Mary Roberts Rinehart

Mary Roberts Rinehart (August 12, 1876  September 22, 1958) was an American writer, often called the American Agatha Christie,[1] although her first mystery novel was published 14 years before Christie's first novel in 1920.[2]

Mary Roberts Rinehart
Mary Roberts Rinehart (1914)
BornMary Ella Roberts
(1876-08-12)August 12, 1876
Allegheny City, Pennsylvania (now Pittsburgh), U.S.
DiedSeptember 22, 1958(1958-09-22) (aged 82)
New York City, New York, U.S.
GenreMystery fiction

Rinehart is considered the source of the phrase "The butler did it" from her novel The Door (1930), although the novel does not use the exact phrase. Rinehart is also considered to have invented the "Had-I-but-Known" school of mystery writing, with the publication of The Circular Staircase (1908).


Mary Roberts Rinehart was born Mary Ella Roberts in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania, now a part of Pittsburgh. Her father was a frustrated inventor, and throughout her childhood, the family often had financial problems. Left-handed at a time when that was considered inappropriate, she was trained to use her right hand instead.

She attended public schools and graduated at age 16, then enrolled at the Pittsburgh Training School for Nurses at Pittsburgh Homeopathic Hospital, where she graduated in 1896. She described the experience as "all the tragedy of the world under one roof." After graduation, she married Stanley Marshall Rinehart (1867–1932), a physician she had met there. They had three sons: Stanley Jr., Alan, and Frederick.

During the stock market crash of 1903, the couple lost their savings, spurring Rinehart's efforts at writing as a way to earn income. She was 27 that year, and produced 45 short stories. In 1907, she wrote The Circular Staircase, the novel that propelled her to national fame. According to her obituary in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1958, the book sold 1.25 million copies. Her regular contributions to The Saturday Evening Post were immensely popular and helped the magazine mold American middle-class taste and manners.

In 1911, after the publication of five successful books and two plays, the Rineharts moved to Glen Osborne, Pennsylvania, where they purchased a large home at the corner of Orchard and Linden Streets called "Cassella." Before they moved into the house, however, Mrs. Rinehart had to have the house completely rebuilt because it had fallen into disrepair. "The venture was mine, and I had put every dollar I possessed into the purchase. All week long I wrote wildly to meet the payroll and contractor costs." she wrote in her autobiography. In 1925, the Rineharts sold the house to the Marks family and the house was demolished in 1969.[3] Today, a Mary Roberts Rinehart Nature Park sits in the borough of Glen Osborne at 1414 Beaver Street, Sewickley, Pennsylvania.[4]

Rinehart's commercial success sometimes conflicted with her domestic roles of wife and mother, yet she often pursued adventure, including a job as a war correspondent for The Saturday Evening Post at the Belgian front during World War I.[5] During her time in Belgium, she interviewed Albert I of Belgium, Winston Churchill and Mary of Teck, writing of the latter "This afternoon I am to be presented to the queen of England. I am to curtsey and to say 'Your majesty,' the first time!"[6] Rinehart was working in Europe in 1918 to report on developments to the War Department and was in Paris when the armistice was signed.[7]

In 1922, the family moved to Washington, DC, when Dr. Rinehart was appointed to a post in the Veterans Administration. She was a member of the Literary Society of Washington from 1932 to 1936.[8] Her husband died in 1932, but she continued to live in Washington until 1935, when she moved to New York City. There she helped her sons found the publishing house Farrar & Rinehart, serving as its director.

She also maintained a vacation home in Bar Harbor, Maine. In 1947, a Filipino chef who had worked for her for 25 years fired a gun at her and then attempted to slash her with knives until other servants rescued her. The chef committed suicide in his cell the next day.[9]

Rinehart suffered from breast cancer, which led to a radical mastectomy. She eventually went public with her story, at a time when such matters were not openly discussed. The interview "I Had Cancer" was published in a 1947 issue of the Ladies' Home Journal; in it, Rinehart encouraged women to have breast examinations.

