Mary Roberts Rinehart

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Mary Roberts Rinehart, 1914.

Mary Roberts Rinehart (August 12, 1876 – September 22, 1958) was an American writer, often called the American Agatha Christie,[1] although her first mystery novel was published 14 years before Christie's.[2] She is considered the source of the phrase "The butler did it", although she did not actually use the phrase. She is considered to have invented the "Had-I-But-Known" school of mystery writing. She also created a costumed supercriminal called "the Bat", who was cited by Bob Kane as one of the inspirations for his "Batman."[3]


House where Mary Roberts Rinehart lived, and wrote The Circular Staircase, at 954 Beech Avenue in the Allegheny West neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Mary Roberts Rinehart was born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, now a part of Pittsburgh. Her father was a frustrated inventor, and throughout her childhood, the family often had financial problems. Left-handed at a time when that was considered inappropriate, she was trained to use her right hand instead.

She attended public schools and graduated at age 16, then enrolled at the Pittsburgh Training School for Nurses at Homeopathic Hospital, where she graduated in 1896. She described the experience as "all the tragedy of the world under one roof." After graduation, she married Stanley Marshall Rinehart (1867–1932), a physician she had met there. They had three sons and one daughter: Stanley Jr., Frederick, Alan, and Elizabeth Glory.

During the stock market crash of 1903, the couple lost their savings, spurring Rinehart's efforts at writing as a way to earn income. She was 27 that year, and produced 45 short stories. In 1907, she wrote The Circular Staircase, the novel that propelled her to national fame. According to her obituary in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, that book sold a million and a quarter copies. Her regular contributions to The Saturday Evening Post were immensely popular and helped the magazine mold American middle-class taste and manners.

In 1911, after the publication of five successful books and two plays, the Rineharts moved to Glen Osborne, where they purchased a large home at the corner of Orchard and Linden Streets called "Cassella." Before they moved into the house, however, Mrs. Rinehart had to have the house completely rebuilt, as it had fallen into disrepair. "The venture was mine, and I had put every dollar I possessed into the purchase. All week long I wrote wildly to meet the payroll and contractor costs." she wrote in her autobiography.[4] Today, a Mary Roberts Rinehart Nature Park sits in the borough of Glen Osborne at 1414 Beaver Street, Sewickley, Pennsylvania.[5]

Rinehart’s commercial success sometimes conflicted with her domestic roles of wife and mother, yet she often pursued adventure, including a job as a war correspondent at the Belgian front during World War I.[6] During her time in Belgium, she interviewed Albert I of Belgium, Winston Churchill and Mary of Teck, writing of the latter, "This afternoon I am to be presented to the queen of England. I am to curtsey and to say 'Your majesty,' the first time!"[7] Rinehart was working in Europe in 1918 to report on developments to the War Department and was in Paris when the armistice was signed.[8]

Mary Roberts Rinehart lunching after a morning's trouting on Flathead River, Glacier National Park (c. 1921)

In the early 1920s, the family moved to Washington, DC, when Dr. Rinehart was appointed to a post in the Veterans Administration. She was a member of the Literary Society of Washington from 1932 to 1936.[9] Her husband died in 1932, but she continued to live in Washington until 1935, when she moved to New York City. There she helped her sons found the publishing house Farrar & Rinehart, serving as its director.

She also maintained a vacation home in Bar Harbor, Maine, where she was involved in a real-life drama in 1947. Her Filipino chef, who had worked for her for 25 years, fired a gun at her and then attempted to slash her with knives, until other servants rescued her. The chef committed suicide in his cell the next day.

Rinehart suffered from breast cancer, which led to a radical mastectomy. She eventually went public with her story, at a time when such matters were not openly discussed. The interview "I Had Cancer" was published in a 1947 issue of the Ladies' Home Journal; in it, Rinehart encouraged women to have breast examinations.

"The Rinehart career was crowned with a Mystery Writers of America Special Award a year after she published her last novel ... and by the award, as early as 1923, of an honorary Doctorate in Literature from George Washington University."[1]

She died at age 82 in her Park Avenue home in New York City.[10]


Rinehart wrote hundreds of short stories, poems, travelogues and articles. Many of her books and plays were adapted for movies, such as The Bat (1926), The Bat Whispers (1930), and The Bat (1959 remake). In 1933 RCA Victor released The Bat as one of the earliest talking book recordings.

While many of her books were best sellers, critics were most appreciative of her murder mysteries. Rinehart, in The Circular Staircase (1908), is credited with inventing the "Had-I-But-Known" school of mystery writing. In The Circular Staircase "a middle-aged spinster is persuaded by her niece and nephew to rent a country house for the summer. The gentle, peace-loving trio is plunged into a series of crimes solved with the help of the aunt."[11] The Had-I-But-Known mystery novel is one where the principal character (frequently female) does things in connection with a crime that have the effect of prolonging the action of the novel. Ogden Nash parodied the school in his poem Don't Guess Let Me Tell You: "Sometimes the Had I But Known then what I know now I could have saved at least three lives by revealing to the Inspector the conversation I heard through that fortuitous hole in the floor."

