoyed more than the murder is the gradual detailing of Horace's life with his wife, that perfect housekeeper as he tells us.  I don't think we ever even learn this imposing matron's first name.  Poor dull Horace comes off as rather a henpecked soul, as it were, and it all makes an interesting portrait of upper middle-class marriage around the time of the Great War.  Just don't hold out great expectations of this linking in with the murder!  

Some of the writing in the novella is actually quite funny.  The blurb on my Avon paperback copy of the story, which has been coupled in published editions with a shorter Rinehart novella, "The Confession" (reviewed by me here) dramatically tells readers, "You Will Tingle and Shudder," but, nah, you won't.  

Truthfully, there aren't any real scares here --"The Confession" actually is rather creepier as I recall--although there is some interesting speculation about spiritualism and the existence of an afterlife.  This being Rinehart, there's a little romance too, though its nothing cloying, as her successors sometimes were with such material.

Originally published in a magazine in 1916, "Sight Unseen" first appeared in book form with "The Confession" in 1921 and has been reprinted in paperback several times since.  Avon's edition, pictured above, appeared in 1946.  Its whimsical cover of a cigarette-smoking skull, cocktail glass and knife bears no relationship whatsoever to the story, but it's a pretty cool visual!


  1. Another very good example of using the possibly supernatural in a crime novel is Rinehart's "The Red Lamp". She also has some unexplained, crypto-paranormal ringing of house bells in "The Wall", although the narrator states clearly that these had absolutely nothing to do with the crime.

    1. I never finished The Red Lamp, it just went on too long. Someday perhaps!

  2. At my end I finally finished The Red Lamp yesterday, but indeed it went on for too long and basically failed to capture me. Could have made a good short story.

    1. Yes, I read over half of it last year and drifted on to something else. I really think it dragged on too long, which can be an issue with Rinehart. RE: my discussion of short stories vs. novels on another post, sometimes great length works against Rinehart in my view.