The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rinehart

December 23, 2010

circular staircase Plot summary (with spoilers): Rachel Innes is a middle-aged spinster who decides to rent a house at Sunnyside for the summer while her own home is being renovated. She is joined there by her maid Liddy, and her niece and nephew Gertrude and Halsey. The first night passes without incident, but that will turn out to be the only time any of the residents can sleep soundly during the midnight hours. Indeed, on the second night, the nervous Liddy swears she hears a ghost trying to enter the premises, and even the practical Rachel becomes a bit jumpy. On the next night, a gunshot rings out and a body is discovered: it’s Arnold Armstrong, the disgraced son of Sunnyside’s owners.

Rachel cannot fathom what Armstrong was doing creeping around his own house in the middle of the night or who could have shot him. She is alarmed to hear that Armstrong was romantically interested in Gertrude and that Halsey and his friend Jack Bailey had quarreled with Armstrong at a club earlier that evening. Could one of these young people have committed the murder? And if not, then who was the real killer?

The police get involved, of course, led by a detective named Jamieson. He pokes around, asks the proper questions, and tries to get to the bottom of the mess. Rachel would rather not be involved, but since there continue to be unsettling occurrences at Sunnyside during the middle of the night, she has no choice. She takes up her own thread of the investigation with the help of Liddy and various other servants, and tries to piece the puzzle together herself.

As the investigation plays out, readers learn that Armstrong, his father Paul, and Jack Bailey might somehow or other have been involved in a major embezzlement scheme that cleared millions in cash and securities from a California bank, causing the financial institution to fail and leaving thousands penniless. The missing millions are thought to have been hidden somewhere within Sunnyside, which could explain all the nighttime escapades. The plot winds its way through a jilted lover, bastard child, attempted murder, fake death, and false identities before arriving at the conclusion.

Liked:

  • I’d never read anything by Rinehart before, but I was pleasantly surprised by this. It was a lighthearted mystery that reminded me of reading Agatha Christie — only with a heck of a lot more humor sprinkled throughout the pages.
  • The mystery itself was sufficiently complicated enough to keep me guessing, but no so convoluted as to be completely incomprehensible. I could buy the motive set forth by Rinehart, as well as the steps the killer took to achieve his ends.
  • Just for the sake of my own future reference, I’m going to identify the killer here. Do not hover your cursor over the bars if you don’t want to know! Paul Armstrong was the killer. He orchestrated the embezzlement and faked his own death so he could get to the money. He didn’t know his wife had rented out the house for the summer, so he had to try to break in at night to find the loot. I cannot recall now if he killed his son accidentally or if he had to do it so as not to be unmasked in the bank scheme.
  • Rachel was a decent narrator. She seemed like a real enough person and was neither too clever nor too stupid. I enjoyed her version of the events.

Disliked:

  • Some of the relationships between the minor characters were hard to follow, particularly since I didn’t know if they would be important or not. And it seemed that too many of them were using fake names, like Jack Bailey and the woman with the scarred face.
  • Rinehart isn’t exactly big on style. This is a straightforward book that sometimes felt too bare in terms of lacking descriptions and character development. I guess I should be used to this, though, as I read a lot of Christie.

Rating:

Overall, The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rinehart was an engaging enough mystery to occupy a boring weekend. The crime was interesting, the motivations were believable, and the solution made sense. That’s about all I can ask for, right? I give this book 3 stars out of 5.

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