Chris's Reviews > The Circular Staircase

The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rinehart
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Having recently re-read a bit of Agatha Christie's work and also recently watched movie and TV adaptations of her things, I was intrigued when I heard of Mary Roberts Rinehart referred to as the "American Agatha Christie." I had never heard of her but figured I'd give her writing a try. A general consensus suggested that The Circular Staircase is her most well-known and lauded work so I started there.

The book began (and continued) with a style and pattern that felt rather familiar when compared with other 19th and early 20th century writing. In this novel we are introduced to a wealth spinster named Miss Rachel Innes. Miss Innes has decided, in a moment of uncharacteristic impulsiveness, to rent a summer home with her niece and nephew. We are quickly drawn in by her idiosyncrasies and those of the people around her, particularly her servant Liddy.

Almost immediately upon arriving in the home, Miss Innes encounters strange happenings. That first night she's there, she encounters a number of strange noises from an unknown trespasser and a tumble down the circular staircase in the middle of the night. Then, the night her niece and nephew arrive, a man is mysteriously murdered at the foot of the staircase with no apparent witnesses or suspects.

With a balance of pride and curiosity, Miss Innes refuses to leave the summer home and instead decides to try and unravel the mystery on her own. She doesn't seem to have a history of crime solving or any particular talents or penchant towards that profession but she lets her enthusiasm be her drive.

After the excitement of the first few chapters, I felt the book settle into a bit of a dry spell. It worked its way through methodical plot and character development, keeping the reader (and Miss Innes) an arm's length (or farther) from the actual facts while presenting small glimpses of the motives of the various characters. I sometimes find it infuriating when authors hold back this sort of information, but the way it was presented here felt natural to me. Because Miss Innes is largely a stranger in the area, we are introduced to plenty of new characters and plot developments throughout the story and it makes sense that she is not privy to the information ahead of time and thus it is acceptable that the reader is similarly ignorant.

Some of the mishaps and coincidences through the story felt a little predictable though I had to remind myself that this story is over 100 years old and these concepts may have been entirely unique at the time. There were also a couple of moments where I was genuinely and happily surprised by the outcome of a situation.

Towards the end of the book, the pacing picked up steam again and put many of the central characters into some degree of peril which added to the suspense and engagement of the reading. The final unraveling was interesting and satisfying.

I found the writing to be crisp, clean and enjoyable. It had a nice balance of 19th century English formality and early 20th century American whimsy. It was both elegant and playful. At the same time, it wasn't so engaging that I wanted to rush right out and read the rest of Rinehart's work. In some ways, it felt too similar to a lot of other things I've read and not compelling enough to differentiate it and make me yearn for more. So while I've made a mental note to keep an eye out for more writing by Rinehart, I won't be actively putting her at the top of my list.

3.5 out of 5 stars
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Reading Progress

December 28, 2018 – Started Reading
December 28, 2018 – Shelved
December 28, 2018 –
page 200
May 27, 2019 – Finished Reading

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