Monday, February 28, 2011

Vintage Reading Challenge: THE YELLOW ROOM (1945) by Mary Roberts Rinehart

Read this a few days ago and loved it. I had that great feeling you get when you come across a terrific book where, maybe, you'd only expected a moderately good one. I found THE YELLOW ROOM on one of my kitchen bookshelves tucked behind some other things and truth be known, as usually happens, I'd totally forgotten I had it at all.

But it made for a perfect entry in my Vintage Mysteries Reading Challenge. I've only ever read a few of Mary Roberts Rinehart's books mainly because her heroines can be a little difficult to take -viewed from the perch of 2011, that is. Her women are mostly of their time, the early 50's, late 40's. Most of them wealthy or nearly so - in the days when being 'poor' meant having one servant as opposed to four or five. That kind of thing. They belonged to a certain 'sphere' and rarely wandered. Not that I have anything against nice, waspy, wealthy young women usually looking to defy their mother, father or guardian (guardianship was very prominent in those days, it seems) by marrying the wrong sort, but there you have it. A little of that goes a long way. Also, a lot of Rinehart's plots tend to be similar and nearly always involve a large house in some way.

Her best book, I think, was THE BAT, which I've read several times over the years and it always casts that eerie spell which not all her books managed. Inevitably, there's a large house in this one too. THE CIRCULAR STAIRCASE is another of her better books, too. Though I haven't read that in ages and have no memory of it.

There was a certain type of woman writer working during this time - Mignon Eberhart was another, M.M. Kaye possibly (until she broke free with the splendid historical romantic adventure THE FAR PAVILIONS), who wrote pleasant women-in-peril books which contained mysteries, some of them first class, but always under the guise of good manners, country club outings, large summer houses and stalwart young men. They weren't meant, I don't think as anything more than pleasant diversions. Sometimes I feel as if I should be wearing white gloves while reading them. Most of these tales have not held up over time. I'm not saying that this was always the case, but it's an indelible impression I have.

One of the more interesting coincidences among these writers is that a lot of them lived good long lives. M.M. Kaye (1908-2004) just died a few years ago and Eberhart (1899-1996) and Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876 - 1958) were also long-lived. Maybe being a mystery writer is the way to go. Look at Agatha Christie. (1890 - 1976). Though of course, of all of them, Christie was the master.

THE YELLOW ROOM is one of Mary Roberts Rinehart's mysteries that has held up. Though it too concerns the 'opening' of a large summer house in Maine by people whose families have houses in Newport and New York, that sort of thing. The heroine is Carol Spencer, a young woman of certain means, though she declares herself poor when down to only a couple of reluctant servants to help with the opening of Crestview. (Houses with names, a tip that you're not in Kansas anymore.) But I think Carol is being 'ironic' when she says this, so I decided she was okay.

The story takes place near the end of WWII when shortages are everywhere. There are few men left in villages and towns to do any work. For instance there is only one cop left in town, the chief of police - when it comes to investigating crime. Rations exist and everyone knows someone who is in the armed services or the air force and is serving overseas. Society is changing and Carol's mother is one of those who refuses to believe they won't be able to afford 6 or 7 servants, as in the past. Carol, at least, is pragmatic. Within the scope of her world, that is.

Thankfully, her charmless mother is left behind at Carol's sister's house, while Carol is sent up north (kind of like being exiled) to open the long silent house near the sea, merely on the off chance, it seems, that her brother Greg, a medal of honor winner, will be wanting to stay there for a few days before his coming marriage. (Greg is in the country temporarily to receive his medal in Washington.)

Once Carol arrives with three woebegone servants in tow - I loved the complaints about there being no porters at the stations and them having to carry their own bags. They manage to get to
Crestview on a chilly, hostile and deserted night. Nights that always exist in these sorts of places in these sorts of books. That's why I like them.

The first thing they do at Crestview, is find a dead, partially burned body of a woman in a closet upstairs.

From then on, it's any body's guess as to what happens next which is one of the more intriguing aspects of this story. The plot never seems to go where you think it's going to. There are more suspects than you can shake a stick at - Carol's brother, older sister and various neighbors including the father of Carol's fiance. Don Henderson, the fiance, is missing and presumed dead, his plane was shot down in the Pacific. The various relationships are developed nicely and you do get a good picture of this isolated Maine community peopled mostly with women, the elderly and one or two younger men who are there only for a short time and for particular reasons and must soon move on, back to war. That is, if murder stateside doesn't get in the way.

There is a love story thrown in for good measure, between Carol and one of the men staying nearby recuperating from a war wound. That he appears to do mysterious work for the government doesn't hurt the plot any.

I have to say I found it hard to put this book down, so I kind of read it in one fell swoop. A nice surprise, considering too that the book has been languishing on my shelves for years. (The ending is a bit convoluted, but I think that was probably the 'norm' at that time. I've read many mysteries from that era with convoluted endings which often leave me shaking my head. But it's not an intolerable thing.)

This is my current entry in the VINTAGE MYSTERIES READING CHALLENGE being run by Bev at her blog, My Reader's Block.

4 comments:

  1. Love when you discover an old classic. I had this feeling when I discovered a really old Jean Plaidy in a huge box of books at a really musty, dusty bookshop.

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  2. Oh, old boxes of books are the best! ;) YOu never know when you'll find a treasure.

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  3. Guess what, Yvette? THE BAT is the stage play version of THE CIRCULAR STAIRCASE. Same story, different character names. They all tend to blur into one big Rinehart novel, don't they? :^D

    Of the few Rinehart books I have read I remember them being surprisingly violent. Ax murders were popular for some reason. In her autobiography that I found several years ago she talked about this facet of her writing and how in retrospect even she was surprised by her gruesome side. She really was a pioneer in the crime ficiton field. It's too bad she is so often ridiculed and dismissed for the HIBK aspects and the genre she seems to have created single-handedly. Some of her books really are thrilling - if a bit old fashioned by today's standards.

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  4. John: I do remember owning a Dell paperback of THE BAT set in mystery novel form. Have you seen that one? At any rate, I loved it. It really was an eerie book.

    I hope you didn't take my comments as 'ridicule' John....well, maybe they were just a little. But I still appreciate Rinehart. (It's those heroines that made me roll my eyes now and then. Not in this one though. And not in THE BAT.)

    Speaking of gruesome: In this book, the body of the dead woman is partially burned. Not a pretty picture.

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