Rinehart received a Mystery Writers of America special award a year after she published her last novel, and an honorary doctorate in literature from George Washington University.[1]

On November 9, 1956, Rinehart appeared on the interview program Person to Person.[10] She died at age 82 at her apartment at 630 Park Avenue in New York City.[11]


Rinehart wrote hundreds of short stories, poems, travelogues and articles. Many of her books and plays were adapted for movies, such as The Bat (1926), The Bat Whispers (1930), Miss Pinkerton (1932), and The Bat (1959 remake). The novel The Circular Staircase was first adapted to the screen as a silent film in 1915, and later as an episode in the TV show Climax! in 1956. In 1933 RCA Victor released The Bat as one of the early talking book recordings. She co-wrote the 1920 play The Bat which was later adapted into the 1930 film The Bat Whispers. The latter influenced Bob Kane in the creation of Batman's iconography.

Carole Lombard and Gary Cooper starred in I Take This Woman (1931), an early sound film based on Rinehart's novel Lost Ecstasy (1927).

While many of her books were best sellers, critics were most appreciative of her murder mysteries. Rinehart, in The Circular Staircase (1908), is credited with inventing the "Had-I-but-Known" school of mystery writing. In The Circular Staircase "a middle-aged spinster is persuaded by her niece and nephew to rent a country house for the summer. The gentle, peace-loving trio is plunged into a series of crimes solved with the help of the aunt."[12] The Had-I-But-Known mystery novel is one where the principal character (frequently female) does things in connection with a crime that have the effect of prolonging the action of the novel. Ogden Nash parodied the school in his poem Don't Guess Let Me Tell You: "Sometimes the Had I But Known then what I know now I could have saved at least three lives by revealing to the Inspector the conversation I heard through that fortuitous hole in the floor."

The phrase "The butler did it" came from Rinehart's novel The Door, in which the butler actually did murder someone, although that exact phrase does not appear in the work.[13][14] Tim Kelly adapted Rinehart's play into a musical, The Butler Did It, Singing. This play includes five lead female roles and five lead male roles.

She followed her initial success with The Man in Lower Ten, another novel that continued to reinforce her fame. After these two, Rinehart published about a book a year. She also wrote a long series of comic stories about Letitia (Tish) Carberry, that was frequented in the Saturday Evening Post over a number of years. This was later made into a series of novels by Rinehart that started with The Amazing Adventures of Letitia Carberry in 1911.

After her fiction writing era, Rinehart later worked as a correspondent during World War I. During this time she interviewed many famous historical figures, including Albert I of Belgium, Winston Churchill, and Mary of Teck. She ended up describing her experiences in "Kings, Queens and Pawns" in 1915. Afterwards, she continued to write many novels and even began writing plays. Although she was greatly remembered for her plays Seven Days in 1909 and The Bat in 1920, Rinehart will always be most remembered for her mystery novels, which paved the way for the current generation of mystery writers.

She had written an autobiography, My Story, in 1931, which later was revised in 1948. During her prime, Rinehart was said to be even more famous than her rival, the great Agatha Christie. At the time of Rinehart's death, her books had sold over 10 million copies.



  • The Circular Staircase (1908) Adapted (with Avery Hopwood) for the stage as The Bat
  • The Man in Lower Ten (1909)
  • The Window at the White Cat (1910) Revision of The Mystery of 1122
  • When A Man Marries, or Seven Days (1910) Expansion of Rinehart's 1908 novella Seven Days
  • Where There's a Will (1912)
  • The Case of Jennie Brice (1913)
  • The Street of Seven Stars (1914)
  • The After House: A Story of Love, Mystery and a Private Yacht (1914)
  • K. (1915)
  • Bab, a Sub-Deb (1916)
  • Long Live the King! (1917)
  • The Amazing Interlude (1918)
  • Twenty-Three and a Half Hours' Leave (1918)
  • Dangerous Days (1919)
  • A Poor Wise Man (1920)
  • The Truce of God (1920)
  • The Confession (1921)
  • The Breaking Point (1922)
  • The Red Lamp (1925) Alternate title The Mystery Lamp
  • The Bat (1926) Novelization of play, credited to Rinehart and Hopwood, but ghostwritten by Stephen Vincent Benét)
  • Lost Ecstasy (1927) Alternate title I Take This Woman
  • This Strange Adventure (1928)
  • Two Flights Up (1928)
  • The Door (1930)
  • The Double Alibi (1932)
  • The Album (1933)
  • The State vs. Elinor Norton (1933)
  • The Doctor (1936)
  • The Wall (1938)
  • The Great Mistake (1940)
  • The Haunted Lady (1942)
  • The Yellow Room (1945)
  • A Light in the Window (1948)
  • The Swimming Pool (1952)


