Mary Roberts Rinehart: The American Agatha Christie

Mary Roberts Rinehart was born on August 12, 1876 in what is now known as the North Side of Pittsburg, but was then the city of Allegany, Pennsylvania. She grew up in a family that was not economically stable. According to her autobiography, My Story, her father was a man of big dreams but who had difficulty making them come true.

Mary Roberts was always a great reader and loved stories. While in high school, she wrote several short stories that were published in local newspapers, but rather than continuing with her writing, upon graduation she was decided to pursue a nursing career. She was fortunate to have an uncle, her father’s brother John, who could afford to pay her tuition, and so she attended Pittsburg Homeopathic Medical and Surgical Hospital. It was here that she met a young doctor, Stanley Marshall Rinehart, and at the end of Mary’s training, they married and set up a home that included space for Doctor Rinehart’s private practice in 1896.

Mary had three sons, but struggled during and after her pregnancies with illnesses. Severe gynecological problems that followed the birth of her youngest son led to years of treatment and surgeries. While recuperating from diphtheria, she submitted poems to the Pittsburg Sunday Gazette and was pleased to be paid for their publication. Her first short fiction, “His Other Self” was published by Munsey’s. While it seems likely that Mary might have been slower to develop a career as a writer, she was devastated to discover that her husband had been investing in the stock market on margin and the Panic of 1904 left them deeply in debt. She began to write longer work, serials that were published in Munsey’s. The Man in Lower Ten was quickly followed by The Circular Staircase (my all-time favorite) and The Mystery of 1122.

This was still an age in literature when magazine serials were often re-published as books. At the encouragement of her uncle John, Mary submitted The Circular Staircase to Bobbs-Merrill. It was published in 1908. The following year, Bobbs-Merrill published her other two serial novels and The Man in Lower Ten was the first ever mystery novel to become a best seller, ranking fourth on the annual roster of the time.

Mary’s talent and her work ethic should have meant the end of financial worries for the Rinehart family, but Mary could spend money quickly often faster than she earned it. She liked large old houses that required a lot of expensive renovation work.

She expanded her writing to include comic romance and also wrote a Broadway farce, When a Man Marries, based on her serial novella, Seven Days. Marry continued to write short fiction, novels, novellas and articles.

Her sense of adventure was boundless. Rinehart had a long standing relationship with The Saturday Evening Post. Just after World War One broke out in Europe, she badgered The Post to give her letters of introduction that would allow her to get war interviews. She traveled to Europe and immediately began to make connections that would allow her to the front lines. She experienced a number of bombardments, visited front line hospitals, and before she came home to America, managed to interview Winston Churchill, the exiled King and Queen of Belgium, as well as the Queen of England.

Rinehart, pictured center, made her way to the front of the lines as the first female war correspondent.

Her coverage of the war dominated the Saturday Evening Post and established Rinehart as the first female war correspondent. She followed her trip to Europe with a trip out west to stay at the ranch of a friend in Wyoming. They spent a lot of time taking trips by horseback through the recently established Glacier National Park in nearby Montana. Rinehart developed a deep friendship with the Blackfoot Tribe and became an advocate for Native American issues.

Mary Roberts Rinehart continued to write mysteries and other fiction, non-fiction and plays throughout her life. Several of her works were adapted for film, both silent and later on as “talkies.” Probably the most famous was The Bat, released as a silent film in 1926, remade as The Bat Whispers in a 1930 talkie. The one I remember is an updated version of The Bat released in 1959 starring the inimitable Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead. (Comic book creator Bob Kane credits The Bat with inspiring him for the creation of Batman!)

When television became a popular medium, both The Circular Staircase and The After House were featured as live television drama in the late 1950s.

Mary Roberts Rinehart died in 1958 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery where, according to the official Arlington website, she is remembered as:

Mary Roberts Rinehart- America's first woman war correspondent during World War I for the Saturday Evening Post; wrote mystery novels, including The Circular Staircase and The Bat; in 1921 was referred to as “America's Mistress of Mystery.”

And that, I think, is a grand remembrance for an outstanding woman.

Twice short-listed for Best American Mystery Stories, Terrie Farley Moran’s cozy mystery, Well Read, Then Dead will be released by Berkley Prime Crime in August, 2014. She blogs amid the grand banter of the Women of Mystery.

Read all of Terrie Farley Moran's posts for Criminal Element.


  1. Alice Duncan

    Loved this post! Mary Roberts Rinehart is, I think, my all-time favorite Golden Age writer of mystery fiction. THE CIRCULAR STAIRCASE is still one of my favorite books, and I re-listen to it fairly often. I didn’t know Mrs. Rinehart was such an adventurous person until you wrote this blog. So thanks!

  2. Tony Renner

    I didn’t know any of those things about Mary Roberts Rinehart ’till now. Thanks for the schoolin’!

    I’ve also somehow avoided reading any of her books. Another name gets added to the ever-growing list…..

  3. Terrie Farley Moran

    Alice, I am so happy that you enjoyed the post. I agree about The Circular Staircase. It never gets old. And her personal adventures!
    Tony, Rinehart wrote a wide range of books and I’m sure you will find plenty that you will enjoy. Thank you both for your comments.

  4. David Cranmer

    I knew very little about the renowned Rinehart, Terrie. Thank you for the sharp and informative article.

  5. Karen

    Many people today would consider her work to be very dated, but I feel it is timeless and still very good. I taught myself to read with her novels the year I turned four, during a month spent at my grandparents’ summer cabin. Some other old books (Dracula for one and Forever Amber) vanished before I had a chance to read them but Rinehart was acceptable. I have since read most of her books as an adult and did know about her remarable WWI career.

  6. Terrie Farley Moran

    Edward, I am so glad that you enjoyed this write-up. MRR was a remarkable woman. Renni, well I can understand why Dracula and Forever Amber disappeared before a child as young as you were could read them. Forever Amber! Read it as a teenager. Talk about romance…

  7. Eleanor (Ellie) Miller

    What a joy! to unexpectedly connect with others who appreciate MRR as much as I do! Agree to some extent re: “Circular Staircase” but I still believe that “The Great Mistake” is quite probably one of the finest mystery novels ever written, certainly on a par with “Rebecca” and Agatha Christie at her best. I too (now pushing eighty) started reading her mysteries as a youngster. What I find truly remarkable and LOVE about them is that they are so REreadable. Their construction is so intricate that the suspense element still holds up no matter how often I revisit them. Other favorites? “The Wall” – “The Yellow Room” – “The Swimming Pool” – “The Album”. THANKS! for some great background on this amazing woman’s life and writings.

  8. Terrie Farley Moran

    Oh Ellie, I am so glad that you found a lot in this post to make you happy. Yes! to The Swimming Pool, the Yellow Room and The Album. I’ll have to take a look at The Wall. The Great Mistake–scary!

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