K. (Mary Roberts Rinehart, 1914)

Dr. Edwardes, a brilliant surgeon who lost a patient through negligence, abandons his practice and starts as new life as K. Le Moyne. He boards with the Pages. Sydney Page is a nurse and is in enamored with Dr. Max, a surgeon at the hospital. Max rather likes Sydney as well and would like to marry her, but he’s a ladies man and settling down to one woman is really not in the cards. Joe had a childhood crush on Sydney that he’s never gotten over and he despises Max. When he sees him taking a girl to one of the private rooms at a seedy roadhouse, he shoots him. It seems hopeless for Max until K. outs himself and operates — saving his life. Sydney realizes it was only glamour that drew her to Max and that she really loves K.

Inscription: “3/28/20” on the very upper-right corner of the flyleaf.

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.

No inscriptions.

The Case of Jennie Brice (Mary Roberts Rinehart, 1913)

Mrs. Pitman’s boarding house is flooded out and the downstairs residents must pack into the upper rooms. Among them are Ladley and his wife Jennie Brice, an actress. The first night of the flood, Jennie vanishes and the evidence against Ladley starts to mount. Is it a publicity stunt, or is a publicity stunt a great mask for a murderer to hide behind?

Inscription: “Papa, from Lizzie” on the front flyleaf.

Locked Doors (Mary Roberts Rinehart, 1914)

Miss Adams and Mr. Patton, the nurse and detective from The Buckled Bag, are on another case. The Reeds are behaving very strangely. They live in Beauregard Square, an exclusive neighborhood in the city. They’ve recently dismissed all their servants, ripped up the carpets, pulled the furniture away from the walls, and leave every light on around the clock. Their two boys are kept locked in the nursery on the second floor and Mr. and Mrs. Reed alternate in keeping a 24 hour watch at the head of the stairs. Mr. Reed needs someone to babysit the children, but they have to be a registered nurse.

The answer:

The Reeds were living far beyond their means. The bubonic plague is sweeping a European country. Mr. Reed is a bacteriologist and has been hired to find a cure. Several plague rats were kept in his basement lab, but they’ve escaped. Their strange behavior was a precaution against the plague rats or the fleas they carry reaching the children.

No inscriptions.

The Buckled Bag (Mary Roberts Rinehart, 1914)

Claire, recently engaged to be married, has been missing from the March household for five weeks. Her mother has taken to bed, sick with worry. A detective, noticing the reticence shown when discussing specific details about the situation, enlists the help of the nurse hired to care for Mrs. March. People tell things to nurses they’d never tell anyone else.

Eventually, Claire reappears with a cock and bull story about being abducted and kept locked in an attic. While the story doesn’t hold water, she includes details that are too oddly specific to be fictional. Following these clues, the nurse traces down Claire’s actual hideout and learns that Claire is a cokehead. Wanting to get clean for her marriage, she voluntarily locked herself into a room while her friend slowly stepped down her cocaine dose until she was off it entirely. The mystery was really Claire trying to shield her fiance from her past drug use.

No inscriptions.

The After House (Mary Roberts Rinehart, 1914)

Ralph Leslie, fresh out of medical school, catches typhoid fever. He leaves the hospital sickly and broke. He takes a job as a deck hand on a yacht sailing for South America for a dose of health-restoring sea air and manual labor. The owner of the yacht, Marshall Turner, is a man who likes his drink. Mrs. Johns, one of his guests, asks Leslie to move from the crew’s quarters in the forecastle to a room in the after house with them. Turner has been arguing with Richardson, the captain of the boat, and in his drunken rage, she fears there will be trouble.

Not long afterward, Leslie finds himself locked in. When he breaks down the door, he discovers the bodies of Captain Richardson, Mr. Vail (another of the guests), and Karen Hansen (the maid), all hacked to death with an axe. With the ocean stretching out for hundreds of miles around them, the culprit must be there on the ship: either one of the crew, one of the guests, or Turner. Everyone is on edge, particularly when they begin seeing a strange, spectral figure at night flitting around the deck.

The reveal is a bit of a let down. It’s not that it’s bad, per se, but the build-up was so terrific that I suppose any ending couldn’t live up to it.

No inscriptions.

The Wall (Mary Roberts Rinehart, 1938)

Juliette turns up at Sunset House, the summer residence of Marcia Lloyd, to demand $100,000 from her ex-husband, Marcia’s brother Arthur, but while the Lloyds may still have some of the trapping of wealth, they don’t have $100,000 and couldn’t raise it if they sold everything they owned. It works out, though, when Juliette is found bludgeoned to death in the woods. Then her maid’s body is caught off-shore by a fisherman. Then the local doctor is shot through the heart. The D.A. is up for re-election and is gunning for a conviction, first trying to pin it on Arthur, then on Fred Martin, a golf instructor who it turns out was also once married to Juliette. The sheriff, Russell Shand, is less hasty and doesn’t like all the “odds and ends” that so simple a solution leaves. Juliette, for all her faults, was a fearless woman and she was afraid when she came to Rock Island. Why?

No inscriptions.

Sight-Unseen (Mary Roberts Rinehart, 1921)

Several old neighborhood families gather once a week for the Neighbors Club. At this particular meeting, the attraction is a psychic medium. At the seance, after the usual parlor tricks, she goes into a trance and describes a murder scene. Later, it’s discovered that Arthur Wells is dead and that the medium was right down to every detail.

This reads like a sketchy idea that a few years later Rinehart would develop to much greater effect in The Red Lamp. Short as it is, Sight-Unseen is too repetitive and the ending doesn’t satisfy.

No inscriptions.

The Breaking Point (Mary Roberts Rinehart, 1920)

Ten years ago, Jud Clark disappeared after the murder of Howard Lucas. Lucas was married to Beverly Carlysle, a famous actress, and it was widely suspected she and Clark were having an affair. Clark, almost black-out drunk, stumbled into a raging blizzard and is thought to have died somewhere in the mountains of Wyoming.

Dick Livingstone, nephew of David Livingstone, is a young doctor in the small town of Haverly, Pennsylvania. He wants to marry Elizabeth Wheeler, but first he has to clear up some questions about his past. He has amnesia and doesn’t remember anything longer ago than ten years.

No inscriptions, but the start of chapter 19 is dogeared.

The Door (Mary Roberts Rinehart, 1930)

The family nurse is found stabbed to death just after one of the disinherited branch was gifted a sword-cane. Things looks bad for him — bad as in he’s going to the electric chair — but while both he and a member of the bequeathed branch know who actually did it, neither one of them will breathe a word.

This is more of a whodunit than the typical Rinehart mystery. It’s a fairly limited number of characters, several of them are possible suspects, a few more possible than others (indeed, Mary, the main character, makes a list towards the end of everyone involved, ranking them by how likely they are to be the murderer). It does have other Rinehart hallmarks: like every family that describes itself as being an open book, they would all go to their graves before even hinting at family secrets; and the wealthy not quite realizing that their servants are people and that they have families and secrets of their own.

As for the solution, what cliche is Rinehart remembered for today? The Inspector never actually says “The butler did it!” as the myth goes, but, well, the butler did it!

No inscriptions.