The phrase "The butler did it", which has become a cliché, came from Rinehart's novel The Door, in which the butler actually did murder someone, although that exact phrase does not appear in the work.[12] Tim Kelly adapted Rinehart's play into a musical, The Butler Did It, Singing. This play includes five lead female roles and five lead male roles.



Novels and plays[edit]

  • Seven Days (Broadway comedy, with Avery Hopwood,1909)
  • The Window at the White Cat (1910)
  • When A Man Marries, or Seven Days (1910)
  • Where There's a Will (1912)
  • The Cave on Thundercloud (1912)
  • Mind Over Motor (1912)
  • The Case of Jennie Brice (1913)
  • The Street of Seven Stars (1914)
  • The After House : a story of love, mystery and a private yacht (1914)
  • K. (1915)
  • Bab, a Sub-Deb (1916)
  • Long live the King! (1917)
  • The Amazing Interlude (1918)
  • Twenty-Three and a Half Hours' Leave (1918)
  • Dangerous Days (1919)
  • Salvage (1919)
  • A Poor Wise Man (1920)
  • The Truce of God (1920)
  • The Bat (Play with Avery Hopwood, 1920)
  • Spanish Love (Play with Avery Hopwood, 1920)
  • The Confession (1921)
  • The Breaking Point (1922)
  • The Breaking Point (Play 1923)
  • The Red Lamp (1925)
  • The Mystery Lamp (1925)
  • Lost Ecstasy (1927)
  • This Strange Adventure (1928)
  • Two Flights Up (1928)
  • The Door (1930)
  • The Double Alibi (1932)
  • The Album (1933)
  • The State vs Elinor Norton (1933)
  • The Doctor (1936)
  • The Wall (1938)
  • The Great Mistake (1940)
  • The Yellow Room (1945)
  • A Light in the Window (1948)
  • Episode of the Wandering Knife (1950)
  • The Swimming Pool (1952)
  • The Frightened Wife and Other Murder Stories (1953) (Special Edgar Award, 1954)


  • Miss Cornelia Van Gorder
    • The Man in Lower Ten (1906)
    • The Circular Staircase (1908)
    • The Bat (1920)
  • Letitia (Tish) Carberry
    • The Amazing Adventures of Letitia Carberry (1911)
    • Tish (1916)
    • More Tish (1921)
    • The Book of Tish (1926)
    • Tish Plays the Game (1926)
    • Tish Marches On (1937)
  • Hilda Adams
    • The Buckled Bag (1914)
    • Locked Doors (1914)
    • Miss Pinkerton (1932)
    • Haunted Lady (1942)
    • The Secret (1950)

Short story collections[edit]

  • Love Stories (1919)
  • Affinities: and Other Stories (1920)
  • Sight Unseen (1921)
  • Temperamental People (1924)
  • Nomad's Land (1926)
  • The Romantics (1929)
  • Mary Roberts Rinehart's Crime Book (1933)
  • Married People (1937)
  • Familiar Faces: Stories of People You Know (1941)
  • Alibi for Isabel and Other Stories (1944)



  • Through Glacier Park-Seeing America First with Howard Eaton (1916)
  • Tenting Tonight: A Chronicle of Sport and Adventure in Glacier Park and Cascade Mountains (1918)
  • The Out Trail (1923)


  • Kings, Queens, and Pawns (1915)
  • My Story (1931, revised 1948)


  • "Isn't That Just Like a Man!" (1920)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Keating, H.R.F., The Bedside Companion to Crime. New York: Mysterious Press, 1989, p. 170. ISBN 0-89296-416-2
  2. ^ The Mysterious Affair at Styles
  3. ^ Mary Roberts Rinehart - North American Theatre Online
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ MacLeod, Charlotte (1994). "Chapter 20: On Active Duty". Had She But Known: A Biography of Mary Roberts Rinehart. New York: Mysterious Press. ISBN 0-89296-444-8. 
  7. ^ Rinehart, Mary. "World War I Notebook - Note Pad with Cover Missing". Special Collections Department, University of Pittsburgh. Retrieved 22 October 2013. 
  8. ^ Doolittle, Alice. "Mary Roberts Rinehart Papers Finding Aid". Special Collections, University of Pittsburgh. Retrieved 1 April 2013. 
  9. ^ Spauling, Thomas M. (1947). The Literary Society in Peace and War. Washington, D.C.: George Banta Publishing Company. 
  10. ^ "Mary Roberts Rinehart Is Dead; Author of Mysteries and Plays; Mary Roberts Rinehart Is Dead; Author of Mysteries," New York Times, September 23, 1958.
  11. ^ Roseman, Mill et al. Detectionary. New York: Overlook Press, 1971. ISBN 0-87951-041-2
  12. ^ [1]
  • Mary Roberts Rinehart Papers [2](Mary Roberts Rinehart Papers, 1831-1970, SC.1958.03, Special Collections Department, University of Pittsburgh)
  • Cohn, Jan (2005) [1980]. Improbable Fiction: The Life of Mary Roberts Rinehart. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press. ISBN 0-8229-5912-7. 

External links[edit]