Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Had She but Known by Charlotte MacLeod

Synopsis From Publisher: 

In the decades since her death in 1958, master storyteller Mary Roberts Rinehart has often been compared to Agatha Christie. But while Rinehart was once a household name, today she is largely forgotten. The woman who first proclaimed “the butler did it” was writing for publication years before Christie’s work saw the light of day. She also practiced nursing, became a war correspondent, and wrote a novel—The Bat—that inspired Bob Kane’s creation of Batman.

Born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, before it was absorbed into Pittsburgh, and raised in a close-knit Presbyterian family, Mary Roberts was at once a girl of her time—dutiful, God-fearing, loyal—and a quietly rebellious spirit. For every hour she spent cooking, cleaning, or sewing at her mother’s behest while her “frail” younger sister had fun, Mary eked out her own moments of planning, dreaming, and writing. But becoming an author wasn’t on her radar . . . yet.

Bestselling mystery writer Charlotte MacLeod grew up on Rinehart’s artfully crafted novels, such as the enormously successful The Circular Staircase—“cozies” before the concept existed. After years of seeing Christie celebrated and Rinehart overlooked, MacLeod realized that it was time to delve into how this seemingly ordinary woman became a sensation whose work would grace print, stage, and screen. From Rinehart’s grueling training as a nurse and her wartime interviews with a young Winston Churchill and Queen Mary to her involvement with the Blackfoot Indians and her work as doctor’s wife, mother of three, playwright, serialist, and novelist, this is the unforgettable story of America’s Grande Dame of Mystery.   

I don't think it will come as a surprise that when a friend of mine pointed out a cheap copy of this book, that I jumped at the chance to read a biography of Mary Roberts Rinehart. For those of you who don't know, next to Agatha Christie, Mary Roberts Rinehart is my second favorite mystery writer of all time. I never heard of her until Yvette of in so many words... did a review of The Circular Staircase. While reading her review, the plot sounded really familiar to me, and I quickly learned that one of my favorite movies, The Bat starring Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead, was actually based off of a Rinehart novel. Actually, the movie is an adaptation of the The Bat, which was a novelization of a play of the same name, which was actually based off of The Circular Staircase. After that little discovery, I was hooked. I've since read and reviewed twenty-three of her books, and while I like some more than others, I would take them all over a lot of the "cozy" stuff being written today.

When I first started to delve into Had She But Known, which by the way is named after a major plot device used by Rinehart, I wasn't sure I was going to like it. The affection and admiration Charlotte MacLeod had for her subject was obvious from the start, almost too obvious. I understand that, for the most part, if someone is going to take the time to write a biography of someone else, that they are going to have to respect the subject, otherwise the writing would be a horrible experience. However, there should also be distance and objectivity between the writer and the subject, otherwise it can cloud the information coming across. If I can't trust you to be objective, how can I trust the information being given?  Her admiration comes across too much, especially in the beginning, and just could have done without her commenting on the worth of individual Rinehart books. The language got too flowery and flattering at times, but thankfully I plowed through and I ended up loving the book.

What saved it for me was my own love for the subject. This is a writer whose work I enjoy so much, how could I not love exploring her life in far more detail than I ever had before. And what I discovered only heightened that admiration. From the way she handled herself as an overseas war correspondent during WWI, to the scrappy determination to do whatever it took to take care of her husband and three sons, I discovered a woman worthy of the admiration and respect Charlotte MacLeod so obviously heaped on her. It was interesting to read how some of my favorite novels came about, even the ones MacLeod didn't share my views of. It's hard to believe the speed at which some of these had been written, given the complexities of the plots.

Mary Roberts Rinehart became a household name in her day. From her exploits with Theodore Roosevelt, to her advocating for Indigenous tribes, to becoming one of the highest paid authors of her time, she did everything with a style all her own, and I wish that she somehow regains the popularity she enjoyed so long ago.


bermudaonion said...

This does sound like the perfect book for you but I think the flowery language would turn me off.

Mystica said...

I think I'd like this book and the subject is new to me. I appreciated the update.

Tasha B. said...

Hear hear! She needs a revival asap

TracyK said...

I need to read more book by Mary Roberts Rinehart. Thanks for the reminder.