The State Versus Elinor Norton (Mary Roberts Rinehart, 1934)

Elinor, on trial for the murder of Blair Leighton, awaits the verdict of the jury.

Like most Rinehart romances, a large aspect of the story is the great social upheaval of the world war and the death of Victorian sensibilities. The book takes the form of a memoir/reconstruction of events by Carroll Warner, who’d been in love with Elinor since they were children.

Caroline had Elinor very late in life and never had the slightest affection for her. Whether in their New York mansion, their Palm Springs one, or the one in Newport, Elinor’s life is a very lonely one. Her only true friend is Carroll Warner, whose family was hardly poor — they were their Newport neighbors — but in Caroline’s view existed so far beneath her station as to be invisible.

Lloyd Norton is selected for Elinor’s husband. Elinor is too cowed by her mother to care much, and the marriage is about as perfunctory to Norton as well. War breaks out and Norton goes over. He comes back a mental wreck. Norton is violently jealous of his wife and grows increasingly unstable, though Caroline refuses to see it. At last, they decide a change of lifestyle might do Norton good and they buy a ranch in Montana. “They” meaning Norton and Blair Leighton.

If Norton had any actual cause to suspect his wife’s fidelity, it’s Blair Leighton. She had few interactions with him but often saw him riding while her husband was at war and experienced the first crush of her life. Blair is an Englishman of indeterminate means in the country for indeterminate reasons. Those who know him best know him to be an adventuring womanizer.

The ranch is a crude series of shacks on a vast, lifeless plain, but Norton does actually seem to improve given work to occupy his time. Blair buys in with him, but it quickly becomes clear that his income is quite limited and he expects to leach off Norton. After a combination of inexperience, over expansion, and a disastrous winter, Norton’s own capitol is quite depleted and the ranch limps along solely on Elinor’s allowance from her mother. It’s then that Norton and Blair’s friendship begins to breakdown and Norton’s neuroses return.

On a hunting expedition one winter, the two find themselves snowed in. Only Blair returns. It’s widely if quietly thought that the close quarters broke them both, a fight ensued, and Blair killed him. Regardless, Elinor is convinced it was as Blair said — an accident — and further, gleefully accepts his marriage proposal. But after months of waiting, Blair has still made no move to marry. He has, however, relentlessly hounded Elinor for more money, whether it be by selling her jewelry or by appealing to her mother. It turns out that the windfall that Blair expects — Elinor’s inheritance once Caroline finally dies — will never come. The estate manager writes backs that Caroline is virtually penniless — she’s simply been too ill, stubborn, and trapped in the past to realize it. Everything has already been sold to pay her debts except the Newport house, which is willed elsewhere. Blair for once drops his mask and Elinor realizes what he is — that he was only ever using her for her money and never intended to marry her.

The sheriff arrives and confiscates Blair’s gun. It’s clear he’s suspected of murdering Norton and he needs to flee quick. He ransacks the house looking for Elinor’s pearls — the only thing she’d refused to sell — but doesn’t find them. Elinor has them in her safety deposit box. Late that night, he returns to the ranch, obviously drunk, and begins climbing the steep stairs to Elinor’s room. When he reaches the top, Elinor shoots him with Norton’s old service pistol.

Carroll knows the story, but very little of this is brought out at trial and the defense isn’t confident. The taciturn ranchers that make up the jury, however, are more penetrating than they imagined. Belated, perhaps, but they find that Elinor’s shooting was nothing but self-defense. Elinor moves back east and marries Carroll.

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