  • Letitia (Tish) Carberry
    • The Amazing Adventures of Letitia Carberry (1911)
    • Tish: The Chronicle of Her Escapades and Excursions (1916)
    • More Tish (1921)
    • Tish Plays the Game (1926)
    • Tish Marches On (1937)
  • Hilda Adams
    • The Buckled Bag (1914)
    • Locked Doors (1914)
    • Miss Pinkerton (1932) Alternate title The Double Alibi
    • The Haunted Lady (1942) Sequel to Miss Pinkerton
    • Episode of the Wandering Knife (1950)

Short story collections

  • Love Stories (1919)
  • Affinities and Other Stories (1920)
  • Sight Unseen (1921)
  • Temperamental People (1924)
  • The Romantics (1929)
  • Married People (1937)
  • Familiar Faces: Stories of People You Know (1941)
  • Alibi for Isabel and Other Stories (1944)
  • The Frightened Wife and Other Murder Stories (1953) Special Edgar Award, 1954



  • Kings, Queens, and Pawns: An American Woman at the Front (1915) A collection of Rinehart's reports as a correspondent during World War I
  • Through Glacier Park: Seeing America First with Howard Eaton (1916)
  • The Altar of Freedom: An Appeal to the Mothers of America (1917) An appeal to prepare for the coming war
  • Tenting Tonight: A Chronicle of Sport and Adventure in Glacier Park and the Cascade Mountains (1918) First published in Cosmopolitan (1917)[15]
  • The Out Trail (1923)[16]
  • Nomad's Land (1926)[17]
  • My Story (1931; revised 1948) Rinehart's autobiography


  • "Isn't That Just Like a Man!" (1920) Available in one volume with "Oh, Well, You Know How Women Are!" by Irvin S. Cobb
  • "Why I Believe in Scouting for Girls"

