“This is the story of how a middle-aged spinster lost her mind, deserted her domestic gods in the city, took a furnished house for the summer out of town, and found herself involved in one of those mysterious crimes that keep our newspapers and detective agencies happy and prosperous.”
Rachel Innes, our amateur sleuth, is the charming and opinionated narrator of The Circular Staircase, one of the ‘had I but known’ style mysteries – you know, the sort where the narrator is constantly making a little aside to the reader to indicate that something tragic would go on to happen soon after this moment, and of course they didn’t realise that at the time – but oh, with hindsight, how terrible that would prove to be! – without actually telling you what the thing is, until it happens. It’s not a device I love in mysteries – generally, I think it’s a little clumsy and much too ‘on the nose’ as it were, because as readers we already know that something bad is going to happen. It’s a murder mystery. I’m smart enough to conclude that sooner or later, someone in this house is gonna wind up dead. You don’t need to foreshadow that quite so conspicuously; I promise, I’ve never once picked up a murder mystery and been shocked to discover that it contains a murder.
Here, I’m a little less annoyed than I usually would be. This was Rinehart’s signature style, and her narrator, Rachel, is both engaging and self-deprecating enough that all these comments feel as though they suit Rachel’s voice and that slight ironic detachment she has towards the events of the novel. I still don’t love them but I find myself a lot more forgiving of the things that would usually annoy me in books like these.
And oh boy, are there a lot of them! The Circular Staircase was published in 1908, and reading it in 2020 means some parts are a little more uncomfortable. The role of servants, and Rachel’s contentious relationship with her personal maid Liddy, is generally played for laughs, but 4 months into quarantine, my opinions on social class are leaning heavily towards eat the rich, and also, don’t make old ladies sleep in armchairs or couches. And the black employee, Thomas, speaks with ‘eye dialect’, that way of writing an accent by spelling words differently – although Thomas would, presumably, have had much the same accent as most of the other (white) servants, whose dialogue is written in standard English. Plus the actual structure of the mystery is… Eesh. It’s a lot.
Rachel, her niece and nephew, and Liddy are renting a house, which may be haunted, and then a guy gets shot in the middle of the night. So far, so straight-forward! Except the guy who gets shot is not that guy, a different guy in a grave is not the guy who should be, the nephew goes missing, the owner of the house’s stepdaughter is hiding out with a servant, there’s a cufflink, there’s a gun, there’s a second gun, the maid loses some plates and they’re recovered almost immediately, the detective investigating the man who got shot thinks Rachel is lying and now there’s a partially recovered message and a woman who abandoned her child and Thomas is dead and there’s a secret passage and also the gardener is not the gardener.
And that’s just what I can remember off the top of my head.
“It’s a lot” was not meant to indicate that there was a lot of problems in the plot. It’s just there’s a lot of stuff happening and very little attempt to tidy things up and consolidate all these different threads until the end. It feels messy, and messy in a way that’s unsatisfying as a reader – not least because all that stuff, and everything I’ve forgotten, was accompanied by several different foreboding warnings about how that would be an important clue later or something terrible was going to happen involving that thing, so that the whole experience of reading the story just feels like you’re wading through a bunch of stuff that doesn’t actually matter. If half of these ideas had been thrown out, I think Rinehart could have created a really spooky, atmospheric novel about the ominous house with the circular staircase. As it was, it felt confusing and more than a little dull.
Outside of Rachel, who is a delightful narrator – sharp and witty, sensible and brave, and above all else fantastically stubborn – this is a difficult book to love. But for all the never-ending parade of random clues (I just realised that I forgot to mention there’s a child who might have been abandoned and could have lived in Germany. What happened to that child? Was he actually German? What was his connection with the murder? I finished the book THIS MORNING and I still can’t answer that question because the mystery was so messy and discombobulated!) Rinehart’s skill lies in creating interesting, memorable characters, and the interaction between them really drives the story forward.
Too much, at times; the book could have really benefited from someone cutting out a lot of the circumstances that were a little tacked-on to the main crime, but I still like the way it was done.
And Rachel’s just plain fun to read. At one point in her adventures, she decides to climb up to the roof to investigate and gives a passing boy the fright of his life by emerging from her hiding place to shout at him for throwing stones at a cat, and her verbal sparring with Jamieson, the detective who seems able to tell that is hiding something but still respects her as one of the more sensible people involved, is great. My favourite part, though, was how stubborn Rachel was – refusing, repeatedly, to give up her lease on the house, to be intimidated by the talk of ghosts or thieves, and even by the threat of the police. During the inquest, Rachel says, “I flatter myself that the coroner got little enough out of me. I saw Mr. Jamieson smiling to himself, and the coroner gave me up, after a time. I admitted I had found the body, said I had not known who it was until Mr. Jarvis told me, and ended by looking up at Barbara Fitzhugh and saying that in renting the house I had not expected to be involved in any family scandal. At which she turned purple.”
A little prickly, very aware of both social mores and those transgressions that young people may be susceptible to, Rachel is one of those formidable aunts who drive a very particular mix of fear and awe in our hearts. My own Aunt Ray was my great aunt Marie, who used to threaten us with being spifflicated if we ever got crumbs in her carpet. I chose this book for the family theme because it felt like the story would concern itself with the troubles of the Armstrong family, the family with the murdered man, but reading it, it feels more concerned with Rachel’s own family. Having taken in her niece and nephew after her own brother died, Rachel raised Gertrude and Halsey and is now taking them on holiday, but as the suspicious events mount up, Rachel finds herself questioning first Halsey’s involvement and then Gertrude’s. In the meantime, the threat of scandal looms over the Armstrong family, and with the step-daughter’s reappearance (look, I warned you all this plot was a mess), Louise reveals some of the abuse that she and her mother have experienced at the hands of her stepfather, and the insidious control that not having access to their own money has allowed Mr Armstrong to exert over them.
It’s the classic set-up for a cosy murder mystery – an old house containing the family’s secrets, that someone is willing to kill to keep hidden. But the book becomes less about the Armstrongs’ secrets and more about the connections that Rachel has with her niece and nephew, what she’ll do to protect them, and how that same instinct pulls Gertrude and Halsey to get into trouble too.
Probably the best line about Rachel’s views of their relationship is: “Gradually I found that my name signed to a check was even more welcome than when signed to a letter.”
Maybe so, but there’s a certain ironic understatement there as Rachel proves to be a level-headed woman who will still lie to the police and risk her own life to protect her family and the people she cares about, no matter how exasperated she may feel towards them.
As aunts go, you really can’t ask for better than that, can you?