Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Case of Jennie Brice by Mary Roberts Rinehart

Synopsis From Back Cover:

She was only a bit player in the local repertory theatre, but nevertheless Jennie Brice had the strange nocturnal habits of her profession.

According to her husband, she had left him in the middle of the night after one more of their weary, continual arguments.

Since then he had had no word, nor had he the slightest idea where she was.

Nor, he might have added, did he particularly care.

Until the river gave up a headless woman's corpse, with Jennie's voluptuous body.  And the whole town began to look at Jennie's husband.  And wonder....

I think where this book sucked me in was the setting.  Much like the last Mary Roberts Rinehart book I read, The After House,  the setting is what dictates the story.  Pittsburgh in the early part of the last century tended to flood every Spring.  The problem was all the water, the Allegheny and the Monongahela rivers meet in Pittsburgh and form the Ohio river.  Every year when the ice starts to melt the rivers start to rise and take over most of the city, especially the poorer areas.

One of those poor areas was lower Allegheny, which later became the northern part of the city of Pittsburgh.  Within that slum sat a rooming house operated by a Mrs. Pitman.  Pitman was not her real name, for the purposes of this book though that is all she would call herself.  She came from an upper class Pittsburgh family but when she married down, her family disowned her.  When she moved back to town, after the death of her husband, she never told them she was back and they never reconciled.  To make ends meet Mrs. Pitman operated a boarding house that served the theater district, most of her boarders worked in that field.  Two of those tenants, Jennie Brice and her husband, where a handful.  They were constantly fighting and never seemed to be in a good mood.  So when the floods came and took up most of the lower floors of the boarding house, the scene was set for murder.

Told over a period of a week or two by Mrs. Pitman, The Case of Jennie Brice, is a wonderfully told mystery that relies on the sense of isolation and confined quarters that a flood creates.  There is a wonderful group of supporting characters, including the niece of Mrs. Pitman, though the niece never realizes their connection.  Everyone involved is trying to figure out what happened to Jennie Brice the day she disappeared and whether or not the headless body is in fact the missing woman.  It's a short mystery, only 187 pages long, but it packs a punch.  There is no mystery of who did it, everyone knows that already.  Where the mystery comes in is how are they going to prove it.  How can they prove the body is in fact Jennie Brice when there is no head?  How can they dispute the claims of someone they all trust, when he says he saw her after she supposedly disappeared?  It's a brilliant piece of deductive writing and I loved it.  The way Mrs. Pitman and friends are able to piece the information together is methodically laid out in detail.  There are no missing pieces or illogical conclusions reached.

This was my third Mary Roberts Rinehart book, and I've already bought two more.  I think I'm officially hooked on her style now and I can't wait to read more.  She had an almost supernatural ability at creating just the right feel and atmosphere which highlights an almost perfect stage and background for the action taking place.  The fact that she populates that scene with wonderful characters and never seems to fail at giving them something to do is a godsend.  There are no wasted characters in her books, unlike a lot of mystery writers who simply throw in extra characters to confuse the situation.  I think this is one author who should be given more recognition in this modern age than what she gets.

Did I mention that my copy has some wonderful illustrations that I so wish I could share with you.  They are wonderful black and white prints that highlight just the right scenes.  I can't find them anywhere to show you so you will just have to trust me when I say, they are the icing on the cake.

Challenges: M&S, VM


Staci said...

The whole story sounds great to me and I love that the author did such a great job in only 187 pages!!!!

Anonymous said...

I second the appeal of telling a brilliant and powerful story in 187 pages. That's lean and economical writing.

Michelle Stockard Miller said...

I keep thinking I might luck out and find some her books at Goodwill or something. You have convinced me to give her a try!

Yvette said...

I've never read this one, Ryan. I am going to have to see if I can find a copy. As you know, I am another Mary Roberts Rinehart fan.
Wonderful review.