America’s Agatha Christie by Julia Spencer-Fleming

It's even better in real life, believe me.I’m writing this in Bar Harbor, on Mount Desert Island, one of the spots that has defined “summering in Maine” for more than a century. I have a spectacular view of Frenchman’s Bay, with the sun rising over the islands, courtesy of my perch high on a hilltop at the aptly named Wonder View Motel. I’m not the first mystery writer to have enjoyed this lofty perch view, however. The motel is built on the former summer estate of Mary Roberts Rinenhart, the writer known as the American Agatha Christie.

Rinehart was born in Pittsburgh in 1876. She trained as a nurse and married Dr. Stanley Marshall Rinehart after graduation. She showed an early interest in writing, publishing several short storiesThe original FemJep mystery in her teens, but she might have had a conventional life as a wife and mother if the Rinehart family hadn’t lost most of their savings in the stock market crash of 1903. Necessity being the mother of invention, Rinehart took to the typewriter. She published forty-five short stories before her first mystery, The Circular Staircase, came out in 1907. The book was an enormous success, selling more than a million and a half copies, and is credited with originating the “Had-I-But-Known” story, described as “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.”

Her prodigious output of short stories, plays and novels included The Door, which introduced the phrase “The butler did it,” (I know, I thought it was English as well) and The Bat, which was made into a movie twice and is credited with inspiring the character of – you guessed it – Batman.

Rinehart herself led a life that might have been written for one of those sweeping sagas popular in the 1930s. She was the first female war Exciting!correspondent on the Belgian front during WWI, reporting for the Saturday Evening Post. After her husband was appointed medical director of the Veterans Bureau (now the VA) she became an acclaimed hostess in the Washington, DC social world. In her late fifties she helped her two sons found the publishing firm Farrar & Rinehart and served as one of its directors. And in 1947 she broached the then-taboo subject of breast cancer by writing frankly about her illness, radical mastectomy and recovery.

She was the highest paid author in the United States for the first 50 years of the last century.With all this activity, she naturally needed some downtime. The Rineharts had vacationed out west and in Florida, but with her husband’s death in 1932, Mary Roberts Rinehart looked for a change of scenery. She came to Bar Harbor in 1935 and fell in love with the ocean, the islands, and the Acadian mountains. By 1939, she had completed construction on “Farview.” Several of her novels in the 40’s were set in fictionalized versions of Maine’s most famous resort town, and her estate would itself be the site of a real-life crime drama. Please excuse me as I crib from the Wonder View Motel’s account of l’affair Reyes:

The absence of her husband’s handling of the finances were felt from time to time and at one point even put Farview up for sale. She could not let go of any of her servants. Farview was large and it was hard to find maids. She then hired a butler in the summer of 1947 and her Filipino cook, Reyes, was not happy about it. He had been with the Rineharts for 25 years and he was always highly praised for his skills.

One day, Reyes, told Mary he was leaving. She was used to hearing this from him and paid it no mind. The next day, Mary found his wife, Peggy, a maid, crying. Peggy said Reyes had been drinking the night before and they had a fight when she refused to leave with him. Mary was reading in the library before lunch when Reyes came in. They spoke a few words when he pulled a gun from his pants pocket and pulled the trigger within point blank range of her face. Luckily, the gun misfired. He tried again and Mary leapt to her feet and ran. She entered the kitchen, Peggy, and Theodore Falkenstrom, her chauffeur, saw what was happening. Ted tackled the cook and grabbed the gun. Peggy ran to get the breathless Mary a nitroglycerine tablet and Ted went and threw the gun over a garden wall. The butler ran down the street to get help thinking he was the intended victim. As Mary was in the hall on her way to phone the police, she saw a young man standing outside the door. The boy said he was looking for a job as a gardener’s assistant.

“Young man,” Mary said, “you’ll have to come back later. There is a man here trying to kill me.” The boy never returned.

As Mary stood at the phone, again in the library, Reyes came up behind her wielding a long carving knife in each hand. Ted and the gardener came running in and again knocked him down. Peggy sat on his chest, and Ted held his arms getting cut by the flailing knives. Finally, the police arrived and took Reyes away.

Mary’s son Alan flew up that night to be with his mother. The next morning he gave her the news that Reyes had hung himself in his jail cell. A Catholic priest allowed him to be buried in sacred ground since he was “Plainly of unsound mind.” Mary had no anger against the long-time cook and paid for his funeral.

Mary Roberts Rinehart  received a special Edgar Award for lifetime achievement in 1954, the year after she published her last novel, The Frightened Wife. Until her death in 1958, she summered every year in Bar Harbor. To which I say, dear readers, if it was good enough for America’s Agatha Christie, it’s good enough for me.

You should visit here. Seriously.


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6 Responses to America’s Agatha Christie by Julia Spencer-Fleming

  1. MCWriTers says:

    Very early in my writing career, our local librarian gave me a copy of a MRR book for my birthday, noting that she belonged to the now nearly defunct “If I’d only known” school of mystery writing. They’re clunky…but still pleasing, and very much a taste of her times. And like that elegant lady, Mary Higgins Clark, she’s a fine example of the lady scribbler putting her talents to work to support her family. Something you can relate to.
    The ups and downs of women in the mystery field, from the Golden Age, which they dominated, to their shouldering aside during the hard-boiled era and again during the cold war trend, is a fascinating study. So glad we’re writing in the times that we are.

    On another note, when I was a kid, my cousin Sherry lived in Bar Harbor, and on the hill up above her house were the remnants of mansions burned in the 1947 fire. I remember being fascinated by the skeleton of a swimming pool, still surrounded by the most amazing mosaic tiles.

  2. Pj Schott says:

    Love Ms. Rinehart. And love the photos.

  3. Barb Ross says:

    Really interesting information about MRR. I haven’t read her books since I was a teenager. I should revisit. I’ve been re-reading Christie’s Marples for a variety of reasons.

    BTW–Julia, I finished One Was A Soldier yesterday and all I can say is–dazzling. Just masterful in every way, story-telling, character, construction, emotion. And to think I was worried about how you were going to maintain the tension in the series after…you know. What was I worried about? Amazing and fantastic….

  4. We saw the Wonderview cottages on our way out of town today — quite the amazing view. I had no idea MRR was so prolific! Thanks for an interesting post, Julia, and for a fun evening at Jesup Memorial Library.

  5. lil Gluckstern says:

    Really interesting post. The pictures made for instant nostalgia. I’ve to Bar Harbor, and it is beautiful. Thank you.

  6. Jan Sylvain says:

    MRR was one of my favorites along with the Perry Mason novels when I was a teenager. I will look into her again. Another mystery writer with Bar Harbor connections is BJ Morison, who owned the Criterion movie theater and wrote the wonderful Elizabeth Lamb books.
    Also, I read One Was A Soldier this weekend. Tremendous. The best one yet in the series, I think.

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