Film and TV adaptations

  • 1914 Jane (story) – short film
  • 1914 At the Foot of the Hill (story) – short film
  • 1915 The Cave on Thunder Cloud (story) – short film
  • 1915 Mind Over Motor (novel) – short film
  • 1915 Tish's Spy (story) – short film
  • 1915 The Circular Staircase (novel)
  • 1915 Affinities (story) – short film
  • 1915 The Papered Door (story) – short film
  • 1915 What Happened to Father? (story)
  • 1916 Acquitted (story)
  • 1917 Bab's Diary (story)
  • 1917 Bab's Burglar (story)
  • 1917 Bab's Matinee Idol (story)
  • 1918 The Doctor and the Woman (novel K.)
  • 1918 The Street of Seven Stars (novel)
  • 1918 Her Country First (story "The G.A.C.")
  • 1919 23 1/2 Hours' Leave (story)
  • 1920 Dangerous Days (novel) / (titles)
  • 1920 It's a Great Life (story "Empire Builders")
  • 1922 Affinities (story)
  • 1922 The Glorious Fool (stories "In the Pavillion" and "Twenty-Two")
  • 1923 Long Live the King (book)
  • 1924 The Silent Watcher (story "The Altar on the Hill")
  • 1924 Her Love Story (story "Her Majesty, the Queen")
  • 1924 K — The Unknown (novel K.)
  • 1925 Seven Days (play co-written with Avery Hopwood)
  • 1926 The Bat (play The Bat)
  • 1927 City of Shadows (story)
  • 1927 The Unknown (novel "K" – uncredited)
  • 1927 What Happened to Father? (story)
  • 1927 Aflame in the Sky (story)
  • 1928 Finders Keepers (story "Make Them Happy")
  • 1930 The Bat Whispers (based upon play The Bat)
  • 1931 I Take This Woman (novel Lost Ecstacy)
  • 1932 Miss Pinkerton (novel)
  • 1934 Elinor Norton (novel The State vs. Elinor Norton)
  • 1935 Mr. Cohen Takes a Walk (novel)
  • 1937 23½ Hours Leave (story)
  • 1941 The Dog in the Orchard (story) – short film
  • 1941 The Nurse's Secret (novel Miss Pinkerton)
  • 1942 Tish (stories)
  • 1952 Robert Montgomery Presents (TV series) (novel The Wall)
  • 1953 Your Favorite Story (TV series) (story "Strange Journey")
  • 1953 Broadway Television Theatre (TV series) The Bat
  • 1956 Star Stage (TV series) (story "I Am Her Nurse")
  • 1954–56 Ford Television Theatre (TV series) The Unlocked Door (1954) original story/Autumn Fever (1956)
  • 1954–56 Climax! (TV series) The After House (1954)/The Circular Staircase (1956)
  • 1957 - Telephone Time (TV series) - Novel Appeal. Claudette Colbert portrayed Rinehart in the story of the genesis of the novel The After House.
  • 1959 The Bat (play) with Agnes Moorehead and Vincent Price
  • 1960 Dow Hour of Great Mysteries (TV series) The Bat
  • 1978 Der Spinnenmörder (TV movie) based on The Bat

See also


  1. Keating, H.R.F., The Bedside Companion to Crime. New York: Mysterious Press, 1989, p. 170. ISBN 0-89296-416-2
  2. The Mysterious Affair at Styles
  3. "Mary Roberts Rinehart Nature Park". Archived from the original on November 3, 2013.
  4. "Home: Mary Roberts Rinehart Nature Park". Archived from the original on April 15, 2013.
  5. MacLeod, Charlotte (1994). "Chapter 20: On Active Duty". Had She But Known: A Biography of Mary Roberts Rinehart. New York: Mysterious Press. ISBN 0-89296-444-8.
  6. Rinehart, Mary. "World War I Notebook – Note Pad with Cover Missing" (PDF). Special Collections Department, University of Pittsburgh. Retrieved October 22, 2013.
  7. Doolittle, Alice. "Mary Roberts Rinehart Papers Finding Aid". Special Collections, University of Pittsburgh. Retrieved April 1, 2013.
  8. Spauling, Thomas M. (1947). The Literary Society in Peace and War. Washington, D.C.: George Banta Publishing Company.
  9. Dubose, Martha Hailey (December 11, 2000). Women of Mystery: The Lives and Works of Notable Women Crime Novelists. ISBN 9780312276553.
  10. "Person to Person Episode #4.9 (TV Episode 1956)". IMDb.
  11. "Mary Roberts Rinehart Is Dead; Author of Mysteries and Plays New York Times, September 23, 1958.
  12. Roseman, Mill et al. Detectionary. New York: Overlook Press, 1971. ISBN 0-87951-041-2
  13. "The Straight Dope: In whodunits, "the butler did it." Who did it first?".
  14. Nate Pedersen, "Why do we think the butler did it?", The Guardian, 9 Dec 2010
  15. Roberts Rinehart, Mary (1918). Tenting Tonight: A Chronicle of Sport and Adventure in Glacier Park and Cascade Mountains, with Illustrations.
  16. Roberts Rinehart, Mary (1923). The Out Trail.
  17. Rinehart, Mary Roberts (1926). Nomad's Land. New York: George H. Doran Company.

Kudum, Karthikeya. “Mary Roberts Rinehart: The American Agatha Christie.” Technologies of Adaptation in the Hollywood Studio Era, Georgia Tech Ivan Allen College, 2 Feb. 2019.

Further reading

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